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Headstrong – Women and film making in India

Transcript of the podcast interview by Divya Sharma

In this interview filmmaker Sudha Padmaja Francis talks to Divya Sharma, host of the podcast ARTiculate about her reasons for getting into film making as a way of expressing her creative talents and her experiences along the journey. Sudha lives and works in Kerala, India, and has completed her Masters in Creative Enterprise from the University of Reading UK in 2017. Her dissertation film ‘Eye Test’ was selected for the Berlin Film Festival in 2020, apart from many others, the Sharjah Biennale Sehnsuchte Festival in Potsdam Germany, the Student Film Festival in Belgrade, and the Feminist Border Arts Festival in New Mexico. It has also won the National Film Award in India.

Divya decided to invite Sudha for the podcast after she saw the film ‘Ormajeevigal’ or ‘Memory Beings’, a 26 minute documentary film based on the sub-altern musical culture of North Carolina. The film paints a picture of the town called Kozhikode (pronounced Koyikode), its musicality and the spiritual immersion of its ordinary town dwellers in music. It has screened at various international film festivals and was shortlisted for the Toto Funds Art Awards 2020. Sudha has just received the prestigious Sahapedia Film Fellowship for 2021, and is also set to make her next film.

Divya Sharma (DS) Welcome to ARTiculate and thank you so much for agreeing to be on my podcast. Your film Ormajeevigal really spoke to me because I think for the first time, I realised the power of sound and music in how it was able to kind of bring take me back from reality to a completely different place and it was like as if it was a parallel universe ..going back into time! Please tell us of your early influences and if you have role models in your family who are artists and /or film makers.

Sudha Padmaja Francis (SPF) Thank you Divya for having me on the podcast. I have no artists in the family and my parents were working with the government all my cousins are engineers, and I was also hoping to be one. I think in my whole school like I had around 132 students in my batch I don't think anyone's done anything related to the arts. I think if anyone had told me in my A Levels that I will become an artist, my teachers or me would laugh, because, oh my goodness, I was a very good student academically and you know like I was part of the band bandwagon. I mean, everyone's doing that and you know you have to study engineering to get a good job so that that's the ideal scenario. But, when I was around 16 or 17 something told me like, you know I'm not going to enjoy this in my life, I would be good at it, but I'm not going to like this. And somehow I don't know how I mustered the courage to tell my parents that, I do not want to become an engineer or a doctor. I went on to study literature, and that I should thank my parents for this because I grew up in a household filled with books. My father was a voracious reader, I mean that's what sets him apart from where he came from. I think because his brothers and he started reading at a young age, from public libraries. He went on to get a government job, which was huge for him, I think, considering where he came from. My mother would always make fun of him because she would say, the day he gets a salary, you will not see him back home very early because he would immediately go to this one bookstore in my hometown, and get books and come back. So growing around books has that kind of an impact on you. I read a lot when I was a child, and I was given books I asked for. The world of fiction was something that really intrigued me. You know as children's literature and all you read mostly English books but then of course after that I also read Malayalam books. And another thing I think, which really worked for me now when I think about it. My parents had an inter religious marriage which was, I think, very path breaking. I mean, so many years ago, it was really unheard of in India, just like other parts of India also the idea of marriage is built around this endogamous idea of kinship. And you know, to break any kind of tradition or religious barriers meant a lot. And my parents got married like that and they were completely irreligious at home. So we had a very different, or strange kind of upbringing, whereas everyone in school everyone around me, came from normal conventional religious homes. My father, he identified himself as a Marxist, so we did not celebrate any festivals at home, not the conventional festivals atleast. There was this sort of alienation that one felt even as a child from what was just around you because you never really belonged. And especially in your teens, you have this urge to belong. So I think that made me sensitive and you know, a little apart in a way. I went on to do my Bachelor's in English, and then I did my Masters from Central University in Hyderabad. It was then I think I started watching world cinema for the first time, like in my university because before that you just grew up watching your vernacular mainstream popular cinema. We went to watch films almost every week while I was growing up, my parents were total film enthusiasts on weekends. It means that I would watch a film and just like fiction, cinema also used to intrigue me. It was only later that I had the opportunity to watch serious cinema and that really moved me and it forged a connection with me. But even then, I never thought of myself as an artist you know I thought I would always be a reader or a viewer. I had never even heard of film school until I went to Hyderabad and did my masters, right, because when you are not searching for it, you're not thinking about it, there's no exposure to it. And after my master's I went on to write the entrance exam for a PhD and I got through the PhD advice and jobs. And I think two and a half years into my PhD, I sort of realised that this is not what I want to do. I lost my mother when I was 19 Just before I went in for my master's so all this is something that has come to me retrospectively. That was a huge loss because I was very close to my parents, and my mother died very suddenly, she had no illness. At that time there was no sense of mental health or anything.. you just grieve and internalised all of that without realising what that will do to your choices. I think just being out of that comfort zone that pushed me really to think about what I want in this world then I thought I really want to make films. But then, even then it felt like a distant dream. Then that meant I had to get a scholarship to pursue another Master's so I spent a few years trying to figure out that and, fortunately, I did apply to a few universities in the UK and I got through the programmes, but I wanted to get through fully funded programmes. And that's how I ended up studying at the University of Reading, because of the Felix Scholarship.

DS Was that why did you choose University of Reading, and so this Felix scholarship must have been really kind of prestigious and competitive. So how did you prepare for it?

SPF My department was very keen on me and they wanted me there and helped me with my statement of purpose and all of that. Then there was a very tough interview in Delhi, which I thought I'm never going to get after the interview. I was very sure I was not going to clear the scholarship and it was a huge surprise for me that I got the scholarship and the scholarship is very generous. It funds Asian and African students because it completely takes care of all your tuition fees and gives you a monthly stipend, which is very good to sort of live through. They also fund your ticket to and from India, and that was huge saving for me. Actually, I made my dissertation film because I saved up from the scholarship and I came back to India, and I spent the scholarship that I had saved up to make the film I wanted to make. It was a one-year Masters course and of course it was a very nice time in the sense that you were being exposed to cinema and ideas about cinema that you were not exposed to before, and also to have the opportunity to immerse yourself completely in your studies. That way it was the right mixture of learning skills to understanding it academically and I loved my teachers. The only thing was I had just gotten married a few months I came to reading so that was personally very difficult for me. And so, to negotiate a long distance relationship and in a new country and all of that was hard but it was necessary. In the course we would have the small editing exercises sound exercises so that you yourself learn the software skills.

DS Is there ever a crossover between art films and mainstream cinema? Do people who make art films ever relate to people who are making cinema for livelihood or for profit. Or do you think that art films are basically part of the art category and not the filmmaking category.

SPF It's the medium of cinema and especially in a place like India, with you growing up here there's no way you can be immune to mainstream cinema! So I also have those influences within me. I mean I don't want to shy away from that always because I still like watching old black and white films. I think I'm an old person inside that way I listen to old Tamil and old Malayalam music old Hindi music. Of course, it is within mainstream cinema I am interested in seeing what new filmmakers are doing with old archetypes. So that way also you kind of learn from the mistakes that they made just like you learn from any other medium. For independent artists in India, I think there is not much funding for us anymore, it's not like there are grants or fellowships which are widely available. In the 80s, the National Film Development Corporation of India NDFC funded art films rigorously out of this whole idea of the Nehruvian state that needs to sort of patronise arts but that does not exist anymore so it's also a big challenge for independent filmmakers. There are a few international funds but then how many of us will make it to those funds, and a lot of things matter, like, how your first film was received, if it's gone to a festival or not etc. There's a lot at stake in that first film that you make. Also the expectation from an Indian filmmaker, I think, sometimes really matters internationally in festivals. What is perceived as ‘Indianness’ in a cinema. All that really matters. And, of course, a lot of the time independent filmmakers assist in bigger projects to make the livelihood. Otherwise, how do you keep yourself going? I myself now work in an academic journal as an assistant editor so that's what keeps me going because otherwise it's a very anxious space to be in. Also, when you go from project to project, like, everything depends on the fact that if you get a grant or not and rejection from a grant is soul destroying.

DS Yes I know! There are film makers who are women in Kerala like Anjali Menon and Geetu Mohan Das whose work has broken the ceiling of very gendered industry, and I believe they have rewritten several cliches, and have also managed to portray realistic well rounded female characters. So as the entry barrier to this kind of genre is so high for women have you felt that there was any kind of resistance to your ideas?

SPF Yeah with my first film ‘Eye Test’, though it's my first attempt I have heard a lot of comments like ‘Is this the kind of film a woman should be making’ etc! Well, I mean, so, there are those things again expectations from what a woman like me should be making out of the medium of cinema. So also like you said there are very, very few women who have made it in Indian cinema. I mean like, like any other space it's a very patriarchal discipline. But more than that, I think, cinema as a discipline has been more patriarchal. For example, if you look at the number of female students who have gone to study in FTII (Film and Television Institute of India). Are women ever allowed to have that kind of art education. Breaking into this kind of huge network of a very male dominated industry is very, very difficult. There's a lot of work to be done. Making a film is a collaborative medium, and we always have to work with a lot of people (if you're working on a big feature film, collective, there will be 6200 people on a set at a time). And how many technicians working in there are women? I think there needs to be shifts where more women need to be coming up and not just women from privileged backgrounds but from underprivileged backgrounds, who have the access to such skills. So, there is a long way to go but of course it's beginning.

DS I wanted to ask about your writing process. You write your screenplay, the story the narration the dialogues and everything, do you do that or do you have a team? Did it come easily to you is what I'm asking!

SPF Writing is a continuous thing for me, not that I write for cinema all the time, but you know just writing like writing notes or poetry, or something that you call writing has been consistent in terms of just expressing myself. Writing for cinema is definitely a difficult process. I would say like any other medium, or any other artistic form it needs practice and to sort of write continuously and go through many drafts, is a very difficult thing to do. But, yeah, I really do enjoy writing for fiction.

DS Tell me about your first film ‘Eye Test’. How did you come about writing and making this film. And what about the actors? Are they well known and did you have to negotiate with their agents, how did you go about all that.

SPF As I had said earlier, I lost my mother when I was 19. And I thought a lot about womanhood and motherhood and all of these conventional associations that go with it. Only after she passed away and maybe much later that were a lot of things that I understood about my mother really. So when I decided to make that film, the only thought I had was that I could not make a film without addressing those things. Bell Hooks writes about this in her book, she says that modern societies don't allow people to grieve or talk about death and that's like something that's also happened with me. People get uncomfortable about it, people don't know, I mean, even me, I'm not putting myself outside of that, we don't know how to respond to someone. It was very personal for me and it's not something that you are allowed to speak about that. So, when I was writing that script I actually broke down many times without actually knowing that it would have that kind of an impact. My tutor Alison Butler was my mentor for the dissertation and she saw me through the process. So even though the film is not autobiographical, elements from my autobiography are woven in it. Also the idea of memory, cinema is a time based medium. So, what does it mean then, to deal with memory which sort of engages with another sense of time, those kinds of images and how would you treat that in cinema etc. There are small things in it which are still my memories, but there are also things which are completely sort of constructed to create the effect I wanted. So that was a very challenging process. And yeah, so about the actors, they are actually a mother and child in reality! Her name is Sarita we call her Cuckoo. So she is a well known theatre actor and she has done a few films in Malayalam. I had met her at one of the queues in a local theatre festival here. And I had struck a strong chord with her. So when I was thinking of who to cast I didn’t think twice. I had just a month to do all the pre production work so then to work out chemistry between a small child and mother would have been very difficult. So I asked her and she agreed immediately. It took a week of filming. But then of course the pre production process was there, so I had to identify cinematographers, so I was making this limited budget film and it was set in my hometown, so I had to find someone from, Calicut who I didn't have to give accommodation so there were a lot of things! At that point I had met Appu, who won the national award later for my film. He had just passed out from the film institute and I got to know him and I saw some of his work and he was got on board. So things just fell into place and one of the nuns in the film was a close friend of mine, she is actually a great actor. She won the State Award for acting this year. The challenge was finding the actor who would grow up as this child, because I wanted someone with some kind of resemblance to the child and also with sadness in her eyes! An unexplained sense of sadness. I told a few people and my friend knew of this girl who was not an actor. She was studying and when I met her, I really felt she was the person. She joined the team and did an amazing job. We are now good friends.

DS Tell us about ‘Ormajeevigal’

SPF There was this call for proposals by Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT) and I applied with this idea and they shortlisted it and finally it went on to the final stage and I got the grant to make the film, which was huge for me then. Yeah, so I grew up in a small town small coastal town in Kerala called Kozhikode. We speak Malayalam and we are not very exposed to Hindi and other languages spoken in the North Indian belt of India. But there is this culture of Hindi music in my hometown because it used to be a major port. It also has a dominant Muslim population, though it's not limited to the Muslim population there is this whole culture of listening to Hindi songs, and every year there are multiple Mohammed Rafi nights. Mohammed Rafi is an iconic playback singer in Hindi (Bollywood) cinema. So, I was very curious and something I wanted to explore, also because the times we were living in I thought was important to sort of look at culture, which is not homogenous. These people who are you know collecting records and give their lives to it, so I thought that's very important to make them known, because the kind of impressions that are made about a certain community or a certain space are sometimes very monolithic and stereotyped. So, this was a small attempt from my side. I had asked the man who collects radios, like what will happen to you, your filing system. He said not everyone has inherited this liking for these objects because it must feel so old and archived for a newer generation, that there is not much value to cassettes or radios, so he already knows that it's not going to carry on beyond his time. It's very, very sad. I mean, I felt like helpless and sad at the same time. This is nostalgia, and not everyone needs to indulge in that nostalgia, but these people have given their lives to it. I don't know if I am able to immerse myself in my medium in the way they have, you know, follow the passion. To immerse oneself in something which does not give you anything in that sense, it does not give you profit does not give you. It's just that passion or liking for it. And the female singers in the film .. they've actually disappeared into oblivion. The woman who sings so beautifully nobody remembers her, nobody knows that she exists! It's only after one photographer who told me you know there is the woman and you should try to interview her. It was very difficult trying to find her and the way she lives and how she lives is very sad, but her talent is so pure. I mean that's one of my favourite things in that film that I have discovered this woman and sort of at least make her voice immortal in some way through my film.

You can listen to this interview in full in the ARTiculate podcast available in Podbean and Apple itunes.

Sudha’s film Ormajeevigal can be viewed in Youtube

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