Emerging Voices – 3rd Day of the 17th Asian Women’s Film Festival 2021
By Arundhati Sethi
The 17th IAWRT Asian Women’s Film Festival concluded on 7th March 2021, keeping its winning streak intact. A particularly exciting segment of the last day was the set of four short films made by young filmmakers, most of which were in fact their film-school graduation films. These films included Prachee Bajania’s Spell of Purple, Tribeny Rai’s Yathawat (As it is), Kshipra Shekhar Dhavle’s Amepã and Lam Yan Yue’s And I, And I. Each film adopted a distinct genre, tone and sensibility. Such a curation seemed to emphasize that the vista of emerging female voices in cinema is bound to be diversely creative and sensitively nuanced.
Bajania’s short fiction Spell of Purple journeys through and around the precarious life of its somber protagonist, Inaas. Living an arduous solitary life in tribal Gujarat, owner, protector and nurturer of her land, we encounter Inaas engaged in a range of different relations with the world around her. Labelled a witch by the village folk, we find the film haunted by a much darker social menace of savagery and violence. Inaas’s quiet independence, her persistent claim over her land, the mobility of her body and her spirit, seem to mark her out as monstrous in the eyes of the village men. What the film manages to do is reveal the real centers of monstrosity. It is Inaas who remains haunted and hounded by these men, bearing a constant fear of the shadows lurking around her. The men, staking impudent claim to her land and her untethered body and mind, begin to resemble threatening ghostly presences in the film.
One also notices the different relationalities that emerge within the characters of the film. One kind of relationality that Inaas finds herself locked in is that with the men in her village. This is an equation of violent barging in, a dismantling of boundaries that are sacred. The film uses the trope of repetitive trespassing as a trope to display the perversity of this relationality. On the other hand, we see connections emerge between Inaas and two other female characters (one a young mother and the other a new wife) that offer a different energy. These are bonds not of intimate friends, yet these connections forge a sense of solidarity and strength. By reaching out to each other across their deserted islands, the film articulates the possibility of seeds breaking open in lush forests, gardens blooming in our yards.
Continuing with the thread of relationalities, Rai’s short fiction Yathawat (As it is) abounds in complicated bonds. These bonds crisscross however in a domestic realm, among a mother and her three daughters. The overarching narrative of the film takes off from the recent death of their father and the emotional and economic struggles that the household finds itself plunged into. Yet, what comes across in the film very clearly is that each character appears to be a world in themselves. Multiple sub plots are woven into the film that keep each figure rounded and complex. Each of them also seem to be charting their own journeys and battling their own inner crises. The space created by Rey in her film is a deliberately chaotic universe, in which the different worlds of the characters are constantly orbiting each other, sometimes they collide violently and at other times they seem to be gliding in oblivion to the other. Yet, despite intermittent disconnections and despair, the film holds them all together in one shared familial space that continues to have a nonchalant yet resilient buoyancy that keeps them all afloat.
A balance of distance and affinity is what I noticed in Dhavle’s short animation film Amepã too. Mumbai based Kshipra Shekhar Dhavle tells the story of the bond that the North-Eastern tribe of the Idu Mishmis have traditionally shared with the vulnerable Hoolock Gibbon species. Enjo, a young curious boy, encounters the mesmerizing presence of the gibbon one fine day. The audience, much like Enjo, feels mystified but unfamiliar with the gibbon’s story. By delving into the folk lore of the community, the film not only recovers the tale of the gibbon in this region but also a world-view that is holistic and wise. The grandmotherly figure turns back her watch and narrates the story of the creation of life on earth. We learn that in the Idu Mishmi imagination, their mother, Nani Erayii, at the very beginning of the world, gave birth to a tiger, a man and the hoolock gibbon. Thus, embedded in this tale is a unique kinship structure shared between the diverse ecological players of this land. The story goes on to indicate the eventual banishment of the gibbon from the community due to his mischief, without rupturing their shared familial bond. The film suggests that this inherited tale and its latent wisdom has helped sustain this unique species in Arunachal Pradesh. But along with this, by incorporating the fragmenting, deforested present of our world into the film, Dhavle also manages to articulate the importance of striving for a healthy balance between distance and affinity, between difference and connection as imagined in the Idu Mishmi consciousness.
The last film in this segment is Lam Yan Yue’s short Cantonese documentary And I, And I. From the folk primal mother Nani Erayii in Amepã, we now encounter a very human mother, yet no less formidable. The film steps into the shared intimate world of Judy, a single mother in her sixties, taking care of 45 year old Peter, her intellectually disabled son. Peter due to his medical condition is entirely dependent on his caregiver. And we see Judy embody, as Festival Director Deepti Khurana mentioned in the following panel discussion with these young directors, the archetype of the courageous mother figure. Judy seems to be the epitome of motherliness, with bottomless reserves of care and patience. And yet, it seems to me she is also the quintessential child. Through the eyes of Lam Yan Yue we too see Judy’s youthfulness. She sings and dances and laughs as freely and spontaneously as a child. This short portrait of mother and child makes one wonder that perhaps to mother is also to be most child-like. Deepti Khurana rightly observed in the discussion, that the film in spite of handling a subject that can be immensely distressing, never veers into pitifulness. The constricted lives they lead, the claustrophobic space they live in is interspersed with shots of the blue sky, silent, serene and spacious. The story of struggle is supplemented with energizing doses of laughter and song.
While each film was unique in subject and form, I felt they all explored and upheld certain ideas of affinity, care, nurture and co-existence. In fact, I can safely say that these values were not only witnessed within the films but also in the space carved out by this film festival at large. Deepti Khurana in the panel discussion at one point mentioned how the spark of agency keeps circulating between film makers, their subjects and the audience. One can say, that the 17th IAWRT Asian Women’s Film Festival with its community of brilliant women succeeded in keeping this crucial spark alive.