Growing up in Lucknow, Arpita Kumar wasn’t familiar with too many genres of cinema but was exposed to the issues of reproduction early in life, she claims because of a gynaecologist mother, feminist father and many visiting pregnant aunts.
Studying at the California Institute of Arts, the subject of Kumar’s film, Sita, came about because of her active work as a reproductive rights activist. After listening to heartwrenching stories from her mother about abortions and surrogates in India, Kumar says she realised the situation isn’t very different in the US. “When I first read about the conditions of some of the commercial surrogates, my mind came up with an image of a fortified space with Indian women wandering around with white babies in their stomachs. The image was plagued with questions about the ethical, emotional and physical repercussions of surrogacy,” she says.
Kumar’s films doesn’t take sides but hopes to throw some light on the complexity of womb renting. Sita seeks to answer questions like ‘Who are the women who “rent” their wombs? How do they navigate the socio-cultural reactions to the physically visible pregnancy? Is there a legal framework to keep the exploitation associated with surrogacy in check?’
“Sita was born out of these questions and, hopefully, will initiate a dialogue about the complexity of this reproductive technology that can be a blessing for a childless couple, but, if not regulated, can become exploitative of women’s bodies,” says the filmmaker.
The plot follows the case of Sita, a domestic help who decides to be a surrogate. “The film is not based on a single story but an amalgamation of the multiple voices I encountered during my research and interactions with women who were commercial surrogates and their middle-men or middle-women,” explains Kumar.
She shot the film in five days in New Delhi last year and will screen it at film festivals in the US and India. “My audience is both Indian and global. There are no villains in this film, just people who have their reasons. Therefore, we empathise not only with Sita here but also with the Canadian woman who has struggled for all these years to have a baby.”
The film’s shooting clashed with the Anna Hazare campaign against corruption last year, but that only helped take unwanted attention away, says Kumar, and adds, “The only time we had an issue was when we had the permit to shoot at a location that a policeman rubbished unless he was bribed. Thankfully, it was our last take of the day and we left the location after a colourful exchange of desi abuses.”