Much before Akshay Kumar heralded the innovative talents of Arunachalam Muruganantham, the man who created history with his very economical machine for manufacturing affordable sanitary napkins women themselves could buy and operate, a gutsy woman named Akanksha Sood Singh won the National Award for a film on this man and his revolution. The Pad Piper marked the debut of Akansha Sood Singh into new territory. The film bagged the award for the Best Science and Technology Film at the 61st National Film Awards bestowed “for its portrayal of a sensitive man with a profound belief in appropriate technology who came up with a simple piece of engineering – an affordable sanitary napkin that has had an extraordinary impact on the health of millions of poor women.”
Akansha Sood has now made Mrityubhoj which won the Best Documentary Award at the 23rd Kolkata International Film Festival in 2017. Mrityubhoj is currently doing the festivals rounds in India and abroad. Akanksha, who shoots with her little girl in tow, talks about this film.
What motivated you to make Mrityubhoj?
Post The Pad Piper, I had been researching for human interest stories. A friend, Umesh, sent this article from the TOI which spoke about Dr Veereshraj Sharma’s work on trying to abolish Mrityubhoj. I have seen this custom. It happens in my family and in many other communities. What shocks is that it has takrm such an ugly toll on people, just 400 kiloters from Delhi, 100 kilometrers in the backyard of the Taj Mahal and no one knows about it!
What is Mrityubhoj?
Hindus celebrate ‘Mrityubhoj’, or the Death Feast, on the 13th day after a cremation as a remembrance for the departed soul, and also as a ritual to help the soul find heavenly abode. Thirteen 'Brahmins' are fed a lavish meal, followed by donations to the temple in the hope to garner peace and blessings for the departed. The feast is later extended to the relatives, neighbours and the rest of the village. But today, Mrityubhoj has become a status symbol and a reflection of a family’s social standing. Even the poorest of the poor are compelled under circumstances beyond their control to organize large death feasts, taking a toll on their very existence.
Will you elaborate on this?
The class divide is rigid. The rich throw lavish feasts, invite thousands. The poor have to match that standard. Why? Because the priests say so, because the soul will otherwise wander on earth, because they have eaten at others’ death feasts, because it has been going on for generations, because they know no better! The gravity of this sunk in when I met people who had taken huge loans to feed 5000, 8000, even 9000 strangers. They lost their valuables, their livestock, their land, stopped educating their children, and sometimes, even selling their wives! When everything else failed, they left their homes and ran away overnight to cities to live lives of anonymity, lost, no identity, no roots.
Did you face social obstacles because of the dicey subject you were dealing with?
I had pitched the concept to Public TV Service Taiwan and after they commissioned it, I travelled through the Chambal belt, filming death feasts thrown by the rich. It was a waste of time – they were akin to marriages, these feasts given by the ‘upper castes’. I was at the 8th feast when I put my foot down – I told Dr Sharma’s volunteers that I was not there to make wedding videos. I remember that evening – they went helter skelter looking for a family where a death may have happened a few days earlier. What came out from their ground-work in just four hours was a family in a village in the interior had just lost the patriarch.
And you met the Khushwa family – the subject of your film?
Yes. I landed there at night when the body was still at home. They let me into their lives as if I belonged to them. They were visibly shocked that I, a woman, had arrived from the city with three crew members, all men, working under me. It was as if a figment of their imagination had come to life. The family was okay with me listening in into their conversations and recording when and as I wished. But the neighbourhood created an undercurrent of resistance, of awe and of fear. It was not easy to be assertive while all I did was film them as they talked to one another. Word spread that they were being filmed to people came in throngs not to mourn but to see us.
What about the women in the family?
The women hardly interacted with anyone. No one bothered to talk to them or ask them anything and they did not come forth with any comments. We shot there for 15 days and on the 12th day, when my men had gone out to shop and I had stayed back, they opened up to me. They wanted the feast which for me, was a shocking discovery. They said, “the expense is worth it because we need to get our children married and this is the best way to seek proposals instead of going hunting.”
What were those fifteen days like?
We kept a distance, and observed them go about their daily lives. Each day was unknown. They had never had a death before in the recent past as adults. They had no idea what to expect. As I filmed Mrityubhoj, each day from day one to day thirteen, I realised I was dealing with every kind of sensitive issue from class through caste, gender and tradition which made a complete matrix.
Where did you shoot and how long did the film take to complete from conception to censor certificate?
I shot this film in Keelpura Village in the Chambal district of Uttar Pradesh, very close to the bank of the river Chambal. I spent close to eight months researching and meeting people in the region. I spent about 15 days with the family when I first met them. I spent a month with Dr Veeresh Raj Sharma. The post production took about three months. I need clearance from the Animal Welfare Board for the village cattle that feature in the film.
What statement are you trying to make?
This film is a simple story with the canvas limited to what unfolds with Virender Khushwa over thirteen days as he goes about making preparations for his father’s death feast. Through the thirteen days, as Virender seemingly follows tradition, little does he realize the socio-economic trap he is walking into, perhapd for life. There is a parallel narrative of Dr. Vireshraj Sharma, the man battling to curb this social evil. Educated and in the police services, he has been able to put his conditioning and prejudices aside to look at death feasts from an outside perspective. Virender and Dr. Sharma’s path cross in the end of the film – for the former it brings hope, but for the latter, it is a struggle gone in vain.
How do you respond to the wonderful award and the accolades?
I am overjoyed and I am humbled. It is always nice for your work to be recognized, especially for a documentary film. The means a lot more for this film because I want to take the press that it receives back to Chambal along with the film when we roll out the local screenings. It has a huge impact when you show a film and when you show all that the media has written about the issue. I want to be able to make a strong case for the community leaders to intervene and bring about a change. Nothing is going to happen over night. But the time to act is now. As a filmmaker, this journey has left me feeling that mine are first world problems. As Virender says, “The one who has died, what does he have to do with society? It is the living who have to move in the real world.”
Written byShoma A. Chatterji
Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has 20 published titles, has won the National Award twice and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rotary Club of Kolkata Metro. She has done her post-doctoral research on cinema and has juried at national and international film festivals over time.