When filmmaker and former journalist Vibha Bakshi started working on the documentary Son Rise — a harrowing reportage on female infanticide in Haryana and its adjoining areas — residents there were hesitant to speak. In spite of its genre, the documentary’s fate turned out to be rather cinematic as things suddenly changed for worse and then for the better. With the announcement of demonetisation three months into their work, Bakshi and her crew found themselves with no money.
Bound by a common misfortune, reluctance melted away. The inhabitants first opened their doors and then their hearts to Bakshi. “This close interaction helped us win the trust of the people, and that is when the real conversations began. It was the people of Haryana who led us to stories and wanted us to succeed,” the director shared with indianexpress.com over the phone.
This bit of information is relevant not just because today, November 8, serves as a marker of time since that moment, but because Son Rise is a searing testament of the trust they bestowed on Bakshi to share their failures, previous misgivings and resolve. It is a compelling account of female oppression and instances of incredible human courage, a timely documentation of what men are capable of doing — ‘capability’ here enclosing their barbaric tendencies as well as their daunting attributes.
Son Rise then–which won National Awards for Best Film (non- feature) and Best Editing (non-feature) in 2019–is a rare documentary on female subjugation which puts men at the centre stage to both question their culpability and evidence their effort to eradicate the situation. It is playing at the Dharamshala International Film Festival and in an email interview with indianexpress.com, Bakshi answered questions on the initial struggles she faced, alluding to ‘sons’ in the title of the documentary about ‘daughters’, and what disturbed her while filming it.
When did you start working on the documentary and what prompted you to do the same?
In 2016, I was screening my previous documentary film Daughters Of Mother across the Police force in India. The film had won the National Film Award for “determinately and explicitly putting the spotlight on rape and gender violence”. We had already screened for over 1,50,000 police officers to gender-sensitise the force.
It was during my screening with the Haryana police that an activist came up to me and told me that there was a farmer in Haryana who had recently married a gang rape survivor and was now fighting for her justice. I was stunned given that this man is from Haryana, known for its strongly embedded patriarchal norms. With no basic information like his name or whereabouts I, along with my team, journeyed into the hinterlands of Haryana to find him. With the help of the police, I finally met the man in question, Jitender Chattar. People in the village were ridiculing him for his decision to marry a gang rape survivor. And with this was born the idea of Son Rise.
We began filming in 2016. It took us over two years to shoot the film, for which we travelled to over 50 villages in Haryana to uncover the reality of gender politics in the state.
In the course of the documentary, you spoke with a wide range of people, and watching it, there were moments when it seemed astounding that some agreed to speak. I am thinking especially about the woman who was raped multiple times. Could you shed light on what the procedure was like?
Kusum was understandingly hesitant in sharing her story for the documentary. After spending months, she one day walked in and said, “The shame is not mine; it belongs to those who have committed this crime.” This changed everything. Kusum has given strength to so many survivors by putting the shame on the perpetrators of these heinous crimes.
Much like the title Son Rise, the documentary showcases men’s involvement in killing girl children and their effort to eradicate the situation. It is the sons who bear the onus. Don’t you think this inadvertently puts men in two binary categories, that of perpetrators and heroes and women as just victims? In the same vein, I was curious to understand if not talking to women, who may have contributed in impeding the situation, was a deliberate decision…
When society talks about rape, we talk about how many women were raped last year, not how many men raped women. We talk about girls being harassed, not the boys who harassed the girls. We talk like it is a bad thing that happens to women. Men are not even a part of this. This passive tone needs to end. Men must be responsible for their actions.
As a team, we had to make a decision. It is easy to sensationalise men’s wrongdoings but would it achieve our purpose in making a film to effect change? Instead, we chose to make a film to sensitise men to the issue. This is not just a women’s issue. These are human rights violations, and men need to be an integral part of this urgent and burning conversation. We are not seeking protection from men. We are seeking allyship in the fight for a safer and more gender equivocal world. Change cannot be forced. As Sunil Jaglan, the village chief with the two daughters said in the film, “I realised I changed. When other men realise, they will change too”.
What has been the journey of the documentary like?
We are so happy that the film, in addition to winning Best Film (non- feature), also won Best Editing (non-feature) at the prestigious National Film Awards. We made a conscious and committed decision on the editing floor that in the 48 minutes of the documentary, we will focus on men and make them a part of this struggle. And we decided to focus on men who are breaking the shackles of patriarchy and challenging male dominance. And what these men did not realise is that they will not only be combatting their own biases, but also those of other men at every step of the way. Our intent has been to recognise, iterate and showcase the positive actions taken by men so that these can be seen as role models to follow. At the same time, the same men continue to struggle to reconcile with their own biases – like the khap leader.
It was also selected by the United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women Madame Phumzile and Nishtha Satyam, Head UN Women India to be showcased across 71 countries, as part of the United Nations global #HeForShe movement – where men and women stand in solidarity to create a bold and united force for a safer and more gender-equal world.
While working on it, was there something that surprised or unsettled you the most?
The entire journey of Son Rise has been filled with trials and triumphs. Perhaps the most unsettling part was when Kusum lost the case – in spite of identifying all the rapists at the local court. We were beyond disgusted at the audacity of the rapists who threw money outside the court to celebrate their victory. Kusum miscarried in court with the shock of the verdict. It was our darkest day at the filming. When I was able to gain control of my own emotional turmoil, I asked Jitender what he was going to do. And he looked at me with the same determination and said: “I will fight until the end… until my last breath”. And I immediately realised we had found the end to our documentary. There are no fairy tale endings to this fight, but Kusum’s resolve and Jitender’s grit and determination to continue the fight for justice gives us hope. I will cling on to this hope, however fragile the grip may be. Because only with hope can a fight be won. And this is a fight we cannot afford to lose.
Son Rise is playing at the Dharamshala International Film Festival
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