The Mumbai International Film Festival of Documentaries, Short and Animation Films has decided to hold a retrospective of some documentaries directed by Madhusree Dutta three of whose films have won National Awards.
Who is Madhusree Dutta?
She is the gutsy young woman who was attacked and abused by arrogant policemen at Borivli station in the middle of the night several years ago. Not one to give up at the duty officer’s refusal to register a FIR, Madhusree determinedly went ahead and fought it out, making it to front-line news a few days later. Today, this NSD graduate who came down from Calcutta to make theatre her lifestyle, is a successful documentary filmmaker balancing her act with issues of topical relevance as well as abstract issues influencing the lives of girls and women. MIFF 2018 will screen I Live in Behrampada, Scribbles on Akka, Seven Islands and a Metro and Made in India that provide an insight into her versatility as a documentary filmmaker who does not allow her activism to overshadow her creativity as a filmmaker though at times they become the very foundation on which the edifice of a few of her films stand.
Her first film, I Live in Behrampada, was a well-made film, which fetched her several awards. The film traces the history of this Muslim ghetto which was first populated in 1950 and grew through the efforts of the slum dwellers who turned the slimy marsh land into solid ground. But in the face of rapid development yesterday’s pathfinders have become today’s interlopers. Is the dividing line language, culture and religion or class?' The communal riots that reduced Bombay into two distinct communities in December '92 and January '93 also created an underclass of citizens. During this time, Behrampada, a slum colony in the city's western suburb with its predominantly (80%) Muslim population was cast as the villain by the majoritarian media and the communal forces. The script of it was published in an anthology - Politics of Violence: From Ayodhya to Behrampada, eds. John McGuire, Peter Reeves and Howard Brasted, Sage Publication, 1996.
Dutta created almost a new genre in cinema through her Scribbles on Akka – the genre of the abstract docu-fiction – broadening the historical parameters of the film to throw it open to the subjective interpretation of different members of her audience – men and women. One might just accept it as a piece of pure fiction and find it exciting and interesting. Another may treat it as a biographical documentary that explores unknown areas of history within which lay the first seeds of a woman’s inner consciousness which rouses her to shed her clothes in search of God. A third person would perhaps, look at the film as a multi-layered piece of abstract art which, on face value, may mean nothing, or everything, depending on the way he/she interprets it.
Journeying through the countryside of Udutadi in Karnataka with her camera (A. Mukul Kishore and R.V. Ramani), Dutta explores the meaning of Akka’s denial and her asceticism though the works of contemporary painters who have identified the poet through their personal creative work. Nilima Sheikh, a Baroda-based painter for instance, paints Akka as a solitary naked figure against a stark red background on a huge canvas. She says (in the film) that even if Akka had not lived, “we would have invented her because Akka is the icon we needed.” Vaidehi, a contemporary poet concedes with admiration, “everything I write seems to have already been written by Akkamahadevi.”
Made in India has an interesting history. It formed part of an exhibition of Indian art entitled “Home-Street-Shrine-Bazaar-Museum” curated by Prof. Gulammohammed Sheikh and the cultural conference on Multiple Perspectives, organized by Shisha of UK. Made in India is a film on contemporary visual culture in India – the ever-alert, ever-forgetful, many-layered, often intolerant, multilingual, multicultural conglomeration. The question is – was the political statement in a film intended to capture the visual culture of this huge cultural melting pot called India? Does this not seem a bit out of place in an otherwise viewer-friendly, feel-good film? The film focusses on the invisible citizens who keep the city’s wheels running.
The text is interwoven small insertions from some of the most notable examples of folk art such as the Warli school of paintings represented by Jivya Soma Mhase; an exhibition of the late Madhubani painter Gangadevi whose murals told stories with strong social statements; the rolling shutter paintings of painter Atul Dodiya who draws inspiration from Rehman, a poster painter of Hindi films; Christmas decorations hawked on the streets of Goa; Durga Pooja immersions in Bengal, calendar art consisting of kitsch paintings of Hindu deities; the bioscope; chattaiwallas of a Muslim locality, to zero in on the boy with the gold-foil-covered aircraft rushing along a beach.
7 Islands and a Metro holds up a picture of multilingual Bombay, the Bombay of intolerance, the Bombay of closed textile mills, of popular culture, sprawling slums and real estate onslaughts, the metropolis of numerous ghettos, the El Dorado. The text is interwoven small insertions from some of the most notable examples of folk art such as the Warli school of paintings represented by Jivya Soma Mhase; an exhibition of the late Madhubani painter Gangadevi whose murals told stories with strong social statements; the rolling shutter paintings of painter Atul Dodiya who draws inspiration from Rehman, a poster painter of Hindi films; Christmas decorations hawked on the streets of Goa; Durga Pooja immersions in Bengal, calendar art consisting of kitsch paintings of Hindu deities; the bioscope; chattaiwallas of a Muslim locality, to zero in on the boy with the gold-foil-covered aircraft rushing along a beach.
Her other films, Memories of Fear and Sundari – An Actor Prepares do not form a part of the retrospective. Memories of fear concentrates on how girls from a very young age, are socially conditioned into different kinds of fear, concrete, abstract, and other kinds, which make them grow into suppressed individuals and complex personalities.
There is another side to Madhusree. This is her dream project Majlis, founded by a group of social activists soon after the communal riots in Mumbai some years ago. Today, Majlis is a public trust, a legal and cultural resource centre. Majlis intends to develop a support system for multi-disciplinary cultural exchange and for individual artistes seeking to work outside the parameters of institutionalized and market framework.
Written byDr Shoma 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.