Saba Dewan talks feminism, filmmaking, and standing up for change

While her films explore a range of ideas around identity, womanhood, sexuality, and loss, Saba Dewan’s documentaries are richly layered portraits of people.


How are the lives of bar girls different from the relatively sheltered lives of middle class women? Do tawaifs really exist outside the silver screen? What made their music and talent disappear from the by lanes of Banaras and elsewhere? How did generations of Indian women carve out their identities, outside of the home, in the hurly-burly of the everyday. While her films ask and answer a myriad of questions, Saba Dewan’s documentaries are, simply put, richly layered portraits of people.

Saba brings us closer to, the 'other', via her films

Saba brings us closer to the ‘other’ via her films

Saba Dewan is an Indian filmmaker who has explored a range of ideas revolving around identity, desire, womanhood, sexuality, memory, and loss in her films like Sita’s Family, The Other Song, Delhi-Mumbai-Delhi, Khel, Naach, and others. The International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala (IDSFFK), this year, paid rich tribute to Saba Dewan’s work where she was the ‘Filmmaker in Focus’. Her films have recently been shown in Bangalore, in a variety of venues, including NGMA, IIHS and by informal film collectives.

We are delighted to feature a chat with the documentary filmmaker, who talks about her films, what inspires her, and more:

While your films deal with culture, gender, and identity, they are also very emotional and entertaining with strong characters that we recall for a long time after we have left the cinema hall. How do you go about making making films about complex topics that are so human?

While my films are backed with a tremendous amount of research and academic reading, I don’t let my preconceived ideas dictate things when I am filming. I am open to changing my mind all the time. You could say that all the research and reading is like homework while filming is the ‘real work’. My films try and reflect the real lives of real people, whose lives are not dictated by theories. Real lives are messy, they run helter skelter.

For instance, while The Other Song was a film I began with a deep understanding of women’s sexuality as its shaped by history, gender, and performance, at the heart of it I would say that the film is a conversation between me, a middle class Indian woman with tawaifs who occupy a very different space than I do. The people in my films were not like pawns I moved around within a neat, pre-laid framework of ideas.

A still from The Other Song

A still from The Other Song

I think it’s very important to have a genuine interest in other people and a deep empathy for them to make anything, including film work. Also, while I am a feminist, I am not a politically correct person, my ideas are not boxed in and cut off from reality.

Lastly, while a academician works, primarily, with words to convey ideas, as a filmmaker I deal with images. Lighting, lensing, framing, my aesthetic choices, images, and sounds work on their own sensory level that make films more than an intellectual experience.

You care deeply and are vocal about rights of women, what were the formative experiences that shaped your ideas around feminism?

I come from a family of very strong women. In the 1960s, my mother was working as a political journalist. As a consequence she did not write or report exclusively on women’s issues. This was not so common at that time. I did not know my naani personally, but heard stories about her from my mother and maasis. She was a firebrand and my film Sita’s Family is about her, her extended family, my mother, sister and I.

While the women in the earlier generation did not call themselves ‘feminists’, they were strong independent women with identities outside the home, with roles going beyond being a wife, mother and daughter. I consider my dad also to be exceptional for having married my mother, a fiercly independent woman. Though he came from a more traditional family, where I expect the women were less outspoken, my mother and he, gave both us girls the freedom of choice. Marriage was not our sole destiny; I don’t think it was ever on the horizon. We girls were always expected to build our own lives and have fulfilling careers.

St. Stephen's girls in more recent times, courtest Kafila.org

St. Stephen’s girls in more recent times, courtesy Kafila.org

However, going to St. Stephen’s was the first time I had to negotiate the ‘real’ world outside. I had, until then, been spared the ugly side of patriarchy. But I was forced to tackle sexism and misogyny head on within the ‘safety’ of my own college. I have described at length the odious tradition at St Stephen, at the time, where women would be rated on a scale of attractiveness in a ‘chick chart’ that would be displayed on campus, week after week, with the tacit consent of the authorities.

A series of events brought matters to a head. And along with five other classmates, including Brinda Grover, who is now a human rights lawyer, I agitated against the management. There was a massive protest where students from other colleges gathered as well. I would say that was a powerful moment when I experienced a strong sense of solidarity and sisterhood with other women, and raised my voice for my rights, within the confines of my own space—my own college.

Since the time you have been working in media and film, what are the kind of changes you have noticed? Is it a better time for independent film and filmmakers now?

The biggest change is that there is an explosion in the number of film festivals and venues that show independent fiction and non fiction films today. And these film festivals do attract audiences! So yes, there is a growing interest and awareness. More than documentary films, I have noticed a lot of interest in short films and short filmmaking. Before this, we had no real tradition of short film production in India. There are far many more women filmmakers in the field today, while there needs to be more representation of women in technical positions, there have been more women directors and editors than before. Also, the earlier patronising sentiments we sometimes encountered has completely dissapeared.

The filmmaker herself, Saba, Pic courtesy The Daily Mail UK

The filmmaker herself, Saba Dewan ; Pic courtesy The Daily Mail UK

There are a few resources who offer funding like PSBT and IFA. But funding continues to be very limited, especially if you are a filmmaker or artist who wants to make a ‘completely’ independent film, totally on your own terms. Independent filmmakers still have to do other jobs and find projects to do (I did) while they find funding and time to work on their own films.

What is the next project you are working on?

Incidentally, I am working on a book about Tawaifs. It has been a work in progress for a few years now. After ‘The Other Song’, I realised I had collected so much material about their lives that didnt make it into the film that I wanted to write this book. I am still working on it.

Picture postcard depicting a 'nautch girl' in performance, courtesy, apnaarchive

Picture postcard depicting a ‘nautch girl’ in performance, courtesy, apnaarchive

Do you think films are capable of effecting change?

I think expecting films to affect change is just like believing that films ’cause’ violence or are responsible for problems in the world. I would say that we should not expect a ‘fragile’ film to shoulder the responsibility of ‘change’. If films could ensure that real drinking water reaches real schools then there would be no need to make more films. So social change is not going to happen because of films.

But, if a film works, then I believe they can speak to many people in an audience. In my opinion, in every audience, there will be a few people who I think of as ‘borderline cases’. They do not have rigid ideas about the world. It is these people who my film can perhaps act upon, it can give them more to think and talk about. My films cannot change people who come in with a closed mind.

What are films would you recommend to the readers of The Alternative?

Nilita Vacchani’s Eyes of Stone was a powerful influence on me early on. However, I am not certain if the film is still in circulation. Anand Patwardhan’s films have been definitive. He was instrumental in creating a space for ‘Indian documentary’ and independent filmmaking with an unwavering sense of integrity.

Something Like A War, Deepa Dhanraj

Something Like A War, Deepa Dhanraj

Rahul Roy’s The City Beautiful is an important work for its content and style. Amar Kanwar’s films and Deepa Dhanraj’s Something like a War have also been powerful films that I would recommend highly.


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Preeti is a freelance communications consultant, working with video, documentary film, radio and writing. more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Preeti is a freelance communications consultant, working with video, documentary film, radio and writing. more

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