At the upcoming Delhi Photo Festival (September 27-October 11), photographer Kannagi Khanna will exhibit photographs of her grandfather depicting his yearning to be an actor.
But the photo op that gave her a sleepless night involved a bunch of heart-stopping, beautiful women of a slum in Ahmedabad called Hollywood. “In June 2011, I was on the bike with my father when he casually pointed to an area called Gulbai Tekra and said, ‘Did you know it is called ‘Hollywood’?’ I asked him why, but all he knew was that the slum was nicknamed that way at least 40 years ago because its women residents were well-known for their beauty.”
Khanna says she stayed up till 3 am that night, and finally decided to visit the area to see what she could do there. She did not take her camera along for the first three days and spent the time speaking to the area’s residents, and convincing some to pose for her camera. “The women didn’t know why their slum was called Hollywood.” Khanna told them about the film industry abroad and explained what she planned to do.
“Then, for almost three weeks, I visited ‘Hollywood’ with print outs of Julia Roberts, Audrey Hepburn, Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Aniston, Scarlett Johanson and others. I wanted the women to pose besides these pictures, and emulate the actors.” The result is a quirky collection of 13 photographs, all in black and white.
Khanna insists that she is not trying to compare or contrast the residents of Gulbai Tekra with Hollywood actors. “It is the women who are in focus, not the actors. The Hollywood pictures are just used as a reference. To emphasise the women’s individuality, I have included details from their lives, too -- one photograph has the woman’s parrot, another her goat and her pots and pans.”
Not all the women stuck to the Hollywood actors’ poses. For instance, Karunaben, who poses besides Audrey Hepburn holding a cigar, refused to hold a beedi. “She wasn’t comfortable, so she fished out her datun instead,” smiles Khanna.
Most locals at Gulbai Tekra were supportive of Khanna’s project in spite of learning that the photographer wasn’t sure where and how she would exhibit her photographs. “Savitaben’s husband, in fact, helped me set up the photo-shoot which involved her posing besides Drew Barrymore’s photograph.
The only problem I faced was by the husband of a lady who was ready to pose besides Julia Roberts’ photograph. He wasn’t very happy with the idea and, finally, I had to ask another lady, Ganga, instead.”