Interview with Deepa Danraj
Feminist documentary in India

by Julia Lesage

from Jump Cut, no. 31, March 1986, pp. 40-42
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1986, 2006

Interview with Deepa Dhanraj, Amsterdam, May 1981, First International Conference on feminist Film and Video:

DD: I'm Deepa Dhanraj. I make films and live and work in Bangalore, South India.

JL: Talk some about the Indian film industry and the role of the government, and how this affects the position of the independent filmmaker.

DD: As you know, the Indian film industry makes the largest number of films in the world. It is in every sense of the word an industry. Bombay, the largest north Indian center, has about 700,000 people fully employed in this industry, and Madras, the southern center, has about 500,000 people employed. Film industry financing comes mostly from independent entrepreneurs, who take their money from film to film. Films have absurdly high budgets, mainly because we still have the star system, as you did in the U.S. in the 30s and 40s. Stars' salaries take up the largest part of the budget, and technicians get paid almost nothing.

In India the majority of the population goes to the movies. Statistics say we have about 10,000 film theaters. In urban areas we have a film — going public that on the average sees films once or twice a week — every person! And because the theater owner gets only 30% of the actual ticket price — 70% is tax — the government makes a lot of money from the film industry.

The industry produces pot-boilers, derived totally from U.S. cinema and the western. Instead of the spaghetti western, we have something like the rice western. And our commercial features are basically operatic because India has a great singing tradition. So an Indian film contains a complete pastiche of all kinds of elements, and the commercial industry's pressure on filmmakers often means that you must have an obligatory six songs, three fights, and four dances.

There was a movement in the country about ten or twelve years ago to produce better cinema. In 1958 Satyajit Ray made PATHER PANCHALI under very trying circumstances. He mortgaged his wife's jewelry and then had to sell it, as he worked on the film for three years. After he finally made that film, for the first time India was taken seriously as a country that could produce other than this standard entertainment.

Then the government decided to set up an organization called the Film Financing Corporation (now known as The National Film Development Co-operation) ostensibly to offer soft loans and assistance in terms of technical equipment to filmmakers who wanted to make different kinds of films. So this organization started giving loans to various filmmakers who submitted scripts if the filmmakers could offer some kind of financial security against the loan. A lot of films got made, of which the most experimental in form and style were produced by the governmental agency. Talented directors like Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani made their first films through FFC. But it was absurd, because then the filmmakers could not get distribution. So the government was really starting at the wrong end of the stick. When filmmakers could not distribute a film, they could not release it, could not make the money back on it, and therefore they could not repay the loan. Now the government finance corporation is caught in the situation of granting a lot of people money which it cannot get back. I think that's okay, because compared to the amount of entertainment tax that the government collects, this is a pittance.

Recently the government established another organization controlling film production. Now even procurement of raw film stock is completely controlled by the state. We have to apply to the bureaucratic machinery for a permit, in which we have to justify the number of film rolls we will need. After we get a permit, only then can we go to Kodak and buy the stock.

JL: Does the government have to approve your script also?

DO: No, we just have to get the permit. Suppose you're making an advertising commercial. Normally for a one-minute film you would ask for one roll, 1,000 feet, or maybe two rolls. But if you asked for more, you would have to justify it.

JL: How does censorship work?

DO: Film stock is controlled. Importing equipment into the country goes through agencies, but you have to get an import permit, and through the bureaucracy this takes months, sometimes years. Then even though we have so much film production, we do not have well-equipped laboratories. The kind of work the labs can do is not terribly competent, just satisfactory.

Even if a filmmaker manages to get through all these hurdles and make a film, any film shown for public screening, including cine-clubs, must be censored. To show a film publicly you have to have a censor's certificate. Now we have two centers with boards of censors; the members rotate every two or three years to change the board. Recently, about two years ago, the boards got a little more relaxed about ways of depicting romance on the screen, but it seems to me that to focus on such issues lets you pick up only on sensational ways to denounce censorship and you miss the much more serious political aspect of censorship. This is, that except for two filmmakers who work in political cinema, we have not had a tradition of socially conscious films.

The 40s saw a few films that could be interpreted as progressive, but it is only now, after so many years, that we have started again on this track. One of the main reasons for this is censorship, because the censors really restrict what can be shown. Still, there are strategic ways of doing it, of making political features. For example, a recent film MABHOOMI (OUR LAND) depicted a peasant struggle, in the state of Ahdnra-Pradesh. A Bengali filmmaker, Gautam Ghosh, made a feature-length fictional reconstruction of the Telangana Movement, a peasant uprising that began during British rule. That uprising was remarkable in the sense of how fast it spread over the state and how, for once, the peasants took control into their own hands. But then independence was declared, and the landlords got the British — in other words, now the Indian Congress and the Indian Army — to come in and suppress the peasants with tanks. This film came out last year and did very well at the box office. It's a very good film, done in black and white; it's low-key, not done in the dramatic fictional style. The reason why I think the censors passed it was because it offered an historical reconstruction of the past and did not discuss a threatening present struggle. That rebellion was also something that was crushed, so a film about it was seen as okay.

Then we have Mrinal Sen, who has been working in
political cinema for a long time. (See article on Sen in JUMP CUT, No.10-li) Now we have one or two younger filmmakers — one called Saeed Mirza who made a film about a very small Anglo-Indian community, a minority community. The people in it are caught between what they see as their roots back home in the West — England or Australia — and India.

JL: Describe how you as a filmmaker fit into this situation, and how your group has decided what it should do — that is, how you decided to make specifically feminist films.

DD: What we want to do is make a series of six films to assist activists, concerned women's groups, and women working to organize working class women. We want to assist them by giving them one more tool within a much larger repertoire. Our films will basically deal with the theme of women and work, and we have chosen to treat six occupations, which are both in the organized and unorganized sectors. Do you want me to go into detail?

JL: Yes, because I think it is very important.

DD: The project is called YUGANTAR: 1981-82, Outline of Work. After initial research and analysis of data we collected from extensive travels in north and south India, we decided to limit the film's subject matter solely to working class women and the area primarily to south India, for we speak a south Indian dialect. We plan the films as an aid to activism, and we will make them available to the over eighty women's organizations who are working in all kinds of militant directions.

We chose our subject matter both as radicals and as feminists. The average Indian woman lives under a status of inequality. She is doubly exploited, both by feudal and imperialist exploitation, and by male supremacy. Her traditional image remains from the time of Manu the Law-giver: as a child, the woman is to submit to her father; as a married woman, to her husband; as a widow, to her son. Religious and social sanctions lead to women's exploitation both at home and at the work place. Newspapers report daily about in-laws burning young wives to death for having brought an insufficient dowry and of police constables and landlords raping tribal and untouchable-caste women. Yet public opinion and the mass media go on reiterating that women's redemption comes from submission, drudgery, and numerous male children.

 We need to change the position of Indian women in every sphere. It heartens us to hear more and more about women coming together to try to improve their lot and to change dominant male perceptions about women's role and place in Indian society. Public opinion is being generated against the social practices most detrimental to women — such as child marriage, the dowry, bigamy, wife-beating, ostracizing widows, and not educating girls. Movements now exist that strive to change legislation on rape, adoption, and other laws discriminatory to women. We want to make our film efforts relevant for these struggles.

As India emerges as an industrialized nation, the percentage of women in the industrial work force decreases steadily, for as mechanization occurs in any industry, the women workers get retrenched first. According to the last census, the all-India female "work" participation rate stood at 13.8% (urban rate 7.37%, rural 14.55%). We're limiting the content of this series of films to working class women, for we feel that we must locate the specificity of women's struggle within the context of the larger class struggle. We understand that a change in the production process can come about only through the working class, but we do not agree with socialist models regarding women's issues and are seeking a way of evolving our own models relevant to conditions in India.

We collected data and analyzed it from a lot of women's groups. By selecting the theme "women and work," we could include not only the most literal interpretation but also related issues, such as sexual harassment at the work place, male domination in trade unions, and paternal feudal domination of landlords. We'll make a six-film series, which together will have more impact than just making individual films. The films are broken down occupation-wise, each one providing a thorough case study of the occupation under question. We used as the criteria for selecting occupations the following questions. In what occupations are the greatest number of women employed? In what occupations does the maximum exploitation exist?

If we look at the occupations where the largest numbers of women are employed, the first is rural agricultural labor, the largest unorganized sector. The biggest problems that arise in this sector stem from the unorganized nature of all industry in this sector. The workers are also outside the reach of most of the laws that seek to protect their minimal security and working conditions. We are going to deal with paddy cultivation because traditionally women do the essential work of planting and transplanting of (paddy) rice. Men have not traditionally done this, so in this sense, women remain essential to the southern agrarian economy. At this time, however, as in most industries where mechanization takes place, women are the first ones to be retrenched. Here, too, agriculture is getting mechanized, so even these jobs are slowly being taken over by men. In contrast, in north India, women have not been crucially involved in wheat cultivation, the main northern cereal crop. So none of the agricultural jobs women traditionally do are guaranteed to women. In that sense, they can be always replaced. So the first film will be on that.

All the films will center either on one woman or on a group of women who work in the selected occupation. Each film will analyze the situation in which they live and work, and each will raise the following questions: How do these women view their own situation? What are their perspectives? What future developments do they consider desirable? What experiences have they had, if any, of trying to change their situation? We want a view of the socio-political circumstances to develop organically as we depict each woman's situation. We hope that the films will reveal clearly the structural conditions which cause oppression (economic, political, social, and cultural oppression) as well as demonstrate concrete means of fighting against it in those cases where struggle has taken place. The picture that emerges will derive from our representing all the circumstances and all the stresses that operate. The films would not be strictly didactic but would expose contradictions, so as to generate discussion. We also hope that depictions of women's struggles will serve as examples of hope to other oppressed women.

 The second film will depict migrant construction workers who come from the village to the cities. They are recruited in gangs and brought to the cities. Here they live a totally economically insecure life because no contractor allows them to stay on the site longer than three months. After that they would become "permanent" workers and the employer would have to give them all the other benefits, so the workers are kept moving from-site to site and paid on a daily wage. They live on the work site itself and their children start working as early as age nine.

JL: Women do construction work?

DD: Yes. Women form a large part of construction work. They do the carrying. It's similar to the kind of work depicted in the Egyptian feminist filmmaker's, Atiat Al-Abnoudy's, film HORSE OF MUD. In India women are used mostly as beasts of burden. They carry the materials — mud, cement, sand — to the site, where the men mix the cement and concrete and do the masonry.

Very traumatically women become uprooted from one culture and put into an urban context. Their life presents them with a situation of total change and flux. It would be like Greek immigrants going to Sweden — the distance in many cases is that far and the cultures that different, in language and everything else.

The third film will present women in a factory situation, because both the other sectors I mentioned-are not organized. The factory is the only unionized one we will film. Here we want to show that even though these women are organized, their unions are male-dominated. In the male hierarchy of the union, women just form a side complement to the larger mass of labor. Issues that are specific to women are rarely identified, let alone taken up in unions. We want to show quite clearly how men — even the so-called radical men in unions, progressive men — only reinforce traditional patriarchal attitudes and do not allow women to rise from subordinate positions.

The fourth film depicts women who work in the isolation of their homes, in seclusion. A lot of women do piece work. They roll incense sticks or they roll beedis (cigarette-size cigars) or they tailor export garments that go all over the world. They receive pay on a piecework basis. Such labor practices are very widespread. Even though the women work such long hours for miserably low wages, they are considered primarily as housewives and secondarily as workers, again engaged in typical "women's jobs — tailoring, lace-making, etc. Such tasks are seen as legitimate "leisure activities," and they also suit the dominant, male Indian morality and social pressures that dictate that women should not work outside the house or publicly be seen going to work. So, these women are trapped by both forces — the familial pressures on one side and the employer on the other, who finds this kind of "purdah style" working arrangement very convenient, ensuring absolute control and maximum profits.

JL: How many women would you say are employed in this piecework home labor?

DD: It is very difficult to calculate because they are in their homes. Also, these "invisible" women workers have always been neglected by researchers. Very little data is available on their labor. You could judge from the output or annual trade turnover.

JL: That's what I see in the United States, Canada, Europe, and even South America. Store after store and even flea markets are filled with these garments. And the clothes are both beautiful and cheap, so we underemployed radical women and artists wear them a lot.

DD: That's how you could calculate it. The numbers of these women are large, very large. The problem with this sector is that middlemen can exploit women so much because these women have no contact with other workers. In a factory situation, all of them work in one place, but this job spreads them all out in their own houses. Making it even more difficult, the middleman is often a — man or a male relative. A very big problem in India is how to get these women together.

The fifth film examines the nature of cooperatives, in this case a women's co-operative LIJAAT PAPAD, ostensibly set up to improve their economic condition. It is a very large cooperative, with at least 300,000 members all over India. And the members supposedly all have equal participation and equal control over the direction of the cooperative. But it never works like that. In this situation you have women oppressing women, upper class women oppressing working class women because upper class women control and manage the cooperative. In addition, the ideology promoted to run the cooperative is handed down to the middle class women by a couple of men right at the top who execute the cooperative's financial assets.

JL: How much do the women earn?

DD: They earn about $1 a day, if they work very hard from 50 cents to $1 a day. Many women consider this situation very attractive because it means regular work. And they have the ideology of sisterhood and service, you know, the trust built up between sisters:

"I'm working with and taking direction from women. I'm not exposing myself to working with men or facing opposition at home to my going out to work."

We see here basically the same housework, "leisure-time activity" ideology operating.

We want to examine this collective's ideology analytically. Furthermore, the whole idea of the collective is only reformist. You cannot get a group of women together and say to them:

"I'm only going to improve your material lot. I'll give you a dollar a day. Then you'll be able to buy a transistor and do all the other things a good consumer should."

Any coming together of people, whether men or women, on these kinds of priorities is really questionable, especially in India, where women are so oppressed. I think this will be quite a controversial film.

The next film deals with domestic help. And another topic that interests us derives from our industrial film. Again we see women getting laid off because of mechanization. In south India we have these very big cigarette companies, for which women traditionally thresh green tobacco. After the businesses introduced new machinery, in a week, literally overnight, something like 200,000 women were out of jobs. We want to use this incident as the dramatic focal point with which to start a film and then trace historically how whenever mechanization has occurred women have been affected.

JL: Marx wrote about it in Capital, and he used the Indian linen weavers as his main example and did not see it as a women's problem.

DD: Another issue is that India has much "protective" legislation that adversely affects women working in industry. We have rules and laws which say that women cannot work night shifts. So then they do not have access to training camps, their skills do not improve, and they cannot get promoted. They just stay in one place.

JL: Does job training all go on at night, and where — in the factory or elsewhere?

DD: Well, if a worker does night shifts, then she may get onto another machine. She can move; there is mobility. Usually the management holds one of two opposing views, both of which work against women. One kind of management hires women and does so excessively because the employers think that women are docile and passive take a lot — so women workers will not agitate because they are not militant by nature. The other sector of management finds women workers too much of a problem for these reasons: Women cannot work night shifts; if a training camp is out of the city, for example, women cannot go because they cannot leave the children; they need maternity benefits; they need day care. And, if you look at the percentage of women in the work force (the part statistically calculated), it has decreased significantly since independence.

JL: Describe your distribution plans.

DC: We hope to distribute the films not through traditional networks, because we feel that's like releasing them in a void. Even though the exhibition infrastructure exists in India and you can, for example, release a film in thousands of theaters, we prefer that our first priority be to use films with activists, to use them through concerned women's groups so that if the films provoke a reaction, the women viewers have a feminist infrastructure within which to seek help. The numbers of women organized in women's activist groups, trade unions, and mass organizations are enough to provide a feasible distribution and exhibition network for our films. We will maintain a mailing list of all concerned organizations whom we will inform as soon as a film is ready, and we will systematically solicit feedback from key organizations among these.

Our second priority will be to sell the films to the government because there are government agencies which have a very efficient nationwide, rural distribution network with mobile screening units. We could never dream of affording to set up something like that.

JL: Now could you tell about your procedures — financing, filming, collective process, etc.?

DD: Filming this project will last about one and a half years. A German developmental agency has just given us a grant with no strings attached. We have total control over the films, what goes into them, the negative rights, everything. We will do all the lab work in India.

JL: You say "we." Are you with a political film group?

DO: Our group, which has two women including myself, shares mutual political sympathies, but we do not belong to any political party. We mutually believe in certain objectives, and in this case, we do not want to mix up our two roles of activist and communicator. I mean our business is to make good films that activists can use.

JL: Because you're concentrating on women and work, you have a left analysis combined with a feminist analysis?

DD: Yes, I'd say that.

JL: And who is going to be doing camera work and the other production tasks — all women, or men, too?

DD: We do not want to be rigid about that. The production will include men and women. I do not think that we are at a stage in India yet where we can get an all-woman crew, not a satisfactory one. We will have to hire a cameraperson, sound recordist and editor. Our camera person is completely in "sync" with our objectives and so the "core" crew is totally involved in the project and will work on all six films.