Bhanwari Devi's story.
Just like Kamla was a real life story based on newspaper reports I had read, here was another story that I felt had
enormous cinematic potential. It was real.
Everyone had read about it. Everyone knew how this woman was brutalised, not just by those who raped her but by the system itself. By the police, by the courts, by the media.
I first read about her in an article in The Guardian in London. It was written by Suzanne Goldberg and I still remember its title: The Courage of a Rural Indian Woman.
The article carried the picture of this Rajasthani woman dressed in her traditional clothes looking straight at the camera.
The steely determination in her eyes pierced through her veil. She was not a typical rape victim. She was not frightened, shy, embarrassed. She wanted justice. There was strength and self confidence in her look. It was tradition and courage working to combat those who had tortured and tried to humiliate her, break her spirit as it were.
So you caught a plane and came to India, dumping all your other work in LA?
Well, it was not so dramatic really, but I decided to take a break from all that I was doing and spend time in India to make the film. I had already shot a film in Goa. One of my usual, so-called erotic thrillers, Monsoon. And I had found the experience enchanting.
So I came and started researching the story. Rajasthan was not entirely unknown to me, Pritish, but I found it even more exciting as I discovered its complex social nuances, its many colours and landscapes.
I was lucky to find a producer who was ready to put in money into the making of the film. It cost me Rs 3 crore eventually, because I spared no detail.
I wanted to make it a stunning film for international audiences.
You do not think the subject is too local for international interest?
Well, I first read about her in The Guardian. That, in itself, shows how the story has moved out of its social frame and captured the imagination of people all over the world.
Rape, after all, is about gender power. Just as sex is all about power. Only power. We attribute many other reasons to it. But, at its core, it is about how people demonstrate their power over others.
My film is about this rural, low caste woman working for a NGO, Saathin, the Rajasthan government's women development programme. She is gang-raped by upper caste men in her village when she speaks up against the prevalent custom of child marriages.
Instead of hanging her head in shame, she fights back?
That's right. She refuses to take it as a stigma against her. She wants to get back at her torturers. So she starts knocking on the doors of justice and that is when her real problems begin.
Her actual rape begins when she is made to run from pillar to post in a judicial system subverted by sexism, male chauvinism, feudalism.
And, of course, political opportunism.
Govind Namdeo plays this corrupt politician who says one thing and does exactly the opposite. He protects those who harassed her but, in her presence, commiserates with her.
Sanwari, played brilliantly by Nandita Das, is caught in the middle of this maelstrom created by the international media. She becomes a pawn in the political power struggle between the ruling party's Government at the centre and the Opposition party's government in the state.
A hapless victim all over again?
That's exactly my point. You are dead right. One party puts her on a pedestal. The other stones her. But throughout her struggle, she maintains her dignity and courage.
Eventually, from a rape victim she emerges as an activist fighting for other women, all women. Changing attitudes towards woman and rape. Showing up the power struggles within our society. Showing up caste, gender issues. Showing up how politicians exploit us.
It is actually a story about courage. A lone woman's courage to face a brutal, exploitative society that is determined to humiliate her.
How did you manage to get it past the censors?
I did not. But that is another story. They have enforced five cuts and want to give me an adult certificate after that. I have protested.
My argument is: Take the cuts and make it UA. Or do not make the cuts and keep it only for adult viewing. You cannot have both ways, particularly when this film is meant to fight social evils. What do you gain by restricting its viewership?
There is not a single titillating scene. The rape sequence is frightening. You will want to puke after seeing it. It is not graphic. You cannot show graphic rape in an Indian film. It is merely suggestive.
But they are not ready to listen. They have cut out a doha by Rahim. What sense does that make? They want me to chop off dialogues that context the kind of problems she faced when she knocked on doors for justice.
If I accept what they say, the film will look disjointed and jerky, particularly in some of its most powerful scenes. I
have taken a great deal of care about its detailing. I do not want all that to go waste.
You wrote the film yourself?
Yes. The screenplay is by Ashok Mishra and Sudha Arora. Ashok Mishra wrote Samar for Shyam (Benegal) and the dialogues are by Pandit Hariram Acharya. Dr Acharya is a renowned Sanskrit scholar and a Professor Emeritus of Rajasthan University. His knowledge of the language and
culture of Rajasthan has no parallel. I wanted to get the nuances of language just right.
Which means the film is in the local dialect? How will viewers understand that?
We use dialect to an extent only. Laila Rouass, who plays this foreign journalist, speaks English all through. So does Rahul Khanna, who plays her boyfriend Ravi. That is a separate love story within the film.
Gulshan Grover plays this advocate Purohit, a good guy, for a change. Deepti Naval has this very challenging role as a social worker. Raghuvir Yadav is Sanwari's husband.
Ravi Jhankal plays this cross-dressing policeman, a fascinating role that I have created to highlight the tension between men and women in traditional Rajasthani society.
The idea is to capture its subtle nuances, its inherent tensions and show what Bhanwari Devi once said, that her real rape happened only after the first rape took place. When she tried to get justice from those who are meant to dispense it. The
callousness, the indifference, the sniggering that went on, the political games. These were far uglier than her rape.
That is what my film tries to capture. The injustices she faced, the harrowing humiliation.
And, I guess, her eventual victory?
Yes, of course. Without that, this story would not be worth telling.