Like many young women, when ad filmmaker Shikha Makan moved to Mumbai to pursue her dreams, the question of housing tripped her up. Rents were astronomically high, and the houses were too small. However, when she finally did manage to find a place that suited her budget, she came up against the hostility, suspicion and harassment that single women living alone are usually subjected to. The experience left her scarred, and when she heard similar horror stories from other women, she knew she had to talk about it. The result is her first feature length documentary, Bachelor Girls. In an interview, Makan tells us how this issue of housing discrimination exposes the hypocrisy of a nation which, while embracing slogans like “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao”, continues to deny women their due.
Tell us about your experience as you moved from Delhi to Mumbai and looked for a flat to rent.
After much searching, my sister and I found a flat which fit into our budget and we moved in. But right from the start, we were very uncomfortable, because of the way the watchman kept looking at us, as if he wanted to see what we were up to. I had a job in advertising, so would get home late from work. Once, when I got home at 2am, a male colleague accompanied me, because I told him I was uncomfortable with the way the watchman looked at me. But as soon as we reached the gate, the watchman stopped us and called the society chairman who started alleging that I was running a brothel. Both my friend and I were in shock.
The chairman even threatened to throw my sister and me out. I called my father, who gave him a piece of his mind and we continued to stay there. But we still felt uncomfortable. And then, the harassment started; someone would ring our doorbell at 3 am or write awful things about us on the walls. We decided to leave.
Was that the trigger for the film?
At that time, I believed it was just our bad luck, but I soon heard similar — and worse — stories from other women. I realised that as a filmmaker, I have the tool with which to tell these stories. The housing discrimination reflected a larger problem, which is the attitude of society towards the idea of single women.
Why did you focus on such an urban issue, particularly focusing on Mumbai?
Firstly, this is the experience that I have. Secondly, this is also a legitimate voice and concern. And most importantly, the issue of housing discrimination against women affects even the girls who are in two-tier and three-tier towns and who want to move to the metros to claim their lives and identities.
Of course, this issue is not specific to Mumbai. After the trailer of my film was released and went viral on Facebook, many women from across the country wrote to me, sharing stories about Chennai, Bangalore and Kolkata. One of them actually said that she had become so fed up that she had given up on the idea of career and decided to move back home.
As it is, when you’re a woman, your parents are always telling you it’s not safe and you are battling for a voice at work and then you encounter housing discrimination too. It’s very demotivating. Society seems to be scared of women who want to live independently and on their own terms. Everyone is educating their daughters, but they don’t believe in allowing them independence. I don’t think they understand what empowerment is. What do slogans like “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” mean? That’s what I want to know.
What are your plans with the documentary film?
I’m travelling with the film a lot, because people from all over the country are inviting me to screen it. I also want to release it on an online platform, so that maximum number of people can watch it. I’m glad that people are talking about the film, since the whole point was to start a debate and get people thinking about this issue.