Poet-Writer-Filmmaker Annie Zaidi Talks About Tracing The Legacy Of Indian Women Writers Through Her Film!

By Aditi Patwardhan. Posted on March 23, 2016

In this brilliant poem of hers titled 'Happenings', Annie Zaidi compares a man's perspective to a woman's, their togetherness, their contact points & the resultant achievements of strength & power, back-crushing burdens or the losing of identity in the midst of chaos.

Or, a woman will meet a man and will find that her eyes
are flood-prone: low-lying swamps, the sort into which
the rubbish of decades of suburban non-planning has been tossed,
making them look hard when actually, you could just sink
into them. Especially when it rains.

Zaidi  is one versatile artist, having written poetry, fiction, drama & journalistic works as well as having made short films. Her books include Gulab, Love Stories # 1 to 14 and Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and other True Tales. Her book Known Turf, which combines reportage with a personal narrative, was shortlisted for the Crossword Book Awards. She has also co-authored a series of inter-linked coming-of-age narratives called The Bad Boy's Guide to the Good Indian Girl. She has contributed to several newspapers and magazines, including Frontline, Tehelka,  Mint, Femina, Mid-Day, Elle, DNA, Caravan & Forbes.

Her short films are intriguing. Though the titles- Ek Red Color Ki Love Story and Ek Bahut Choti Si Love Story make you expect cute, cheesy love stories, her films defy the confinements of set norms. She presents strong lead characters- both women- in her films. A young poetry-loving woman who lives alone in Mumbai in Ek Red Color Ki... and a simple-looking, mysterious woman, who probably isn't anything like she looks in Ek Choti si...

Perhaps being a poet, writer & filmmaker herself is what drew her attention to the writings of Indian women. Her latest project is an anthology of Indian women's writing spanning across centuries titled 'Unbound'. Along with editing the book of works by a selection of women writers, she has also made a documentary along similar lines. In Her Words is a film that tells the story of Indian women through their writing and texts. The film traces the Indian woman's journeys as reflected in the literature created by them in different eras.

We got the amazing opportunity to talk to Zaidi about her documentary In Her Words. Here's the interview, where she speaks about the parallel projects of the film & the book, how did the concept evolve over the time of making, how she structured the narrative of her film and future plans!

1. Why make a film alongside the book? Do you see the film as a companion to the book, something that should be seen before the book is read?

I was reading all sorts of books for the anthology and the more I read, the more I became aware of the history of Indian women, their lives and concerns. This is missing from the mainstream history we receive as students, of course, and it struck me that the only place where women's voices are directly heard is in their literature. It serves as a record of women's lives, what choices they could make, the battles they fought. The anthology would introduce readers to all this but very few people read at all, and I wanted to reach out to more people through film. Especially those who may have a slight interest or curiosity but would not necessarily have made the connection between the books women write and the gender inequity as well as the risks all Indian women confront, the changes they have wrought.

2. You spent a year (I think) working on the book. What surprised you the most in that period of reading through the vast body of work?

I spent two and a half years on the book and then just over a year on the film. I was surprised by many different things, but often it was things that should not surprise me at all. To give you an example, In school, I had grown up reading of social reformers like Raja Rammohan Roy and Jyotiba Phule. I had not read of Pandita Ramabai or Tarabai Shinde, nor read their writings. There is a big difference in the experience of hearing men speak of women's rights and to hear women speaking up for themselves. I was also surprised to see how very nuanced women's perspectives are on almost every theme. From motherhood to marriage to political struggle - there is no single 'woman's view' in the larger body of women's literature. It is as varied and complex as men's literature.

3. About the film, did you have a structure in mind before shooting or did the narrative evolve during the edit?

I didn't have a very clear structure in mind. I had initially planned for the film to be a mix of conversations among young readers, interviews with writers, readers and publishers - all of it revealing the social and literary journey of Indian women. After shooting, and given that it was intended as a shorter documentary, I thought it best to take a broadly chronological approach to the narrative.

4. You've used music beautifully in the documentary. Can you talk a little about the thought behind that?

Well, this was a literary film, and much of our literature, especially in the ancient and medieval era, and in the folk tradition too, is poetic and musical. It was often sung and that is probably how it survived down the centuries. So I wanted to use the same literature in musical form too. It was a logical extension of what I was trying to do. Megha Sriram sung for me a Nagpuriya folk song, which describes the hard labour that a woman in a village puts in every day of her life. I got a musician to compose a new tune for one of Mira bai's poems. As Kiran Nagarkar points out in the film, it is the sort of poetry that sits somewhere in the back of our heads, but we forget the context in which it was written. Each song used was a lucky find in the sense that I did not always know exactly what to go looking for, but once I began to look, I found people to sing it, or those who were willing to allow me to use a snatch of the song they had already recorded.

5. What are your plans with the film? Film festivals, screenings?

I hope so. The producer is PSBT and I guess they and I will both try to show it around as much as possible.

6. You've made short films & worked on film projects as a writer too and now a documentary. Is the filmmaker replacing the writer? What's the plan there?

I don't think of it as replacement. More like exercising another set of muscles. I did other things aside from writing, like drama and dance, in college. But I stopped performing to focus only on writing, so I lost that set of skills. When I began to write for theatre and film in recent years, I felt the need to pick up more skills associated with filmmaking, so I began to make short films. For me, writing is the most exciting part of filmmaking. But it makes sense to direct films too if you have clear ideas about how you want to implement the story on screen, and especially if you have strong views on any subject.


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