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Reflections : Silence and Saba

Reflections : Silence and Saba
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In documentary film maker Saba Dewan's works, women's spaces compel our attention. The recent retrospective of her films in Hyderabad charts her...

In documentary film maker Saba Dewan's works, women's spaces compel our attention. The recent retrospective of her films in Hyderabad charts her journey as a film maker while providing a peek into the inner landscape of women's thoughts and choices ref2 Uma Magal One comes away, thinking about silence, after getting immersed into Saba Dewan's documentary films. In her words "Silences are almost more important than the spoken word. What you choose not to tell about something, is somehow more interesting to me. It tells a lot more about you than what you reveal". Saba's work brings onto the centre stage, the vacuums that have been created by the fact that storytelling and the recounting of history has mainly been from the male point of view. As the old joke goes: History is HISstory! HERstory remains clouded by silences and awaits retrieval. Fortunately in this context, Saba herself is the antidote of silence. Thoughtful and well informed, she is passionately articulate about the matter, both through her craft and in person. In her documentary work, women's spaces compel our attention. In the film "Sita's Family", it is the inner courtyard of a house, crafted as a metaphor for hidden the inner landscape of women's thoughts and choices. In "The Other Song" it is the spaces of stigma and denial that the Tawaif tradition in India lays buried in. Both these films were screened this month in Hyderabad in a retrospective of Saba Dewan's films. The screenings were put together by the multiorganisational effort of Documentary Circle of Hyderabad, Goethe Zentrum, Alliance Francaise, Moving Images and Lamakaan, as part of the "Women March" events being held this month in the city. Despite an interesting and valuable body of work behind her and despite her clear-sighted and vociferous articulation of the issues involved, Saba retains humility around it all, as well as her sense of humour. She loves Hindustani music and cooking. "In fact", she jokes "I am more proud of my cooking skills than my film making skills!" After graduating from the Mass Communication Research Centre at Jamia Milia Islamia in Delhi in 1987, Saba worked as a freelance producer doing commissioned work for various organisations and women's groups. In 1994 she underwent, as she says, "A major rethink on the kind of work I was doing. With different women's groups etc., I had been just documenting their work and not really challenging or satisfying the film maker in me." Thereafter, "Barf" was made in 1996. This was the first film screened at the retrospective in Hyderabad. Travelling with and filming a group of adolescent girls, on a trek into the mountains in search of snow, Saba spoke with them about their lives. The trek itself became a space which allowed them to escape the confines of their own families and the drudgery of the work that most of them were expected to perform at home. Saba further delved into the inner spaces that were opened on the trek. The girls spoke of their lack of opportunities, their longings and ambitions for themselves. In the post screening discussion, Saba spoke of how she herself had always seen her own mother as a role model and how taken aback she was when the girls disclosed to her that they did not wish to lead the lives that their mothers had lived.
ref4
After "Barf", Saba started research work on women sex workers for a film that eventually did not get made. The research, however, led to her Women's Trilogy which also screened in the Hyderabad retrospective: "Delhi Mumbai Delhi" on bar dancers, "Naach" on nautanki dancers and "The Other Song" on the Tawaif tradition. She says, "It was to be one big film on tawaifs, but then I felt that would not be doing justice to the other women I met during the research: like Ria, the bar dancer in Delhi Mumbai Delhi. Secondly, the Tawaif film was a long process and difficult to make. Tawaifs are fully stigmatised as prostitutes. Finding women who would admit to being tawaifs and winning their trust was taking very long. Also getting funding for such an issue was very difficult. On the other hand, the women I met, who were bar dancers and nautanki dancers were easier for me to access. The bar dancers and the nautanki dancers are not fully stigmatised in our society and were open to telling their stories. They were young and optimistic and willing to talk." This resulted in the making of the first two films of the trilogy. All this research led to a greater grip on the subject matter and culminated in "The Other Song" on the tawaif tradition. It has turned out to be a matter of lasting interest for Saba and currently she is working on the first draft of a book on the social history of the tawaifs. The research on sex workers also sparked Saba's interest in middle class women's history. At that time she says, "I was negotiating issues with my own mother and other women of my family." This negotiation took the form of an autobiographical film and "Sita's Family" was made in 2000 / 2001. A recurrent motif of Saba's films is that of a journey. In keeping with this motif, "Sita's Family" too, is a film in which a family journeys out and revisits the home of Saba's grandmother, Sita. In unravelling the family's memories of Sita, the film interrogates the consequences that Sita's choices have had, over generations in the family. This relationship between generations is another important issue that Saba's films foreground. In case of "Naach", the audience at the screening was caught up in the relationship between the older Nautanki dancer and her daughter. The film rests on the tension between the flamboyance of the mother and her refusal to let go of her dancing days of glory, juxtaposed with the measured attitude of her daughter who is the current dancing star. The issue of losing ground to a younger woman was rendered more poignant by the fact that in this case, it was to her own daughter. Documentaries serve the invaluable function of raising issues that need discussion and this retrospective kept the tradition. The films on the different aspects of using your body to make a living, whether through dancing for men or through various kinds of prostitution sparked interesting discussion. Hyderabad audiences can hope that this multiorganisational effort in screening documentaries, that are important either for their content or for their interesting form, continues and succeeds in creating an invaluable space for interrogating different issues of our times. ref3
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