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August 30, 2000


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Talking sexuality

"Why can't a woman be more like a man?" lamented Professor Henry Higgins once.

Kalpana Lajmi He had obviously never met Kalpana Lajmi.

He would have sung a different tune had he seen Lajmi, clapping a take in front of a rolling camera.

"It's strange, I have never been consciously feminist," the director told

She will have to excuse us if we find that a trifle difficult to believe. Consider: Ek Pal was all about a woman's sexual expression outside marriage. Then came Rudali, about an oppressed woman. Darmiyaan brought to screen the true life of an Indian woman who shuns her only hermaphrodite child.

Now, Lajmi does it again with the soon-to-be released Daman. The film deals with domestic rape among middleclass women.

Sharmila Taliculam met Kalpana Lajmi and learnt a few home truths:

Lajmi believes women's films are a genre.

Lajmi believes in meaningful cinema -- one that is dead serious.

Lajmi believes meaningful films are driven by commerce. In much the same manner as BO biggies like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kaho Naa... Pyaar Hai.

Lajmi believes that the bitter truths of her stories can be sugarcoated with star value.

More of what Lajmi believes:

Sayaji Shinde Why did you decide to choose domestic rape as the subject for your latest film?

Well, middleclass and upper middleclass women, despite being educated are trapped in marriages where they have no equality: economically, sexually or emotionally. They are subjected to tremendous mental and physical torture by absolute sadists of husbands. Men who, mind you, come from equally respectable backgrounds.

I wanted to delve into how women feel about being trapped in a situation like this. Why can't they break away and start life afresh? That is what Daman is about. It means domination.

In fact, the Government of India’s Family Welfare Department had invited me to write on a social issue that needs to be addressed. I wrote the story of Daman. Only 0.1 per cent of Indian women are really empowered. So I thought, let's not talk about the rural woman or the slumdweller or the underprivileged. Let's talk about us...

The government liked the subject very much and agreed to finance me. That's how I started making the film.

You have always concentrated on women-centric films. Was it a conscious decision?

Strange. I have never been consciously feminist. I am more a humanist. I like dealing with the situation of the underdog and, somehow, I feel women are such a minority in this country.

Also, I feel if my voice can be heard, why shouldn't I highlight their situation and create awareness and hope? I'm not consciously making women-oriented films. Maybe, subconsciously, the feminist inside me veers towards highlighting women's issues.

Darmiyaan wasn't totally a women-oriented film. It was about why world heaps and ostracises anyone or anybody who deviates from the norm. Though not overtly women-oriented, it did deal with the feminine psyche… Trapped feminism.

I guess being a woman intrudes into my storytelling pattern and compels me to talk about women.

How different do you think you are from the male directors who make women-oriented films?

I feel Satyajit Ray's Charulata, Gulzarbhai's Namkeen and Shyam Benegal's Nishaant were excellent women-oriented films and brought out the plight of women very beautifully.

Believe me, I wouldn't have known that men had made these films. They understood the trauma, the delicacy and the nuances of womanhood so well. I think it all depends on sensitivity, aesthetics, insight and vision. The gender of the film-maker doesn't matter. A Ray, Benegal or Gulzar can give you an equally feminine film that I, Aparna Sen or Vijaya Mehta would.

But then, a woman might portray emotions through her characters more realistically. There is that quality and timbre of experience the male has not undergone.

Kalpana Lajmi You said your latest film dealt with upper middleclass woman. Your first film too dealt with the same class…

Yeah. Ek Pal, my first film, dealt with a woman's desire to express herself sexually. A woman who does not regret having had an affair. Who does not believe in the concept of sin, who feels that if she has made a mistake, would face the consequences with courage and not escape from them.

It was a very delicate subject and much ahead of its time, played wonderfully by Shabana Azmi.

It's very important that the actor give the correct tone to the character. You play it wrong and the character would be totally different from what you painted it.

Being an intellectually vibrant person and a fine actress, Shabana gave the role the correct tone and shade. So Ek Pal came across as a very sincere film. It didn't strike a false note anywhere and that's definitely due to her performance.

You choose well-known actresses who suit your characters very well...

Raveena Tandon in Daman Yes, that's true. What's important is, we are dealing with a country that has an 80 per cent below-literacy-line audience. I am not making this film for the English-speaking market. So to make a thought-provoking film which has to reach out, I must have star presence that the audience identifies with.

So if it is assayed by a Dimple Kapadia, a Raveena Tandon, a Karisma Kapoor, a Madhuri Dixit or Shabana Azmi, it will only have a wider reach.

But don't you find it difficult to sell your subjects to these stars?

Sometimes, yes. Because they all like playing into their safe, euphoric market-created image. Which means their senses are numbed. So if I go with my proposal, they certainly don't want to be shaken out of their equilibrium, their trance. Also, they are unsure whether, if they do decide to tread into an area which may not be accepted, it is worth it. Would they lose 10 other films in the bargain? That means losing that much income, too. How long then would they remain at the top?

There's so much of pre-conditioning and financial, familial, secretarial and peer pressure on the film stars today.

Nevertheless, once they do act in a thought-provoking film, the characters provoke, disturb and hurt them. Why? Because they are sensitive people. Else they wouldn't be actors.

What category do you slot your films? Commercial or parallel?

I don't know who created this word parallel. Why is there this distinction? Our films are also commercial. What does commercial mean? An investor who puts in the money has to get that money back.

Whether it's the government, an individual or an institution, it's business.

The only way my kind of film differs from what is termed as commercial cinema is, they're not formula films. No boy-meets-girl or girl-meets-boy and falls in love. So you segregate us by calling us parallel. But we aren't. We are very much part of mainstream cinema.

Yes, we are independent film-makers. But we have just as much right to exist as the others.

What is a heartening sign is, distributors and marketers have come forward to fund films like Rockford, Darmiyaan and Daman. And because it was a slice of human life, the audience lapped it up.

Shaan (centre) in Daman What usually happens is people are not even interested in hearing your subject. All they want to know is whether you have a male star, sex, violence, who the music director is, how many songs and dances the film has. That's it.

Unless that system breaks, there is no way better formula films will evolve. In the last five years, there have been a series of flops. Why? Simply because the formula films have become so boring. There's nothing new.

I am not claiming to make a formula film, so I am saying something new every time. But you are not allowing me to reach out.

But then, there are fresh ideas coming up. May be not as fast as I want them to, but then, it's happening.

For one, there are good theatres being opened all over the country like Hyderabad, Bangalore, Bombay, making it conducive for people to come and watch films. And then, television takes care of the grey areas for the semiliterate audience.

Would you call women's films a genre? Raima Sen in Daman

I would say they are a genre. This is sensitive, probing cinema which women can feel responsible for. But, please, don't call me a women's film-maker!

But why do these films end on a sorrowful note and not a triumphant one?

That's not true. Arth ended on a triumphant note. Then, recently, I saw Astitva, which has Tabu that ended on a good note. So did Ek Pal and Rudali. You can't generalise that all women who make films end on a pessimistic note.

Your next film, Mod deals with AIDS?

Yes. Hopefully, it will start in January. Once we finalise the cast, we'll roll.

It's based in a small, religious town. It talks about sexual repression in society; it questions morality, premarital sex, postmarital sex, sexual hypocrisy.

Do you think such subjects appeal to the mass audience? Take Mahesh Manjrekar's Nidaan, which failed at the BO.

I believe in making films that reach out to a wide audience. That means using known names, including elements that people identify with. Mod will talk about areas of sexuality which others haven't been able to express. AIDS is just the byproduct. It also explores why we sweep sex under the carpet, why we treat sex as a means of procreation, not pleasure.

I'm not sure what Nidaan tried to convey, but I know it suffered badly at the BO. But from all the reports I've heard, it was a nice film. He is a fine film-maker; his Astitiva is a beautifully made film.

It all depends on how you treat and present the film. Marketing is also important. As is the star cast.

Finally, which is your all-time favourite woman oriented film?

I don't have any favourites. But I recently saw an Australian film, The Piano, made by Jane Campion. It is a beautifully made film. Emotionally moving.

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