Manthan is about a woman taxi driver and a prostitute in Mumbai. Set in 2011, the news of a bomb being discovered in a taxi outside a Mumbai Local Station creates paranoia in the mind of the protagonist taxi driver. She is then compelled to secure her taxi, her livelihood. A prostitute, in an attempt at committing an act of her own hires her to take her to another local train station. Due to the inherent differences and their identities, the ride seems to be strained for the both of them as they share opposite outlooks. Subsequent to the initial glitch in communication, unfolds a discourse about their discrete forms of sustenance leading to emerging mutual interest. However, the taxi driver is unable to dispel her suspicion of the prostitute due to her own reservations. She is caught between her liking for her passenger and her misgiving. Then, an ensuing event, unfurls a strong decision on her part that puts them in a spin.
Each film in a filmmaker’s life arises out of the need to externalise some life experience or the observed. As I begin to talk about my Film Institute diploma film Manthan,it feels as though I am talking about a past life lesson. I seemed to have lived so many lifetimes since then.
A person like me, right out of college, felt privileged at getting into a premier film school in the first attempt. Although, by no means did that mean that it was an easy ride. The years spent at film school were a synthesis of the previous experiences that I brought along and the new ones that I prepared myself to encounter.
The quest for the ‘self’ which most often gets mirrored into my works was the driving force for me throughout. No matter in which role a woman is seen at a given moment, she encompasses all facets within. I wanted to portray my understanding of the Feminine Principle that I had gathered over my years of experience. At the onset, it seemed as though women could be characterised in the two broad niches of the sexualised one or the mother. In reality, like any human being, women carry within a plethora of potentialities.
My diploma film, arose out of a dark phase I went through at the tether end of my film school experience. As intense was the knowledge of my vulnerability to myself, so was my determination to vocalise the same in my art. It spurred me on to remerge with the feminine principle where I could connect to my own sense of being. Thereby, I needed to convey a story with that theme. The form of ‘Adishakti’ which literally translates to ‘primal power’ seemed to be of utmost relevance. Destruction acts as the precursor to new creation. Hence, this element appealed to me the most.
More often than not, it is not the said between people that interests me but, the undercurrents brewing just underneath that sometimes have a rather intense quality to them. My intention was to capture that dynamic even though their dialogues are fairly surface level. However, somewhere in the constraints of making a student film that every student filmmaker goes through, the evocation in my film took on a different form. However, these predicaments have shaped me into not just an aspiring filmmaker but, a whole human being today.
When, I first wrote the script it was a character driven story of the woman taxi driver alone. But, I realised that when representing a unique character like her, bringing out the different layers of her character, an interplay with the immediate environment and the people involved becomes necessary. The role was played with much gusto by Pratibha Sharma and accompanied by talented Sayani Gupta as the prostitute, they built a chemistry of their own.
My teacher at FTII, Mrs. Gayatri Chatterjee, with her ocean full of experience had an important influence in helping me develop the narrative. My cameraperson, Shreya Gupta was excited about shooting the taxi sequences because it gave her room to explore uncommon camera angles. I had the best editor at the time, Sandra Dias. She really pushed the boundaries of what could be done with the initial thought, the rushes shot and the aesthetic of the craft. My sound designer, Ashish Verma, was the lone wolf guy in an all women core team but, that never deterred him and we worked together piece by piece to salvage an otherwise fragmented film due to not being able to shoot portions of the script. This one really took swimming against the tide.
Any individual in a life altering situation would be led to look for the other; the solution, which completes or transcends them. Such is the yearning of the two protagonists, who unknowingly are in search of their other but, are not able to consciously realise that at the beginning of their encounter, which seems to have been transpired as a cosmic act. Keeping in mind, the intended and the executed in filmmaking process, the film speaks about the destructive catalytic element, the paranoia of the big city and other economic and social struggles causing a chain of events that synthesize the dilemmas of the two women and lead them to the point of reunification with the feminine principle and as a result, metamorphosis.
At the Persistence Resistance film festival, 2009 at the Film Institute in Pune, a documentary, Manjuben, Truck Driver by Sherna Dastur was shown. It was about a woman truck driver who self-prophesised to embody the ‘Ardhnareshwara’, as she comfortably treaded the world between the male and the female. It had a deep influence on me. To draw a comparison, while Manjusha in the documentary, consciously forges a ‘male’ image of herself, the protagonist Taxi Driver in my Diploma Film, besides that, is also compelled to explore her softer, feminine side.
Many films have been a source of inspiration to me, some briefly and some permanently over the years. Time and time again, revisiting these gives me an insight into new areas previously gone unnoticed. Predominantly, Andrei Tarkovsky has had an influence on me for as long as I can remember. The discovery of his earlier films such as Ivan’s Childhood and Andrei Rublev was what got me interested in cinema to begin with. His storytelling, framing were a class apart. It wasn’t about regurgitating an entertainment formula but rather, depicting a deep understanding of the self and existence. He celebrated his understanding of life through his films. That’s why I refer to him as my cinematic father! I had picked up his book Sculpting in Time long before applying to the Film Institute and in truth, not being able to understand some of it and yet not being able to brush off the intrigue created by it, is what led me to study Film.
However, as film school days went by, my focus shifted to developing a female gaze in my films. By virtue of our societal construct being a certain way, we tend to judge ourselves and situations around us in a ‘male’ way. There have been many films by women filmmakers in India before such as Sai Paranjpye’s Sparsh’that were real and palpable. Terms such as organic and women empowerment didn’t need to be things, they were the essence themselves. Sparsh speaks of a relationship between a man and woman and it comes with a mature handling of the ecstasies and disappointments that are part of any human relationship without the need for undue theatricality. That’s the most natural form of expression.
In the contemporary times, the works of Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel have been path breaking in my opinion in defining a shifting social paradigm for depiction of women in films. Her film, A Headless Woman delves into the psychology of a married woman going through mid-life crisis so well, without the need to say much. The protagonist’s defencelessness and her misshapen understanding of her identity makes her broken self so endearing that when, she finds herself, I have transitioned with her into a new realm and feel pride for her. Her other films too, make poignant statements about society at large, through pure play of events.
It is through such works including the selected ones of earlier masters such as Agnes Varda, Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman along with the other contemporary ones like Catherine Breillat, Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Andrey Zvyagintsev that I have derived that cinema is a powerful language that must be used wisely, provocatively and responsibly. I have come to understand that its role in shaping the collective psyche must not be undermined.