Talking with Indian Writer-Director, Reema Sengupta About Feminist Filmmaking in India
We sat down with her at the opening of Asia Africa Film Festival to chat about “Counterfeit Kunkoo” and the many ways a feminist can express oneself.
Words by Whiteboard Journal
Photo: Kunal Punjabi
Reema Sengupta – soon to be known as Reema Maya, as she plans on changing her surname to follow that of her mother’s – has proudly embraced feminism through her filmmaking. Ever the socially driven, her shorts like “The Tigers, They’re All Dead” and “Tyu’s Company” were revolved around the circumstances happening in where she resided. With her third one, Reema added another layer to her work – this time it’s personally driven. We sat down with her at the opening of Asia Africa Film Festival to chat about “Counterfeit Kunkoo” and the many ways a feminist can express oneself.
A lot of your childhood revolved around education and the expectation of pursuing science as a profession, but then you chose liberal arts and studied contemporary media practice in London. Would you care to elaborate on that pivoting of a path?
I was always really good at academics, I was top three in my class, I scored – the tenth grade board exam, which is like the big board exam that sort of decide things – I scored over 90%. So like the usual expectation is like one would take sciences, like if you’re good in your studies, you must take sciences.
I suppose it’s like that too in Indonesia.
Right? Like to those people who are good in arts, like did you not score enough marks in sciences? That’s the question. So, for me it was a slightly different journey in that I’ve always known I wanna become a filmmaker since I was a little girl. I’ve been really sensitive to the social cultural happenings around me and it was more about having a voice already, or wanting to say a lot of things, but not knowing which the medium should be. So I sort of chose films as my medium because of two reasons; one is that they have this great capacity to incite empathy, the other reason was because once you make a film it stays forever, it has a sense of perpetuity. And two, with the way films and videos are being propagated right now, audiences are almost infinite to think about it. So that’s kind of why I decided to become a filmmaker in specific.
And because of that, like my entire life has been an education on filmmaking in two ways. One was that since I was a kid in summer breaks from school, other kids would take summer vacation while I would do screenwriting workshops, and theater workshops, and I would be this 12-year-old kid in a room full of 30-somethings, so I started really early and that’s more of the technical and skill-based development. And I think that film requires two kinds of education, one is the technical education, and the other thing which is extremely important is the emotional education, because without that how will you present your truth through the technical education, right? And the emotional education happened just through life, and how volatile it has been, how intense it has been, and I always thought that was sort of my downfall, and I’m so damaged because I experienced all these things, and only recently have I realized how rich it has made me as a person.
A lot of people seems to get daunted by the technical aspects of filmmaking. Did you get your technical education from those workshops that you mentioned?
The emotional education or what we want to say, is way more important.
Well that was just an introduction, more like testing the water and trying to understand if I want to be a part of this. I was also acting as a kid, just to understand sort of what the industry is like, do I want to be a part of this industry, is the life that I really want, but just the need to tell these stories was so strong that it just had to be done, and to sort of elaborate on the point that you just made, I think people don’t need to get so daunted by the technical aspects of things, because in my opinion the emotional education or what we want to say, is way more important. You can find ways to how to say and it can be simple and it can be complex, up to the technicalities of it. You can make the most technically amazing film, but if it doesn’t have a sense of truth to it, it doesn’t matter. And conversely, you can make something that has a lot of truth to it, and people won’t be able to see the technical mistakes that you made.
Your first two shorts, “The Tigers, They’re All Dead” and “Tyu’s Company” were quite removed from your personal/actual life story. What made you decide to finally tell your personal story with this one?
So the first short was a satirical comedy about what happens in Mumbai the day India’s last tiger was found dead under suspicious circumstances. And that I wrote when I was in school actually, when all the tigers in India were being poached and we had about just a few thousands left and that they were on the verge of extinction. And I was just a very angry teenager, just being like “Oh my god, how can this happen and how does no one care?”. And I didn’t know what to do with that anger, so I wrote the script and I was just like fine, this is just my way to vent. Then I managed to make the film by crowdfunding back in 2011 when before it become thing, because my mom would like dilly-dally and she’d be like I’ll give you the money to make it and next day it’d be I won’t give you the money to make it, and I was like I need to make this! So I started crowdfunding for it.
So in a way, even though it wasn’t much to do with my personal life, it was to do with something that I felt deeply about. The second film was “Tyu’s Company”, it was about loneliness that comes from overdependence on technology. So the previous one was based in India, this one I had to make it in London because that’s where I was studying, and suddenly I was like, I don’t really belong here. I don’t understand the land, you know? Like how do I tell something insightful? Then I asked myself what is it about my experience here that I really need addressing. And it was a sense of loneliness that I experienced, and that a lot of people around me were experiencing in that isolated sort of existence, where you’re a lot more friendly online than you are in person. So that’s kind of why, again even though it wasn’t directly related to my life, it was a thing that I cared about immensely, that did stem from a certain experience.
How do I tell something insightful?
This time was different because I wrote this script – again, many years ago – because my mom experienced housing discrimination. And it just hit me like a ton of bricks because I wasn’t in the country, I wasn’t around her, and I was just so helpless and angry at the situation so I did the same thing I probably did all those years ago with the tigers, just vented. And I didn’t even think I was ever going to make this film. The reason why I made this short film was that it came at a time when I was doing a lot of advertising work, so I got completely burned out in the ad industry. Also one of my cats died, and the crazy thing was that for two weeks I was busy with ad project, I couldn’t take one day out to cry. And that’s when I was like this cannot be what life is about, stopped everything.
The next year I said to everyone in my team, if you want me to do any commission work, any advertising work, this year has to start with a passion project. So I put together a small group of family and friends, not even like completely professional crew or anything. Just family and friends, people who care about me, who care about what we were talking about, and just made the film. So it has definitely been the most personal experience, it has taught us a lot, it has brought me way closer to my family because we made this together as a family bonding exercise.
That is quite the activity to bond with your family, just make a movie!
Yeah! (laugh) but it was also a very triumphant moment for me, because this was the film from which I became. Not just comfortable about my story and where I come from, but actually proud of it. And started understanding a lot about the importance of me going out there and being honest about who I am, and about where I come from and the experiences that have made me, me. Because there’s probably that little girl from some obscure corner of the country dealing with poverty, dealing with casteism and all these things, maybe will look at me, look at what my name is, look at what my surname stands for, and be like if she can do it, I can do it too. So it was indeed the most personal film that I’ve ever made, and it has taught me a lot.
At the promotional video for “Counterfeit Kunkoo” in the Sundance’s YouTube channel, you rejected the description of the film as ‘fierce feminist rhetoric.’ Would you still label this movie as a feminist movie?
I would, in fact if I could revisit that I would probably not say that anymore, because today I would suggest that it is a very fierce feminist film. It talks about really important issues, and it does so in an unapologetic manner. I guess back then when I said that it was more in terms of the tonality of the film, in that it’s not so focused on ‘this is my fight and this is what I will win for myself’, it says that but it’s not about that, it’s not that vocal of a film. So, it says all those things, but it doesn’t scream that out loud. I think that was the tonality that I was talking about, but it is a feminist film and it is very proudly so.
During the production of the film, you did not only worked with other filmmakers, but also actual housing boards officers and estate agents that dealt with this very issue on the daily. How was that interaction for you and them?
Well because housing discrimination is very rampant. It doesn’t just happen to single women, it happens to people who work in the media industry, it happens to a lot of people from the Muslim communities. It happens to people with pets, it’s just a weird sense of very wrongful moral policing especially when it comes to an issue that is so basic as housing and shelter. So yeah, it is illegal and immoral, but extremely rampant. And it’s a reality that people around me have to live with every day.
And the interaction – with the estate agents – was actually really interesting, because they all knew that this is what happens. One of the people that we were talking to for the film, when we were telling him that this story is about this woman and she doesn’t have a husband and she’s going to find a house, very simplified version of the story, and he was like, oh so then does she do such and such to get a house, and we were like yeah. He was so nonchalant, he didn’t even realize that it was wrong for him to be one of the perpetrators of that system. It was so matter-of-fact, it was just like so that’s just how it is. Another person – when you see the film you’ll realize – there’s estate agent who is on the phone, and he’s talking to another estate agent and being like oh there’s this lady here and she wants a house, will it happen or not? When we were shooting that, we were telling him to act and because he’s not an actor, he actually made a phone call to another estate agent.
So that was a real case happening in the middle of shooting?
Yeah, so it was a real phone call about this real case, and funnily enough, even the other guy who didn’t even know we were shooting said oh sorry, not gonna happen. So it was really weird, but that has been a part of the interaction and I’m really hoping that through our conversation during the shooting of the film made even one of them paused to think hey, is what we’re doing the right thing?
You also founded CATNIP, the production house from which the film was born.
Actually CATNIP didn’t produce this. I founded it and I wanted this film to be really personal, so a lot of people from CATNIP was there, like the associate producer is Kunail who is the co-founder of CATNIP, but it’s not a CATNIP film. I literally saved up money and put it all into this, because I wanted every bit of it to be mine.
How much of yourself as a filmmaker informs the practice that of CATNIP and vice versa?
A lot, actually, so CATNIP was born because I wanted to experiment with a short format video content, and different techniques of storytelling and also how do you speak to different audiences. We started out as a company that only does music-oriented video content especially in the independent music scene and the international music scene in India, and we grew rapidly as we filled a little void that existed in the Indian independent and international music. But the heart and soul of the company was the really conceptual forward-thinking content.
That and mixed media work has kind of become intrinsic to CATNIP identity, and now we’re known as an eclectic production house that you go to when you want to do something really cool and out-of-the-box. It’s so different from my independent work. So there’s CATNIP which is more culture-creating, vibey, very digital and New Age kind of content, and then there’s my own independent work that is completely socially driven. Stylistically they are completely different, but they’re just versions of my personality, like alter egos.
As a female filmmaker, do you think there’s a bigger responsibility on you to highlight and tell stories about women’s issues because of your gender?
I definitely think there is a great sense of expectation for not just me, but all female filmmakers to in a way, be restricted to that area (women’s issue), of just telling the films that have female protagonist. This is a conversation that I’ve kind of been having with myself, and then there’s two parts to it. One is that I don’t think there are enough stories with female protagonists being told traditionally growing up. Most of the stories that I saw was the male protagonists and in the initial stages of my writing as a filmmaker I would conceive protagonists that were also male, even though it had nothing to do with my personal experiences. It was just a sense of conditioning, and it was only when I started questioning it – it was just like oh, film has heroes right? Then you write heroes as protagonists, and they may have a lover who is a woman, that’s kind of the majority of films.
I don’t think there are enough stories with female protagonists being told traditionally growing up.
When I started questioning it, what I want to say and how I want to say it, is when I realize it’s really important for female filmmakers to speak of stories of women because who else do you expect to have the kind of insights required to tell those stories, to be that nuanced about it. To be that truthful and honest about it, to care enough about telling those stories. That’s one part of it, and the other part is while female filmmakers I think today are being – more than ever before – celebrated and stories with women protagonists are being given a lot of platforms, it does come with a certain sense of burden and responsibility that these are the kinds of story, these are the kinds of films you’re supposed to make as a woman. Which I think is wrong.
It’s another form of a box, in a way.
Currently we’re in – indeed, a weirdly progressive box. Because men are not asked hey, do you want to make films that are only about male protagonists, that is never a question that is asked. But I think today the scales are like this (gesturing it being uneven for female) in terms of stories of men being told and stories of women being told, so I also think it’s all of our collective responsibilities to kind of bring it up to a sense of balance. But my ultimate objective is that we live in a world and an industry where the filmmakers gender has nothing to do with the stories they choose to tell.
What do you think about the state of Bollywood film industry nowadays, particularly in response to the recent #metoo movement in the global entertainment industry?
I wouldn’t really say I am a part of the Bollywood fraternity, so I wouldn’t really have much insights about it. But from what I can see, it’s definitely affecting the Indian film industry, it’s been intense and difficult because traditionally and historically it has been an extremely misogynistic and not just patriarchal, not just sexist but misogynistic. And it’s been – you just heard so many horror stories about it. I know of so many women that have chosen to not be a part of the industry just because of the things that I’ve heard, or the sense of expectation of what happens when you become a part of the film industry.
But in the last year, the tide is changing and we can all really feel it in a couple of ways. One is a lot of people have been outed, ostracized socially for their action which is correct, and its affected things in a huge way, like really important production houses have dissolved, and filmmakers music directors that you would think you can’t touch have been like outed and held responsible for their actions, and for things that they taught, that they’ve been doing their entire life and they’ll always get away with it, they actually didn’t and I think that’s incredible.
There is definitely a strong surge of women filmmakers that has happened, there’s been a surge of films that talk about the really important issues that has to do with women, minorities, and the LGBTQ community that are being made right now. Ones that talk about female sexuality, even though the government has banned a few of them, the point is that there are filmmakers that are making these films, there’s a fraternity that is supporting them. So I think it has had a huge impact on the Indian film industry, it has changed the way people are thinking, even if it is out of fear. It is helping us all move at least a couple of steps in the right direction.
Congratulations on Sundance, for your film became the first Indian film in 15 years to be selected officially by its committee. How do you think the Bollywood film scene interacts with the global film industries?
Thank you! It is the first Indian fiction short film in 16 years actually, yeah. I think the reason Bollywood is so popular is because it offers everyone this great sense of escapism, which is really important in the time that we live in. And again, it’s because of our shared values and cultural experiences that those kind of films can travel even beyond India and really be embraced as one’s own in the country they’re in.
But Bollywood wouldn’t necessarily be at the forefront of international film festivals, that’s more for the independent films coming out of India. There are a few huge festivals – so the thing is that festivals are a little tricky. There are a lot of really important festivals that do play a lot of Indian films, and then there are others that maybe haven’t had the opportunity to do so. Like Toronto plays a lot of Indian films, Berlin plays a lot of Indian films, Venice plays a lot of Indian films.
That being said, at the 2018 Sundance Festival when we were there, we were the only film from India across all categories. It was just me from India, being like, hi! But this year, there were five films from India. So it’s just a matter of getting people to look in a certain direction, that’s what it is. At the end of the day, programmers are also human, there’s only so much that they can do. As filmmakers from a particular part of the country you also have to do your bit in getting the attention towards not just your film, but the films of your fraternity.
With many Asian and African nations built as a patriarchal society, what are your thoughts on the Asian film industries in general particularly as a female director?
So in the conversations that I’ve had with fellow filmmakers and the film fraternity internationally, women representation is just as relevant and valid there (West) as it is in the Eastern part of the world. The only difference that I saw is that I feel like the conversations were being taken a lot more seriously there, in the sense that every day there’s a conversation about it, everyone really care about it, and it was just this flaming ball of determination to really push female filmmakers and women-driven, women-centric films. I didn’t really see that much fire behind the cause in the non-Western festivals, to be completely honest. But then again, the reason that these conversations need to be had is that these problems exist, the problem exists everywhere, people are just talking about it a lot more there. The women are screaming, loud and clear which is amazing. But we just need to start talking more, I think.
The women are screaming, loud and clear which is amazing.
Agree. Here in Indonesia itself, a lot of people are still reluctant against the term feminist and feminism.
I think that is just because – weirdly, that has become the trend just overall, globally. Where suddenly people are trying to change what the term feminist stands for. And there are terms like femi-nazi, and weird things that are going on and I feel like the people who don’t sort of understand the positivity and power behind the word feminist or feminism, are just people who are ignorant about what it means. Because it means an equality of the genders, and how can anyone be embarrassed about caring about equality of genders.
Having screened your film in different corners of the world, how do you think the Asian and African film industries differ from those of American and European?
I mean there’s so many different sorts of aspects to it. If you’re talking about funding then yes, there’s a huge difference in that Europe has a thriving short film industry, they have a lot of government funding for films and things like that that don’t really exist in India, I don’t think they exist in Africa and a lot of Asian countries either. If you’re talking about distribution then yes, independents do get a stronger sense of distribution in Western countries compared to here, if we’re talking about the support to minorities or to independent cinema from the governments, like I feel a lot more fearful about it in India in terms of censorship, in terms of how the government is going to respond to the things that I want to say then I probably do in Western countries.
Living in India in 2019, when I sit down to write a script, one of the first questions that are in my mind even before what is my story is that am I gonna get death threats or rape threats if I make this film, because that is the reality of the world that we live in. So yes there are differences, there are a lot of like everyday-reality sort of differences, being a female filmmaker in India or any women growing up in India, I think, I not just have to do my job, I also have to deal with being looked at everyday, and being stared at everyday, and just the everyday manifestation of sexism that I’m sure all of us experienced. In a lot of very different ways, there are a lot of difference.
Moving forward, what are your hopes for the film industry, particularly those of female-led in Asia and Africa?
Actually one of the things that I’ve been caring about, realizing and been kind of proud of through this entire traveling to various film festivals with my film, is that it has been so often, on like the director’s panel when everyone is doing Q&A and stuff, that I am the only woman also the only woman of color in a lot of places, not all of course, thankfully. But that to me, is a beginning of a strong sense of purpose and cause, which is increasing in that sense of representation, to not feeling like oh, not looking right and left and being like, “Am I the only brown women here?”
So my hopes and dreams, my ultimate goal is to create a colorblind world, is to create a gender-blind world, is to create a world that accepts stories regardless of who it represents. The dream is that independent cinema get the same kind of reception that mainstream cinema gets, that’s the big dream. But in order to get there, I think in the immediate future we all have to really put our power and forces behind the things that are currently not being given that importance, that are in fact downright ostracized in a ruthless manner. So I think all of us needs to kind of focus on giving attention to those things, we can move towards a world where we won’t need to do that any longer.
Lastly, who inspires you to keep on doing what you’re doing?
In terms of inspirations, honestly I’ve never really thought of myself as a female filmmaker, until people started asking, “as a female filmmaker, what do you think?” (laugh) Which is an important conversation, and I am very welcomed to that because it’s an important one, a constant reminder for me also of who I am and an important part of my identity and the stories that I feel compelled to tell, so that’s great. I love that question.
But it’s kind of weird that I’ve never really been a cinephile, I’ve never really consumed copious amounts of cinema because that’s not what it has been about for me. But I remember some Mira Nair films, some Deepa Mehta films that I’ve watched early on, and I guess I didn’t even really understand films like “Fire” for example, which is a film about two women married to two brothers in the same household who developed a lesbian relationship which was a while ago, when I was still in school. And I didn’t understand the significance of making that film in that point, but then I grew up and I understand things better. I think the efforts that all these people made before me, are the reason there’s an audience for the work that I am making and hopefully the things that I am doing will add to the audience as future generation of filmmakers.