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Film speak

No place to do nothing


NEVER ALONE: Komita Dhanda was asked to appear in public spaces like a park (left) or a street after dusk and hang around for a few moments aimlessly

At the root of big urban horrors lies a small, everyday act of violence that women have now normalised in their minds — they cannot stand, sit, wander aimlessly in public spaces without attracting unwanted attention. Filmmaker Sameera Jain captured this in her small film ‘Mera Apna Sheher

My idea when we set out to make Mera Apna Sheher was to look at the pervasive lack of freedom for girls and women in public spaces. We cannot sit or stand purposelessly in a street, at a corner shop or a park without men becoming curious, offensive or uncomfortable about it. Many of us have experienced this situation so often that we don't even perceive it as abnormal, we have totally normalised it. We are today talking about overt sexual violence but at the root of this is a pervasive, everyday violence, indignity.

I've made films located in Old Delhi, an area that in many ways is much like any other old town in India. I felt very comfortable there because the area has a strong sense of community which leaves little scope for misbehavior. But the answer is not to live in a closed community/family with its 'protection' (the corollary of which is to subscribe to patriarchal norms). Cities like Delhi, Mumbai and many others in our country allow the advantages of anonymity too. So why women have to choose between community and safety vs anonymity and danger? Women should enjoy freedom in every sort of situation. The answer to this rape is not that women stay at home at nights but that they reclaim the streets, the buses and all spaces in the day and at night. The issue of violence (gender related violence included) is linked to larger socio-economic processes but that will take much more time to talk about.

In the film we had a college lecturer and Jan Natya Manch actor, Komita Dhanda, dress up as a very plain, lower middle class girl in an unremarkable salwar kameez because I didn't want the case made that she is "looking good, provocative, asking for it..." (which is anyway a fallacious position). Her simple 'performance' was to sit or stand around in public spaces the way guys do without anyone sparing them a second glance. The reactions from men were amazing - they simply couldn't take it. Some believed she was a hooker, some felt unease. On one occasion we were filming Komita standing on a street from a balcony and we were communicating on mobiles. She said she felt very strange not doing anything on the street, so could she talk on the phone or pretend to rummage through her bag. But then she and I decided no, that's not the answer. She had to be purposeless the way men can be without attracting any attention. But it was so hard, it was really very strenuous for her, naturally. The idea is that at all times women have to be engaged with something in public - a child, a bag, a book, anything.

Komita goes through several situations - hanging around on a road, then a kebab shop, past 7 pm, spending a few moments at a paan shop. The last is a zone of total comfort for men because they can stand around alone aimlessly for ages, staring into space. But Komita had barely spent a few moments there before she started being stared at.

At a Delhi screening, a soft spoken and well-meaning gentleman came up to me and said: "Excuse me but, your actor looks like a hooker. " I was aghast, she does not. But it is just that the image of a woman hanging around doing nothing is so deeply associated with a hooker that we cannot go beyond it even when we know it is not true.

The film was shown at the Yamagata Film Festival in Japan and I was nervous that the film with its localised filming may not connect with the international audience. But the response was amazing. Viewers from Germany, UK, Iran, Italy, Japan didn't say "Oh things are so bad in your country. " It was more "This is exactly the problem, it is such a basic issue. " It is not that women in the West cannot sit, stand or eat alone but the situations had a strong resonance for them, they perceive parallel problems in their own contexts.

As told to Malini Nair

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