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Capturing the ills of gender inequality

'Our mind has become like the Friday theatre'

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We talk, tweet about new shows every week and then forget about them, says Nila Madhab Panda who has made a new film on female foeticide.

After the international success of I Am Kalam, which won over 20 international awards and one national award, Nila Madhab Panda's new feature film Jalpari - The Desert Mermaid examines the subject of female foeticide. The film was well received at the Cannes Film Festival recently and is set for a July release. In a tete-a-tete with TOI-Crest, Panda talks about what got him to take up the ills of gender inequality.

How did you decide to make 'Jalpari' ?


Jalpari is a story about a young girl called Shreya. Her fantasy world includes a land that has rivers, forests and mountains and a pretty lake in which she can swim. But her first visit to her father's village, near Delhi, pulls her out of this fantasy world and brings her face-to-face with a dark secret of the village - female foeticide. The story focuses mainly on how female foetuses are disappearing, while also dealing with the way our villages are becoming victims of 'new money' and the adverse impact of development on the young generation.

What made you zero in on the subject of female foeticide?


The idea for Jalpari came from what I had been hearing and reading on the subject, and from the people I met over a period of time - all this created a sense of urgency to work on a story such as this. The only hitch was creating a script, which I admit I found most difficult. The idea was to bring a subject which projects a strong humanistic angle but without being gory, dark, depressing or preachy. If I'd not made this film then I'd probably have remained suffocated for years.

Where was the film shot and what was the experience of filming a subject such as this?


The film is shot in the Mahendergarh district of Haryana, which, sadly, has one of the lowest sex ratios in the country. Imagine the scenario - every house in the village has a board that says 'Beti nahin bachaogey to bahu kahan sey laogey' (If you do not save your daughter, where will you get a daughter-in-law from?). You can see that there were hardly any young girls (by that I mean children) in the village, which is largely male-dominated. Since most of my cast and film crew were female, it scandalised the villagers there no end. It was a tough film to make for women in a 'no-women's land'.

How long did you take to do your research for the film? Any notable findings?


Almost nine years of research - that took me mostly to the north Indian states - went into it. But the most startling discovery was to see an increasing trend of male-to-female sex ratio in states like Maharashtra, Orissa and Gujarat. Sex selective abortion is now an epidemic. Our history and religion is attached to it too. Unlike the general perception that female foeticide is prevalent mainly in the illiterate lot, my research revealed that it's rampant amongst the educated as well. The younger generation too is adversely affected by such skewed thinking. What's more, the impact of female foeticide has led to sexually transmitted diseases, gender violence including rape, early marriage and massive emotional imbalances in women. Honestly, shame on us! We see a Satyamev Jayate, clap, talk, tweet and then forget about it. Our mind has also become like the Friday theatre. Every week there's a new show. To realise the gravity of such situations, one needs a heart-wrenching shake-up.

What was the response to the film at Cannes this May?


We had the world market premiere and the response there was absolutely stunning. With buyers from Korea, Japan, Germany, Netherlands, Taiwan and Africa, I was getting the feeling that I've probably made a different film - one that was commercial and had a more universal appeal! The film has already been invited to dozens of festivals and it's got an overwhelming response wherever it's been screened. As against this, I remember three years ago, there were no international distributor /sales agents interested in buying my film, I Am Kalam. That's because at that time they were interested only in world cinema and not Bollywood films. Today, when they see an Indian title they are attracted, because they've noticed a lot of good cinema coming from here. And that's a good sign.

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