The script is in the mail
Mumbai's Postmaster General is also an amateur filmmaker. Her latest is a documentary on a 93-year-old who just retired as Mumbai's oldest tourist guide after fighting alongside Bose's Indian National Army's women's wing in her teens
A visual reference always came before an idea or script, for Swati Pandey. Seated in her office at Fort's magnificent Indo-Saracenic style General Post Office (GPO) building, the Postmaster General, Mumbai Region, recalls two specific instances that led her to take a shot at storytelling. Pandey's father was a refugee who fled East Pakistan in 1949, while her mother hailed from Orissa.
"He brought with him nothing except a lot of stories. My mother, on the other hand, hadn't experienced such strife. There was a clash of cultures in the world I grew up in," she says. And so, most of her stories stem from imagination, when she creates pictures of how her grandparents must've survived the freedom struggle.
Rama Khandwala receiving the Best Tourist Guide Award from President Ramnath Kovind
A similar feeling of helplessness arose from a first-hand experience. Pandey was posted in the naxal-affected belt of Gadchiroli in Maharashtra between 2000 and 2004. She found herself sandwiched between the police and naxals. She had to cater to families on both sides since mail and communication couldn't be stopped. She says that experience shaped her into the filmmaker she is today. Her most recent work, Elephants Do Remember, is a profile of India's oldest tourist guide, 93-year-old Rama Khandwala.
Pandey's introduction to filmmaking began in 2011. She joined the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) as Director of Administration. Three years into that posting, the Public Outreach Management Project was launched and the DAE was tasked with producing infomercials on how atomic energy went beyond destruction. Pandey offered to work on it. "I ended up scripting and putting together a storyboard—I didn't know it was called that back then." There, she also learnt the technicalities of camera angles, using a jib and trolley. After five years of that deputation, she joined Films Division's (FD) administration, where she was executive producer on three short films.
Rama Khandwala was recruited in The Rani of Jhansi Regiment, the women's wing of the Indian National Army
Last year, Pandey was in search of a chief guest for an Independence Day function; she wished to invite someone who had been a freedom fighter, not just a public figure. Someone slipped in nonagenarian Rama Khandwala's name. They told her she had just retired from being a guide. "I wanted to know who she was. Because, at 48, I'm tired and she was 93!" Pandey laughs.
Born in Burma, Khandwala joined the Indian National Army (INA) as a teenager. Her mother, a recruiter, got both her daughters enrolled into The Rani of Jhansi Regiment, the women's regiment of the INA. It was an army formed by Rash Behari Bose in 1942 in Southeast Asia. Their goal was to secure independence from British rule by forging an alliance with the Empire of Japan in World War II.
Khandwala, says Pandey, spoke of Bose as a romantic man who missed his wife, Emilie Schenkl, and narrated how he cared for the sisters. "She said, 'We used to cry because there was gun practice in the morning. We had to run 15 km in the evening, followed by gun practice again. We'd get tired. But he reminded us that freedom was still far away. We never felt unequal to men'," Pandey recalls.
Khandwala's story resonated with Pandey given her father's experiences, and she suggested the idea of a 40-minute documentary on her life. "She wanted to do it for free, but I refused. She doesn't get pension that freedom fighters are entitled to and lives off the money she made as a guide," Pandey tells us. Although filming began in October 2018, Pandey had to leave FD in December to join the GPO. But she continued filming till March this year and procured a censor certificate. Since then, the film has travelled to festivals in Kerala, Rome, Bhutan and most recently IFFI in Goa. Pandey is also in consultation with EPIC channel for the television rights to the film.
Swati Pandey with Rama Khandwala, the protagonist of Elephants Do Remember
"My movie doesn't have commentary. Who am I to direct her [Khandwala]? She directed herself. The last shot sees her bargaining on Fashion Street for a T-shirt, saying, 'Mere marne tak rahega, na?'" Khandwala's memories, according to Pandey, are limited to her days at the INA. "She doesn't talk much about her married life. I realised why. Her encounters with Bose were so powerful that it's this that defines her memory." Hence, Pandey's decision to name the film, Forgotten Leaves. But when she saw the rough cut, she realised that Khandwala was far from obsolete.
"She was powerful. In Bombay, when she was looking to earn a second income, she became a Japanese speaking tourist guide because she had learnt the language while fighting alongside the Japanese for two years," Pandey says. A student of French, Pandey's second choice of title was Elephants Do Remember, a title rooted in the French idiom, 'la memoire d'éléphant' that translates into 'memory of an elephant'. She says, "The elephant is one of the longest living animals and is said to have a memory that defies everyone's." What's next for the Postmaster General? "I've been thinking about a film on the city's Irani cafes. "I've already given it a working title—Brun Maska No More."
The documentary was screened at IFFI last week
Directing Big B
Swati Pandey's first shoot at FD was about an afforestation drive involving Maharashtra's forest minister Sudhir Mungantiwar, who insisted that she direct it. They got on board Amitabh Bachchan as ambassador. "After the shot, he asked me if I was unhappy. I said, 'Sir, there's no dynamism to your shot. This movie is being made so that you can push people to plant trees. You have mouthed a dialogue'. He happily gave a retake."
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