Breaking free, for a minute

It is evident, even over the telephone, that 14 year-old Vaishnavi Markand likes to wait and watch while you work out all things implicit in a conversation.
“If, as a resident of a village, you go up to the woman sarpanch with a problem, and she is shifty when it comes to signing an important document, steals glances at her husband, and doesn’t sign on the dotted line, what do you think it means?” she demands. Markand doesn’t wait for an answer.

Vaishnavi Markand (second from left), Sonu Gedam (third from left), and Sapna Jadhav (extreme right) shooting their films at the Film and Television Institute of India Pune. Pic/ Krunal Gosavi

Her tone gets more vehement with every sentence, and she says her short film, Mera Gaon Kiske Haath Mein? will answer some difficult questions on gender discrimination and ask some, too, while at it. Markand, who lives in Kopara in Yavatmal district, and 19 other girls from other villages in Maharashtra spent time editing one minute-long films on gender discrimination at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) campus, Pune. Yesterday, the films were screened at The Xavier Institute of Communications (XIC) in association with FTII and UNICEF, who work on empowerment programmes with the 20 girls back home.

Markand, in her characteristic, intense tone, says that the moment she was selected to make a film and was told about the theme, she knew she wanted to take on the issue of how women sarpanchs in many villages across the country are titular heads. “Having a woman sarpanch is a sham in many villages. Mostly, in such cases, the sarpanch’s husband takes most decisions,” says Markand.

“And it ishappening in my village, right now,” she adds. Markand attends UNICEF’s Deepshikha programme in Kopara, which empowers adolescent girls to become efficient leaders through education, life-skills, HIV and AIDS awareness and workshops on handling finance. During one such workshop, Markand learnt about how their village was actually run by their sarpanch’s corrupt husband. “I went to the sarpanch’s home and told her about how we needed a water tank in the vicinity. She seemed unsure of what to do, and asked me to come some other time.”

Three days later, when Markand and her friend went to the sarpanch’s home, they saw her husband sitting on the sarpanch’s chair while she scrubbed the floor. “A local woman handed him some papers and he forged the sarpanch’s signature,” says Markand. Markand’s film, too, ends right at the same point. She says she didn’t want to show a happy ending with the sarpanch fighting her husband. “There are no happy endings in my village, and I want to shock people into action,” says Markand simply. “It is a fact — we girls are still second class citizens. We can elect women sarpanchs, but it is hogwash, and I want to tell it like it is.”

Sanjay Chandekar, FTII’s 47 year-old community radio in-charge, says he is surprised at how nuanced the girls’ films are. It was Chandekar who brought this project to FTII after he met UNICEF’s Maharashtra coordinator, Swati Mohapatra, a few weeks ago. “I met Swati to gather some research and statistics for my radio shows, and ended up agreeing to conduct radio and media workshops for girls from rural Maharashtra. Gradually, this project took shape and I agreed to help the girls with equipment and mentorship to make gender-based films,” says Chandekar.

This is the first time that FTII has tied up for a social project such as this one, says Chandekar. This meant choosing the simplest shooting and editing software for the girls (who do not have any prior experience in filmmaking), training them for the process from scratch and ensuring that the quality of their films is not compromised. To train the girls, Chandekar invited filmmaker Anju Uppal, who has made gender-based films, Neelkanti Patekar to train the girls in direction and TV and media expert,  Samar Nakhate.

FTII’s students, adds Chandekar, have always seen and aspired for the glamourous side of cinema. “This was the first time students came forward to help these girls with cinematography and editing, and I am glad they got a chance to see that films can be a powerful tool,” says Chandekar. Mohapatra agrees. “FTII is the country’s premier film institute. When the girls see their films, they will know that their cause is out there to be debated upon and discussed, and that they can be role models for other girls.”

Fourteen year-old Sapna Jadhav, who lives in Davargar in Jalna, has made a film, Chhaya, about a girl who is married off as a minor and later divorces her husband. “It happened in a village near mine. I was only six years old then, but I remember the hullaballoo that arose when the girl took the drastic step. People spoke about it for years, and I would pester my mother to tell me more. When I got a chance to hold a camera and tell a woman-centric story, I knew what I had to do.”

Through her film, Jadhav wants to spread the word about what an early marriage can do to an adolescent girl’s mind and body. She speaks of pregnancy, emotional trauma and psychological pressures lucidly, and her understanding is beyond her years. “Show me how many boys in my village understand these basic issues.”

Jadhav says she was always optimistic about her subject, but not so much about her technical skills. “I had never held a camera, forget working with it, zooming in and out with it,” she giggles. Over the past week, Jadhav says she learnt how to direct her actors (the girls play roles in each other’s movies), how to write strong dialogues and “how to get the best angle.”

Sonu Geda, a 20 year-old resident of Dechkheda in Yavatmal district, has made a film on dowry. “I was almost married off last year, but I rejected the boy because he demanded dowry.” Geda admits that her face contorts with rage when someone mentions the subject of dowry. “It’s like selling your daughter.”
“Many women just refused to speak when I approached them with my camera. One has to doggedly pursue a subject as insidious as this, or risk getting nowhere with it,”
she says.  

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