Starting as a journalist who wrote intensely about women’s issues, Geetha J soon shifted her focus towards gender dynamics in visual media, mainly cinema. Her journalistic instincts coupled with her love for film making enabled Geetha to explore more about visual medium and its artistic scope. Geetha’s debut feature film ‘Run Kalyani’ is all set to premiere at Kolkata International Film festival on November 11. In this interview, Geetha talks about her journey as a filmmaker and about her debut feature film.
How was your entry into film making? What was your approach to film making initially?
I started my media career as a journalist. I was writing more on social and women’s issues but my inclination turned to the cultural – dance, music, cinema. My understanding of cinema and positioning of women led me to a more academic (took my doctorate), and then a critical (began publishing as a critic) route. Then from print, I moved to visual media and worked with Asianet, my first documentary being The A(Miss) World on the 1996 staging of the Miss World Competition. I was reading, writing, talking film.
It was only in 2001 when I left Kerala and got the much-needed distance. Then in 2003, I got myself a video camera that a secret desire blossomed. I returned and made my first film Woman with a Video Camera (2005). With my friend Fathima E V, I went up and down the length of Kerala and shot women engaged in work. The film was a juxtaposition of real women in front of a woman with a video camera and an imagined woman in front of a (obviously man with a) Film Camera. It was a kind of juxtaposition of the Vertovian observational and Maya Derensque Psychodrama. And if you look at the film now you will see how it foretells the problem that exploded in Kerala two years back and the answer to that.
I made a few more short films some quite experimental but stopped as it did not reach an audience. My friends tell me that I have always been ahead of my time, maybe, but in the last few years there is an awareness and encouragement of women’s films. When I was making films, no one bothered. I remember Woman with a Video Camera was hardly discussed. Feminist filmmakers from around the world have expressed similar experiences. Erasing your work is the biggest weapon that the patriarchal establishment has.
You have been the co-director and producer of documentaries before doing Run Kalyani. What prompted you to shift your focus from documentaries to feature film?
I moved to documentaries because I found that with very little money but with a lot of passion, talent and commitment, it was possible to make meaningful interventions. I collaborated with Ian McDonald who was moving from making films for his research into doing research for his films. I produced many documentaries on subjects as varied as martial art from Kerala to a gay football team in Brighton, from artists in post-Apartheid South Africa to young chess players in India. The last, ALGORITHMS was a life-changing experience for Ian and me. We were with the blind chess community for three or four years and continue to be with the film even now. It went to around 50 festivals, received more than 10 awards, is Grierson-nominated and Oscar long-listed. It has released theatrically in the US, UK and India and telecast on DD National. But all this while I was also writing scripts hoping that one day I would be able to make feature fiction films.
How did the idea for ‘Run Kalyani’ originate?
From a sense of feeling trapped. Of looking around and seeing how all our lives fall into a pattern and observing how people managed to cope and even change their lives. You see, I felt I was on the cusp of making my first film (on three sisters in 70s to 90s Kerala) when I got the Goteborg International Film Festival’s development fund in 2008 and completed my script. It was not to be. There was no space for a woman filmmaker who wanted to make a film with three women leads. Then I focused on documentaries alongside working on scripts and attending various festivals and markets and what not around the world. I think in 2018 I hit a wall, I was working too hard on too many things in too many places all along keeping this elusive thing alive in me and I decided to put an end to it. Ian then persuaded me to put aside my passion project on the three sisters and do something that could be done well even as a low budget independent film. My friends Ajithkumar B and Madhu Neelakandan supported me. And we made it happen.
— RunKalyani (@RunKalyani) October 27, 2019
Can you share the brief of the main theme of Run Kalyani?
Run Kalyani is a poetic and realist drama about duties, dreams and desires. Kalyani is a young cook who lives with her ailing aunt and a young man in a rundown agraharam in Trivandrum. Each day is the same as she carries on with her life of duty as a cook and caretaker. But each day is not the same too. As the romance of poetry ignites a passion, as the stories of other worlds stirs a desire, as sharks close in and death draws near, Run Kalyani builds into an intense crescendo of grief and grit, sorrow and strength.
Run Kalyani is a pattern film about ordinary people in familiar if oppressive circumstances who manage to survive the everyday and keep hope alive. But through small acts of love and compassion for each other, they help each other to escape. In Run Kalyani, we see hardship, we see struggle, we see abuse, we see mortality, but we also see labour, we see love, we see art, we see dreams.
From the synopsis, it’s understood that Run Kalyani is based in Thiruvananthapuram. Is it because of your Kerala roots?
The decision to set Run Kalyani in Thiruvananthapuram was one of understanding but also support and convenience. I know Thiruvananthapuram inside out. But I also can reach out to people from very different walks of life to help me and they have And finally it did help us cut our costs tremendously.
The lead character in the movie is a female. Do you think this movie will be igniting modern feminist discourses?
Yes, the lead character is a woman and all the women characters are crucial in this film. This comes out of a long and deep engagement with the question of gender and cinema. I was writing about representation of women in cinema back in the 90s as a doctoral student and I am probably the first person to bring feminist film theory into Kerala. I took these concerns into my first film Woman with a Video Camera – a direct and explicit evocation of praxis – of theory and practice. But I felt I was a voice in the wilderness or a voice in the dark even among my sisters. This was long before MeToo and Women in Cinema Collective. But they are welcome developments and Run Kalyani might be a welcome experience for many. For me, Run Kalyani is also bringing back the question of class. It is for the critics and reviewers and viewers to unpick the many issues embedded in the pattern of the film.
Why did you choose a new comer to play the lead role? How did you find the actor Garggi Ananthan?
Kalyani was always going to be a new face. Just a few days before the shoot, Sunita (Production Controller) sent me a clip of a final year student from Thrissur School of Drama and I knew I had found my Kalyani. I asked her to come to see me, she came with her friends, we had a chat and that was that.
Garggi owns the character. It is a very difficult role to do but she does it with an ease that belies the depth of understanding. There are other newcomers too – Meera Nair, Manoj Menon, Anoop Mohandas – who have all done a brilliant interpretation. You see, most non-mainstream films have a few characters but mine is in a sense an ensemble drama and I am fortunate to have in it experienced actors like Ramesh Varma, Tara Kalyan, Nandu, Sathi Premji. And the living legend Madhu sir is also part of our film, as of now it is his latest film. And there are some excellent performances from actors who are doing ‘small’ but impactful roles.
What are your expectations about the movie? Has the movie been selected to any film festivals already?
Expectations…well, I would have liked it to screen in Malayalam Cinema Today at IFFK 2019. You see times have changed right, and I thought everyone is talking about feminism, women filmmakers and even male gaze and alternative narrative structures… maybe now they will be ready for me – but no. I have had no correspondence from IFFK but their list is out and Run Kalyani is not in it. In fact, there are 14 films in this section and 6 first time filmmakers but no woman. I have read the festival organisers say that what they include and exclude makes a statement – so am trying to understand what statement that is. But Kolkata International Film Festival has selected it in Indian Competition and the film will have its World Premiere in November.
AR Rahman has released the trailer of Run Kalyani. Are you planning for a wide theater release?
Yes, what an honour! Thanks to Rahman sir the trailer has been seen widely and there is a great appreciation for it and a curiosity about the film. Is any bold distributor reading this?! Can he/she come forward to release Run Kalyani theatrically? You see, the sensibility of the film is very different from even the present-day alternative cinema, so it needs an appropriate introduction to the audience and that is what IFFK could have done. But I know there is an audience out there for my films. But we need confident distributors.
You were the producer of Algorithms, while Ian McDonald was the director then. Now in Run Kalyani the roles are reversed. Can you explain how you and Ian have complemented each other in both projects and can you tell more about your association with Ian?
Yes, I produced his feature documentary and I made Ian promise that he would produce when I direct my feature fiction . Technically, he is the creative producer. We collaborate creatively in each other’s projects. Just that he is a documentary filmmaker and my imagination is more fictional. But both of us are keen to explore the expressive boundaries of cinematic documentary practice – our first work for the gallery space was Freedom (2017), a four-screen film installation on the radical legacy of Martin Luther King exhibited in Newcastle, Brighton and London. The latest is split-screen Who is Europe? (2019). But my filmmaking would not be possible without him and vice-versa. We are both interested in similar things – we are both into innovative ideas and critical thinking in art and filmmaking, both into observing and absorbing from real life, both into film pedagogy and practice. Documentary and Fiction are just two sides of Film Practice.