A Visit with Feminist Filmmaker Paromita Vohra

Today, I continue to share excerpts from my diaries during my travels across India. Consider each of these entries an impression – one slice through the complexity of contemporary Indian culture. My focus is often on the new — on popular culture and media change — but it is hard to separate out the new from older cultural traditions. I am no expert on India but I am trying to share here my evolving understanding of what I learned as I was guided through this rich and diverse country by my former student, Parmesh Shahani, director of the Godrej India Culture Lab in Mumbai. Today’s entry describes a visit to the home of an amazing activist and filmmaker whose work deserves to be much better known here, since it speaks to so many issues we discuss with our students. I know that I often struggle to find non-American examples to help students think about how some of these concerns play out in other contexts, and the videos embedded here are potentially great starting points for such discussions. I know I will be sharing some of them with my students once I get back into the classroom next year.

The big event of the day was a visit in the home of Paromita Vohra, who is a major cultural player here – a documentary filmmaker, an actress, a feminist and queer icon, a columnist for a major newspaper, a reality television producer, a comic book writer, and as it turned out, the perfect person to give me a master class on Indian popular culture and politics. We spent the afternoon around her computer, pulling up and discussing clips from her various documentaries, as well as my sharing some videos from the database of activist youth media we’ve been assembling around the By Any Media Necessary book. Paro, as she is called informally, is brilliant, thoughtful, warm and gracious, and down to earth in equal measures. You can get a sense of her from this video interview on gender politics I found online.

She also has a campy sense of humor and has performed a recurring cult role as Aunty 303 for a promotional campaign used by one of the television networks here.

We struck it off from the start and found many common interests.

For example, she was very interested in my early work on vaudeville and film comedy, and shared some reflections on popular theater traditions in India – specifically Parsi theater which she described as offering a series of “numbers” or specialties, a strong sense of improvisation and topicality, and a mixing of broad melodrama and even broader comedy. She traced how this eclectic mix of performance specialities fed into the evolution of the Bollywood (and other popular film genres in India) creating the unique mix of genre elements that we know today. But she also expressed concern that the popular Indian cinema was under much stronger pressure to adopt the linear three act structure used by Hollywood and she saw this change as having very negative effects on the culture here.

She blamed it in part on the Indian film industries response to globalization and the new generation’s sense of shame over some of the kitsch aspects of the Bollywood movie; she sees these films trying to break into film festivals or multiplexes with mixed responses and she sees increased co-productions with Hollywood partners dictating a closer adherence to Hollywood storytelling models. She also though saw these shifts as reflecting the pressure from the Hindu Nationalists currently in power towards what she sees as a monoculture – one true way to be Indian – as opposed to the contradictory, even incoherent, sprawl associated with the popular film traditions here.

Later, she talked a bit about bahurupia, a kind of clown, which traveled around the country, impersonating particular types, and seeing if they can fool the locals into believing that they are who they claim to be. I tried comparing it with Borat, which they felt was an interesting analogy, but they also pointed towards the Yes Men as another western counter-part to this kind of performance. This video is in Hindu, but it provides some pretty compelling images of a range of different local clowns at work.

She talked a bit about how all of these traditions had informed her own style and techniques as a documentary filmmaker: she likes to mix and match genres throughout her work, resulting in a more fragmented, nonlinear, and multivocal style of storytelling. She mixes a range of fictional and even musical segments into her documentaries, often drawing on popular culture genres to help frame things. For example, Unlimited Girls uses a fictional chatroom as a kind of greek chorus to explore a young woman’s struggles as she tries to engage with the contemporary feminist movement, but it also represents patriarchal responses to feminism through mock commercials (including one featuring a Vampire in a Superhero cape, who appears magically when teen girls start thinking about feminism to put them back into their place).

Where’s Sandra? explores a particular cultural type here – middle class, westernized, Christian, suburban girls (“Sandra from Bandra”) by combining interviews with Indian women named Sandra with clips from vintage movies where this type appears and more ironic musical numbers (including a spoof of “Look at Me – I’m Sandra Dee” from Grease).

In our correspondence, Ritesh Mehta, another of my former students from India, mentioned that he felt Persis Khambatta, an actress known to Americans for her performance in Star Trek: The Motion[less] Picture, was something close to a “Sandra” type in Indian films, despite her Parsi background. I was bemused since her introduction to America really played up her exotic, “alien” qualities rather than seeing her as someone who was highly westernized in her mother country.

Another of her films – Cosmopolis — deals with food politics in India, but is framed in terms of the mythological tradition as a battle between two Godesses – one who embodied “plenty” and food, the other “wealth” and “luxury.”

The film’s central topic concerns efforts by vegetarians to ban meat eaters from specific housing complexes or even from whole neighborhoods, much as we have child-free, pet-free, or smoke-free spaces in the United States. They argue that they hate the second hand smell of meat and that meat eaters bring their own shops into communities which are doing things the vegetarians find distasteful. She gave me DVDS of some of her longer films, including Q2P (the title took me a while to work out but when I did, it was brilliant) which deals with gender inequality in terms of access to public toilets in India.

Partners in Crime deals with copyright, piracy, and capitalism in the local film industry.

Morality TV and the Loving Jihad deals with the ways news focuses on moral rather than political issues in depicting cities and the ways street mobs end up acting out against people identified for their moral lapses.

We also spoke about her recent experience producing a nonfiction series (some would say reality series) for Indian television, Connected. Connected was inspired by an Israeli series of the same name and format. Basically, they identified a group of “average” Indian women of different generations and backgrounds and gave them a camera with which to document their lives over a year as they lived out some kind of transition – including getting jobs, moving, falling in love, getting divorced, and so forth. Then her team edited the footage to construct narratives. She described the process of watching all of these incredibly intimate videos each day and often trying to anticipate what would happen next for each of these women. She talked about the very different ways they approached the filming but also the way they became more and more saavy about what her team needed in terms of coverage in order to construct the program. This material has not been translated from Hindi yet so we could only really absorb the visual style and some moments she translated on the fly, but it seemed to be really interesting material I hope to learn more about down the line.

She is currently working on a range of projects, one exploring sex and sexuality in the lives of young women, and another dealing with “excessive” fans of older Indian film songs. As you can imagine, the fan culture theme led to some great comparisons between us, as she talked about these older fans who still perform the vintage songs for each other, collect all kinds of artifacts and older films, and are convinced that no good film numbers have been created since the 1950s. We shared some of our own experiences as being amongst the youngest people to go to Cine-Con each year and what we’ve learned about the older generation of film fans and collectors in the United States.

As the hours ticked by, we were joined for dinner by Anusha Yadav and Parmesh. Anusha has been master-minding what sounds like a great project – the Indian Memory Project – which has crowdsourced old photographs and the stories that go with them from hundreds of Indians, as a way of preserving and examining culture memory. She is also working on a project which will collect “love letters” across generations and across media – from handwritten notes to text messages.

This turned out to be a long, sprawling, evening marked by lively conversation and great food, and gave me yet another glimpse into the social life of artists and intellectuals in Mumbai.  Our session went from 4 in the afternoon until well after 11 pm, and we dropped off quickly once we got back to the room and are waking up slowly this morning.

As an added treat, and as another illustration of a camp aesthetic at work in contemporary Indian popular culture, I wanted to share this spoof of a classic Bollywood number, “Dreamum Wakeupum ” from the recent film, Aiyyaa. The clip was shared with me by the film’s director, Sachin Kundalkar, who I met at several of the Godrej India Culture Lab events. Listen carefully to the words, which are often nonsense — English phrases made to sound Hindi — as a play on the country’s language politics. As for what the dance number does to gender and sexual politics, well… In any case, this segment was too great not to pass along but I didn’t know where else to put it except at the end of this segment, given the focus on comedy and cultural politics.