I am interested in telling stories about underdogs – Nidhi
Nidhi Tuli forayed into the world of filmmaking by capturing an important facet of Mumbai’s lifeline – the Ladies Special trains. Her debut documentary titled Ladies Special captures the spirit of women commuters who have found a little haven for themselves in their regular train travels.
We got a chance to catch up with the filmmaker after the screening of her film at the recent Open Frame Film Festival by PSBT. Nidhi shares interesting experiences from the making of this film and why it is so close to her heart.
How did you enter the world of filmmaking? What drew you to it?
Stories. I was very active in the Dram Soc of LSR; writing, directing, plays and spoofs. I also found immense pleasure in the humour that one could incorporate into writing and even direction; I hated anything serious. So in the third year when most of my friends were taking CAT exams, I wanted to come to Bombay and study film direction and see where I would go.
You’ve written the dialogue for films like Josh & Kuch Na Kaho. Was directing your own film always on the list?
Yes, for me direction was always an extension of writing. When I would write plays or spoofs in college, I wouldn’t write everything down because in my mind I always knew how I would make the actor say it….Even now when I am writing for someone else I end up keeping a lot in my head as if the director will obviously understand what I mean. So I tend to underwrite because, maybe, I am always assuming I will direct it myself.
Tell us about Ladies Special and the inspiration behind your first documentary? Did you connect with the concept at a personal level?
Ladies Special is very close to my heart and will always be as it was my very first independent documentary made way back in 2003. I remember when I had come to Bombay (that’s what it was called way back then) to study Film and Video production at Xavier’s, I was once returning from Bandra to Churchgate in the evening. When I got up to alight, I saw all the other women in the compartment standing really close to the side of the compartment, some of them even turned their backs to face inside. One of them even shook her head and looked at me as if to warn me but I really didn’t get what she was trying to say. I stood next to the pole, feeling the wind on my face, ready to get off. However, when the train slowed down at Churchgate I don’t know what hit me, an avalanche of women boarded the train like bullets pushing me, scratching me and shouting at me for standing in their way. They came in so violently that my mouth remained open in shock for the longest time. I wanted to protest but nothing would come out.
When finally the rush settled a little bit I gathered the courage to get off and saw the woman who had tried to warn me look at me sympathetically. I was so angry at what had just happened, almost in tears. That was my first brush with a local train but after that, very slowly, I realized what it means to these women to find a place to sit for the long journeys they endure to go home after a tough day at work. I started to understand how hard life is in Bombay for women, who wake up at some unearthly hour to fill water, cook food, pack tiffins and then take over crowded trains to work. They then come back and cook again and are the last ones to sleep. And then one day I found a very convenient train to travel in where I could get into any compartment. They were all for women and I realized that I had boarded the ‘Ladies Special’. The women were all seated, they all looked happy, they were chatting loudly, singing songs, cutting vegetables. It looked like they had found their mojo with this one train.
I just had to make a film about it.
What was the kind of research that went into putting the documentary together? Was it easy to obtain permissions to shoot in Mumbai Locals?
The research included lots of travel in the Ladies Special and other trains as well. I realized that people sat in the same spots every day if they were regulars. I didn’t tell anyone anything but quietly observed the women.
Getting the permission was the hardest thing about making this documentary. It took me seven months of landing up at the Western Railways office every single day, crying and asking for permission. Finally it was the fact that the film would be telecast on Doordarshan and that PSBT was backing it helped me finally get a go ahead.
And has the entire documentary been shot or have you used stock footage as well? Tell us about the shooting process.
All of it is shot. We had permission for five days, that meant 10 train journeys, five in the morning and five in the evening. The first day of the shoot happened when we heard some ladies inviting each other for a gaud bharai (baby shower) ceremony. We asked them if we could shoot it and they agreed. We were a crew of four women – two camera women, one sound recordist and me.
Were the women more than happy to share their experiences on camera? Any interesting instances from the making that you’d like to share?
The women were happy to talk to us and not shy at all but ultimately they were all going somewhere so they’d just get up and go when their station arrived. The train would stop only for 18, sometimes less seconds at a station so in that much time even we had to change compartments with our equipment and everything.
Were there any challenges faced during the making of this film?
Yes. The first day’s rushes seemed like they are just not usable, they were too shaky. I got very scared if we’ll have a film at all or not. But slowly the camerapersons found their rhythm and then we got some amazing shots. The sound was also a huge issue but Gissy got it right. My camerawomen were M. Shanthi and Shubra Dutta and the sound recordist was Gissy Michael. They all did a great job.
The film has been to several festivals and won various awards. According to you, what is it about the film that strikes a chord with the festival audiences, even internationally?
I think it is the warmth and the genuine spirit women have that is so endearing which connects with the audience. It is the camaraderie they share that is truly special.
How did the association with PSBT happen and how important has it been to have them on board? How was the recent experience at the PSBT Film Festival?
I could say it as simply as this, if PSBT wasn’t there I wouldn’t have been able to make this film. They were truly wonderful, supportive and completely non-interfering. Especially for a first time filmmaker like I was way back then. They gave me an amazing platform and I will always be thankful to them. I went on to make three more films with them. It was a wonderful experience each time.
In today’s times, how relevant and significant is it to make such documentaries that showcase the spirit of women?
It is always relevant and important to make films on the spirit of women because there is so much warmth, so much ingenuity, so much that is not about profit or power or to get something. Their spirit is the spirit to make things work and work well.
Also how important are film festivals as a medium to showcase such docus and films?
Film festivals are great places to showcase films and docus. They have this wonderful vibe where everyone is wondering which film to watch and then discuss the films. I love film festivals.
What are the kinds of stories that draw you? What other projects are you working on?
I love people; I am interested in telling stories about people. Underdogs who seldom talk about themselves.
The last film I made for PSBT was on the legendary choreographer Saroj Khan which has an amazing story. Post that we at Rangrez have done a lot of interesting work for Epic channel including a 13 part series called Adrishya on the Spies of India. Amazing stories, amazing people. Currently we are doing a series on the Greatest Escapes ever made in the history of India by Indians or into India, within that 13 part series we are also doing the story of His Holiness Dalai Lama.