FROM the moment it came alive on the screen at the Government Museum and Art Gallery, Sector 10, Saba Dewan’s documentary on women performers, Naach, repeatedly plays one song in the background, connecting the film, frame by frame.
Pinjre wali Muniya, a classic track from the classic Hindi film, Teesri Kasam, features almost throughout this riveting documentary of 84 minutes, a feature on the dance or ‘nautch’ girls, who are stigmatized for taking up dance as a form of livelihood.
For Dewan, the song, Muniya, is a tribute to Teesri Kasam, to its fiercely independent character Hira Bai (played by Waheeda Rahman), who dares to lives life on her own terms.
“In Naach too, I encountered women who were bread earners of their families, who didn’t need men to support them, who led very strong, independent lives,” says the Delhi based documentary maker, who screened Naach as part of the 34th Weekend with Filmmaker courtesy Chandigarh Creative Cinema Circle at the Museum on Saturday evening.
Her second film from her trilogy on women performers, Naach (2008) explores the contemporary constructs of gender, sexuality, labour and popular culture in dance performances of women.
Be it the charming yet troubled Lata (a Lavani dancer) who led a rich, textured life, the perceptive Renu or Lata’s equally strong daughter, Sunita, Naach traverses a women centric world, where men are on the periphery and it’s only the relationship between and among these women that drives their story.
As Dewan throws light on the other two in the trilogy, The Other Song and Delhi-Mumbai-Delhi, Dewan confesses that she had never planned on the three. “It all started taking shape when I began my research on tawaifs (courtesans), and I was shocked to find how highly educated they were, poets and writers in their own right, well trained as musicians and dancers and how they could hold philosophical discussions at length,” shares Dewan.
Her journey began in 2002, in Ujjain, in Benaras, at the Sonpur Mela interacting with these ‘women who were wild, who didn’t fit in’, and in the process trying to understand what led to their devaluation in the eyes of society. Women, or characters, open up to her, especially in Naach, because she goes without any agenda of ‘exposing them’. “I am not a television journalist, or in it for some sleaze or voyeurism. Nor do I shoot bits that make the women uncomfortable,” she adds.
After battling her own issues with funding, inspiration and focus, Dewan managed to complete the trilogy in 2010, and is now writing a book on tawaifs.
From marching against gender discrimination in her college (St Stephen’s Delhi), to getting accepted in Jamia Milia and turning her attention to
documentaries, Dewan’s work revolves around sexuality, gender, identity, communalism and culture. In spite of the usual problems of money and distribution, she still loves the medium of documentary, ‘its construction of truth and where she tells the stories as it is and not make them to fit into her politics’.
A feminist, Dewan credits her upbringing for her sensibilities, for understanding hierarchies in society and how ‘patriarchy is the root from which arises caste, class and state’.
“Feminism as bequeathed to me by the women in my family who lived they way they wanted, and never let stereotypes bog us down. For me, feminism is about equality of men and women.”