Payal Sethi Explains Why We Should Drop The Word 'Women' When We Talk About Women Filmmakers!

By Aditi Patwardhan. Posted on April 04, 2016

Oppressive practices have a habit of finding their way into society, hidden beneath the veil of tradition and customs. Fighting off such evils is a necessary pursuit that can be achieved in several ways. In the fight against social evils, some move the courts, some go on strikes & demonstrations, and some make their point through their art, may it be poetry, writing or cinema.

Payal Sethi is one such filmmaker, who has tried to question the oppressive tradition of contract marriages in Hyderabad through her film Leeches; a tradition in which young girls are married off to rich patrons on a contract basis, poor families are paid off for their young daughters, who are then divorced when the 'husbands' are ready to leave the city.This is a custom that is highly criticized as a flesh trade in disguise, and the girls have earned the unfortunate nickname of'one day brides'. Leeches is a fiction filmwhich tells the story of this oppressive tradition, but also talks of courage and survivalwhen Raisa, a feisty girl of eighteen, played by Sayani Gupta, comes forward to protect her innocent little sister from becoming a one day bride.

Leeches - a short film by Payal Sethi (1080P) from Payal Sethi on Vimeo.

Sethi began her career under the guidance of celebrated filmmaker Mira Nair. After assisting Nair on films like The Namesake and Monsoon Wedding, and then working as an assistant director on Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, Sethi made her first short film Grant St. Shaving Co.which won several international awards on the festival circuit.

Her second short film Leeches will be screened at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFFLA), which is to commence on6th April. After the interview of Anu Menon, here we present the second interview in the series of interviews of women filmmakers participating at IFFLA. In this interview, Payal Sethi speaks about her inspirations, her favorite things about being a filmmaker, and why any woman filmmaker should be referred to simply as a 'filmmaker'!

How and when did you know that you wanted to become a filmmaker?

I wanted to write from a very young age because of my grandmother. She was a self-taught renaissance woman, who was wildly imaginative and nurtured my imagination in a million different ways as well. She would have me help her when she was translating James Hadley Chase thrillers from English into Tamil, and create mad collages to which we would add our own hair! Years later, when she passed away, I wrote a eulogy for her that was published in one of the Bangalore newspapers. This was perhaps my first formal piece of writing, but it was not until I went to Vassar College in the US that I discovered writing for film. A campus job at Vassar - projecting beautiful 16 mm prints of films through the ages - planted the seed of studying cinema. My first film love was Francois Truffaut, and it was his Jules et Jim that drew me into this world. I loved his films and those of the French New Wave so much that I started studying the French language, so I could watch those films without the barrier of subtitles and understand the subtleties better.

We’d like to know about your film. How did the idea germinate and evolve?

When I was living in Hyderabad in 2011, I read a short news article on temporary marriages – an old custom that has found new roots among poor families in Muslim ghettos, where rich patrons pay for an arrangement brokered by efficient agents, while a pliant cleric draws up both marriage and divorce contracts simultaneously, so that the businessman is free to end the sham union whenever he is ready to leave the city. I was thinking of writing a feature at the time, where one of the characters in the film would be a young Muslim girl who is about to be married off like this. I had already spent a year working on another feature script when a friend (my co-writer on Leeches) encouraged me to make another short. I had narrated the feature story to him and the subplot with the girl stayed with him. He added some 'leeches' to the mix and suddenly we had a unique story for a short film.

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Payal Sethi on the sets of Leeches

How would you describe your voice as a filmmaker?

I have spent part of my life in India and the other part in New York, so when I returned to make films in India, I came with a sensibility that is a mixture of both worlds. Artistic integrity is very important to me, so I prefer to have complete creative freedom on my projects. I am drawn to “true stories” - I don’t mean biopics or historical dramas – rather, I spend time getting to know as much detail as I can about a certain subject before letting my imagination run wild with it. I have done this on “Leeches”, and then in “Panther” a script based on events surrounding wildlife-crime in India. I enjoy blurring the lines with facts to arrive at fiction.

What do you like least about being a filmmaker? And what do you like best?

As an independent filmmaker, you have to do your own fundraising/financing, and marketing. I enjoy this the least, but it isn’t awful either. What I like best is the actual process of filmmaking – the moment when you look at your script and say, now let’s get these words and images off the paper onto a screen. I have taken my time making each of my films, because I end up doing a lot of the pre-production myself. I believe in the script, but I don’t let the script over-rule an actor’s instinct within a scene. So yes, I enjoy a degree of improvisation on set. I had to rely on improvisation a lot when shooting “Leeches”, because almost all the actors were untrained, except for Sayani & Razzak. I first had to find their comfort level and then work on getting what I needed for the film. I spent a lot of time with the actors before we would get to set, talking about their characters and finding ways to relate their real lives to their own experiences. I am also hands on in every other aspect, be it production design, editing, sound, camera, locations - I love collaborating with talented crew and seeing what they bring to the project and the process.

First of all, how necessary according to you is the discourse about women making films in India? Do we need to take a moment and look at the films made by women filmmakers?

Women filmmakers are just “filmmakers.” Let’s drop the first word because we should be hired for jobs and given opportunities to tell our stories because we are good at what we do. No excuses. Maybe when the people in charge start to realize this too, not just in India, but everywhere in the world, there will be greater diversity in the field. It is crucial to have organizations that support women in film, but filmmakers cannot rely solely on a few organizations to build a career and to be able to create one’s cinema - we have to evolve to have a greater representation of women in film in every single role – writing, directing, producing, cinematography, sound, music etc…

By all means, we need to celebrate good filmmaking by women in India so these films can get out from behind giant blind spots and strengthen the case for making more such films.

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Payal Sethi on the sets of Leeches

What kind of challenges do today’s women filmmakers face? Do you feel that the nature of challenges has changed over the years?

We have a lot of advantages today that didn’t exist 10, 15, 20 years ago. I started working with filmmaker Mira Nair when she made “Monsoon Wedding”. It was an exhilarating time to be beside her and watch her ride that wave to new heights.

Women filmmakers are constantly pushing boundaries and challenging old systems, but the on-going challenge of being recognized for such achievements still exists. There is a continuing gross under-representation of women in the field when you look at film festival selections, awards etc…even though women are leaping across frontiers in every which way. Most of all, WE need to push our way from the back of the room to the front because we sure as hell deserve to be there.

What’d be your advice to the young girl out there who wants to become a filmmaker?

Nurture your Curiosity - about your outer and inner worlds. Practice looking deeper at everything, including yourself. Look away from ambition, goals, all that stuff, towards the thing within yourself that ties you to every other being, and to this incredible planet we inhabit.


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