I am my own subject

Updated: Dec 15, 2019, 09:06 IST | Prutha Bhosle | Mumbai

A national-award winning filmmaker did not renounce the camera when she was diagnosed with stage IIA breast cancer. She simply turned the lens on herself

Teena Kaur's father Mahendra Pal Singh features in the film, The Eighth Woman, which will premiere at festivals next year
Teena Kaur's father Mahendra Pal Singh features in the film, The Eighth Woman, which will premiere at festivals next year

In April 2018, Teena Kaur had a lot to celebrate. She had just won the President's Silver Medal at the National Film Awards for her documentary, 1984, When the Sun didn't Rise. 

It is also the time when she was diagnosed with stage IIA breast cancer. Kaur received the news barely a week before the ceremony. "I remember crying endlessly for hours when my surgeon broke the news to me at Tata Memorial Hospital. I was devastated."

In the next few hours, Kaur gathered herself, and spoke to him again; this time, to say that she wanted to make a film on cancer. "He asked if I was sure. I said, yes, I am game."

The Eighth Woman investigates the causes of breast cancer, and tries to address the stigma attached to the condition, while offering suggestions on leading a healthy life.

Up until then, the Ajmer-born filmmaker had focussed on environment conservation and social justice as subjects. "Ours is a regular middle-class family of four—father, mother, brother and I. I followed in my dad's footsteps and studied engineering. But just like him—he is now a painter—I was bitten by the art bug." When young, Kaur watched a movie on the hazards of working at a mining site and realised that her calling lay in "becoming the voice of the voiceless". Documentaries would be her vehicle to reach a wider audience.

Pic/Sameer Markande
Pic/Sameer Markande

Kaur's film on environment and wildlife conservation, The Deer, Tree and Me, was nominated for Best Documentary at the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF) 2016. But it was 1984, When The Sun Didn't Rise, that gave her the push she needed. A Sikh who grew up outside Punjab, Kaur recalls, "My maternal uncle, while on his way to Madhya Pradesh, was pulled out of the train and his hair was cut. He did not see any family member till his hair grew back. My documentary is a comprehensive account of the Sikh women in Delhi who survived the 1984 massacre, their emotions, and their continued fight for justice."

Kaur was still looking for something new to work on when the diagnosis was made.

"While family and friends were supportive, there were those who thought the fault was in my stars. There are so many myths attached to breast cancer in India. Instead of blaming the hazardous environment conditions we grow up in, the lack of green lungs in urban pockets and poor nutrition, we blame karma for poor health. It is ridiculous." Kaur's 60-minute film aims to clear these misconceptions. "I did not want to make a film that bores viewers with testimonials. So, I decided I'd address the many myths I personally encountered in my journey to beat cancer."

Kaur underwent a successful surgery in May 2018, followed by eight sessions of chemotherapy, and 25 days of radiotherapy. She was declared cancer-free in October 2018. On her own journey, Kaur says, "Instead of slipping into doom, I would strive to do a variety of things after every chemo session. From attending a retreat in Ahmedabad to watching a movie, all the while ensuring I maintained a strict but nutritious diet."

While the film was initially titled When The Light Entered My Wounds, a realisation saw her change the name along the way. "During the treatment, I learned that eight out of 10 cases of breast cancer are diagnosed in women above 50. As a tribute to these women, I changed the title to The Eighth Woman."

8/10
Ratio of breast cancer cases in women aged 50 and above

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