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‘When you get benefits based on your caste, you inherit a persecution complex’

How Hindi film director Neeraj Ghaywan, one of the few cinematic voices to weave in inclusivity and intersectionality in his work, brings in slices of marginalised lives from real to reel

Written by Alaka Sahani |
Updated: April 25, 2021 10:30:58 am
Neeraj Ghaywan, Neeraj Ghaywan CINEMA, Neeraj Ghaywan films, Neeraj Ghaywan inclusivity, ajeeb dastaans, geeli pucchi, aditi rao hydari news, konkona sen sharma news, Neeraj Ghaywan news, eye 2021, sunday eye, indianexpress,Director Neeraj Ghaywan. (Photo credit: Ishika Mohan Motwane)

In the latest anthology on Netflix, Ajeeb Daastaans, Neeraj Ghaywan-directed short film Geeli Pucchi (Sloppy Kisses) stands out for its nuanced exploration of an “unconventional” friendship between the Dalit worker Bharati Mondol (Konkona Sen Sharma) and Priya Sharma (Aditi Rao Hydari), who is a newly-married Brahmin woman. Ghaywan, who bagged the National Award for Best Debut of a Director for Masaan (2015), examines the intersectional realities of two women from disparate worlds as they long for an emotional connection and deal with ambition. The work of the writer-director, which has often touched upon social issues such as gender, caste, and discrimination, talks about the journey of this story from being a subplot in Masaan to a complex tale of sexuality and caste.

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Excerpts:

Geeli Pucchi (Sloppy Kisses) was originally a subplot in Masaan (2015). What led to its transformation into a short film?

Both Varun (Grover, writer-lyricist) and I instinctively believed this subplot needed its own narrative, it was too heavy for Masaan. When I started to develop this idea for Dharmatic Entertainment (digital wing of director-producer Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions), I wanted to bring in the idea of intersectionality, especially for women. I believe there are no heroes or villains, there are only characters with their vulnerabilities, jubilations and experiences. We see things in isolation. Why does a marginalised identity have to exist on its own? In real life, we have fused identities. One can be a queer and struggling in their career.

How tough is it to show intersectionality on screen and what factors are to be kept in mind?

You have to accept the fact that you can’t know it all. I could be a feminist and empathise with women but I can’t relate to their experience of menstrual pain, childbirth or discrimination at workplace. The idea is to bring in people from the marginalised sections during the writing process to make the characters wholesome. You have to listen to them, incorporate their experiences into the narrative instead of doing any kind of tokenism. I had no idea about how women coped with menopause until I watched the series Bombay Begums (Netflix). This perspective could have come only from women.

Aditi Rao Hydari in Geeli Pucchi. 

How did you work on building the characters of Priya Sharma (Aditi Rao Hydari) and Bharati Mondol’s (Konkona Sen Sharma)?

Priya’s character was built on the idea of subverting the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ trope. That’s such a stereotype — where the male gaze goes into creating a heroine who is very pretty, full of life, dresses immaculately, and looks glorious! I wanted to subvert it by bringing in the female gaze. Priya is a ‘manic pixie dream girl’ from Bharati’s point of view. Bharati is macho — tough, wears male clothes — but is vulnerable. She can beat up a man who’s mean to her, yet, cries silently alone in the cloakroom when denied her identity, love, or place in the world. However, both Priya and Bharati are fighting patriarchy in their own ways. In fact, the factory in Thane where we shot the film didn’t have any female workers.

How did Sen Sharma and Rao Hydari prepare for their roles, both queer, one a Dalit girl and the other her upper-caste Brahmin co-worker, respectively?

Both are intelligent actors. We, basically, had to neutralise their English. A lot of the time, even as Hindi-speaking characters, the actors end up speaking perfect English. These are more perfunctory exercises. I had given the book Coming Out as Dalit (2019) by Yashica Dutt to Konkona. We watched a lot of movies to understand the nuances of caste. We discussed the tone of her character and her pain. We brought in people from the queer community to discuss body language. Konkona likes to immerse herself in the process while Aditi is more of an instinctive actor. I understood both of them follow different methods and nudged them in that direction.

Neeraj Ghaywan, Neeraj Ghaywan CINEMA, Neeraj Ghaywan films, Neeraj Ghaywan inclusivity, ajeeb dastaans, geeli pucchi, aditi rao hydari news, konkona sen sharma news, Neeraj Ghaywan news, eye 2021, sunday eye, indianexpress, A sill from Geeli Pucchi (2021)

Did the story with all its layers emerge in the first draft itself?

It took a year to write the script. The pandemic gave me time for objectivity. Layering it with the complexities was a challenge and I wanted to take up that challenge. I, however, didn’t have the grammar or rigour of a writer, Sumit (Saxena, co-writer) brought in a lot of texture.

At what point did caste nuances seep into the script?

The story was going to be about haves and have-nots. It should not be about caste first-up. In the film, you do see women grappling with a lot of things. The politics of the film should always be the secondary layer, at its core is the interpersonal narrative. You may write about the manifestation of a Dalit’s character, but Bharati (in an all-male factory) is also a queer and someone who is aspiring for a certain job. You have to handle all these identities and justify them. That was a big challenge. I asked friends and people from the community if we got the representation right. For example, I had written that Bharati would be jealous of Priya’s husband. A queer friend said she doesn’t have that kind of issues. I realised the ‘jealousy’ bit was such a male gaze and took that out.

Konkona Sen Sharma in Geeli Pucchi. 

What have been your early cinematic influences?

While growing up in Hyderabad, where my father worked as an agriculture researcher for the central government, I used to watch the movies of Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, and others on Doordarshan with my family. These movies were my introduction to cinema. Even though a film aficionado, I’d never thought of pursuing it as a career. I studied engineering (at Chaitanya Bharathi Institute of Technology, Hyderabad) and enrolled for MBA in marketing (Symbiosis Institute of Business Management, Pune). During my MBA days, I came across the website Passionforcinema.com. Several independent filmmakers used to write there. I started reviewing some world cinema titles for the website, too. We had film studies as part of our course and Samar Nakhate (former dean of Film and Television Institute of India) took our classes. I was completely blown away when he spoke about and analysed Satyajit Ray’s movies.

What made you shift gears from the corporate world to the film industry?

When I was working in Delhi, Anurag (Kashyap, writer-director) had called some bloggers of the website (the now-defunct Passionforcinema.com) to Mumbai. (Filmmaker-music composer) Vishal Bhardwaj was there, too. I was aware that my parents took a lot of pride in the fact that I drew the highest salary in my family and among my batchmates. So, instead of quitting the corporate world, I applied for a film-marketing job and moved to Mumbai. I watched movies of Michael Haneke and Béla Tarr while I was handling marketing gigs, which I couldn’t connect with. I started questioning myself. This was also the first time I experienced failure at work. One night, I called Anurag, when he was in Madrid. He suggested I move to the creative side of filmmaking. After speaking to him, I put in my resignation letter. That day my father called to find out if I had met the family of the girl they wanted me to marry. After hearing about my resignation, my shocked father didn’t speak to me for six months.

Neeraj Ghaywan, Neeraj Ghaywan CINEMA, Neeraj Ghaywan films, Neeraj Ghaywan inclusivity, ajeeb dastaans, geeli pucchi, aditi rao hydari news, konkona sen sharma news, Neeraj Ghaywan news, eye 2021, sunday eye, indianexpress, A sill from Masaan (2015)

What was the experience of assisting Kashyap on Gangs of Wasseypur 1 and 2 (2012) before making your directorial debut?

After returning from Madrid, Anurag took me for an Udaan (2010) screening. The film blew my mind and I had no regrets about giving up my corporate career. I started assisting Anurag on Gangs of Wasseypur and worked in almost every department of the film, including marketing. During its post-production, I made a short film called Shor (2013). After watching it, Anurag thought I had an original voice and further encouraged me. I made Epiphany (2013), which travelled to festivals. It is during this period that I thought of Masaan. Varun (Grover), who knew Benares (Varanasi) very well, came on board as its writer and the journey of Masaan started.

All this while, were you aware of your caste identity, and drew from it for your stories?

I can’t pinpoint when I became aware of my caste identity (Dalit) though it always loomed large. When you get a certain benefit like ‘reservation’ based on your caste, there is a persecution complex that you inherit. No matter what, you imagine people around you gazing at you. I had always hidden my caste from my friends in school and college. I was constantly worried about how they would treat me if they found out. During the making of Masaan, so many locals in Benares gave me love and helped me a lot. But I used to wonder how these people, who are Brahmins, would react if they came to know my caste. Two years after the making of Masaan, I spoke to some of my friends, including Varun, about it. They gave me the confidence to come out.

You post sporadically on social media. How do you look at this medium?

I used to be very active on social media long ago. I have been trying to make my second feature film. Social media can take a toll on you. It can show all the ugliness of the world and you get consumed by it. That’s why I thought I should be the observer and comment only when I feel like it. It depends on what really bothers you. I have several drafts of tweets saved that I never posted. Then, there are times when something gnaws at the back of my mind and I post my comments.

Your work, including short films and TV commercials, reflect your sociopolitical concerns. Will that continue in the future?

Every individual is political. Even when some people say they are apolitical, they are taking a political stand. They have the privilege of looking the other way, when a section of people is being oppressed or marginalised. We don’t exist in isolation, we are linked to many things as subjects of the state. I’m not talking about electoral politics but how everything is interconnected in society.

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