Nobody wanted to produce Belly of the Tantra – Babita Modgil
[dropcap]S[/dropcap]he is known as a cult filmmaker, acclaimed for hard-hitting subjects, films that deal with topics that are known, but not delved into. Independent producer and filmmaker, Babita Modgil, speaks to Pandolin about her love for the art of filmmaking and her calling for the unconventional.
Producer, Director, Writer, Cinematographer. Tell us about Babita Modgil.
I was always keen to understand art and have been awestruck with people who created lifetime art – Michelangelo, filmmakers like Fellini, Godard and Stanley Kubrick. I would think how a Satyajit Ray would go into someone’s mind, understand their psychology and then recreate it in a way that would make us understand and believe what that person was feeling in that particular point in time. It was this curiosity to understand human condition, human psychology and how you know someone internally and then portray it, that led me towards filmmaking. It is a very tricky thing because technically you can do everything but when it comes to portraying a particular emotion, I think that is the most difficult part of being a filmmaker or a writer or producer. I don’t produce films that are not off-kilter. I have done very unique projects and always believed in something which is unknown, never been explored before. I don’t make films to make money. For me it’s more about being truthful to the art.
Did you always want to do a different kind of cinema – different from commercial? How do you come up with such out-of-the-box ideas?
It’s not about being a commercial idea or not. When you make a film you don’t think about money because a film is the most beautiful art form where you are dealing with humans and their emotions. Commercially, I think, all films make money. We all earn money out of it but when we get greedy, we want more money, then we start making a product. We are not business people. When I’m making a film, money is not the only factor involved in it, it’s just a small part of making a project. So far, we have been very successful commercially and not lost money in any of the projects. And we are very happy with the kind of audience we have. It was a challenge for us, especially in India. Outside India, people want to explore new territories. Earlier it was very difficult in our country but now there are a set of people who are trying new things in art which is important. If we just go with the same formula, then there would never be a new invention.
I read a lot and travel a lot too. And I meet a lot of people from different sects of life. I keep questioning myself, which is the most important thing for me. When I’m doing something I question myself – what am I doing, why am I doing it, will I be able to give my 100 per cent to it, how will it make me a better human being? I focus more on that. Also the uniqueness of the project is very important, I need to get a feeling that not just me but also my entire team will grow with it.
What inspired the making of Belly of the Tantra? What was the making of the film like?
When we started Belly of the Tantra, it was one territory that everyone was aware of but nobody had on camera. Nobody in India wanted to produce this film. It was a setback for us because art has to be new; it has to take you to a place that you don’t know, that is how you grow. When we started the film, we didn’t know anything about Tantra rituals. We thought this film would take us on a journey that would help us understand these people, rather than judging them like somebody who is doing something wrong. That was the main reason for me to take that undertaking. I knew it would be very difficult and I am lucky to have a very passionate team, people who believe in art the way I do. For them art is not making a film, it is growing with the medium and understanding the people involved in the film. That is what we did with Belly…
I was always intrigued by the personality of sadhus and the aura they exude. I used to visit places where sadhus lived, even as a child. As I grew up, I realised that these people live in jungles; they are not here for money, but for religion. When Pankaj Purohit, who is the Director and an instrumental part of this film, and I decided to make this film, we were not sure about the outcome of this project. But we wanted to do it because we had our own questions and we wanted to take this journey. Religion is something that the whole world lives with, and we are the oldest religious nation. There has to be something deeper than what we see and hear. So the quest to understand that led us to do this film. It has turned out very well. It was initially banned in India but we fought with the authorities and will finally be showing it UNCUT for the first time in India on 26th June at Tata NCPA in collaboration with the Indian Documentary Producers Association. It’s a victory for us and also gives courage to other artists.
The film took a lot of travelling because you cannot plan these shoots. When we started this journey, we did not want to know the places, we did this project because it was unknown to us. We discovered the places during the course of the film and that is why it took two years to make it. It took me to a territory, which was unknown to me. This film has made me a better human being, and made me understand that we shouldn’t take anything for granted. The sadhus and aghoris have been kind to us but most of the times they didn’t know that we had a camera. If they had known this, they wouldn’t have given away certain things, which are too controversial, on tape.
You have also made a film on child prostitution, Sudden Cry. How did that happen and how did you’ll go about shooting it?
Sudden Cry is about sex slavery and child prostitution in India, which is very unfortunate because little girls are abducted, sold and given oxytocin injections to grow faster so that they can mature faster and then be sold in the market. These girls belong to poor families, they don’t go to schools but they have passports. So there is definitely something wrong going on. And as a woman, I wanted to dig deeper and understand, how and why are people doing this to these little girls and I wanted to explore the reality behind this business. My question here is – business and greed to what extent? How can human beings treat other human beings like objects? It made me realise how lucky and privileged we are that such a thing didn’t happen to us. That’s how we thought of starting this project.
We are done with 80 percent of the shoot and would be going to Dubai to shoot soon. You need to have some basic plan about how you would go about it. They are not selling girls for anything but money, it is a business. It was more difficult than Belly of the Tantra because we deal with criminals in this project. I remember when we were shooting in Madhya Pradesh, we went to this hospital and asked them how many girls under the age of 18 are HIV positive and now have AIDS. They made us run around and finally on the 3rd or 4th day, we asked the head of the AIDS department the same question. Then he turns around and tells me that there are no cases from here. There is no prostitution here. But just this one simple question and there were 200 people who wanted to beat us up. We had to run away from there. There was a lot of risk but that is what made it more important to me. These girls have the right to live like we live; they are humans like us and not objects that can be sold. I have it on tape that a 13-year-old girl is having sex with a 45-year-old truck driver.
I met a girl in Madhya Pradesh and three months later, I met the same girl in Kolkata. She said that they don’t keep these girls at one place for more than two weeks. So basically somebody is running this racket sitting somewhere and he /she has managers everywhere. It is a full-fledged organised crime and a very sad situation. Because on the one hand we are talking about women empowerment, freedom, globalisation and on the other hand you have these innocent little girls who are being sold for flesh trade. These girls need to be educated; they need to be taken care of. We need to work towards making a better world for them and we need to start taking action as a community.
You have had to face several risks for your films. Is it worth it at the end?
I think for me, in life, it is more important to know the purpose of my existence. Living life with a purpose, with compassion and understanding other people’s pain and if I can do something, if not a lot, to contribute to somebody else’s life, that is what makes it a life worth living. For me, art is my life and I do it because I must. Through my art, if I can contribute something to humanity, to my race, if I could generate even one question in someone’s mind, that is beautiful and makes it all worth it.
How was the experience of writing and directing your short film Eleonora?
Eleonora came out of my personal life. Eleonora means ‘shining light’. I dedicated it to my mother. It’s a love story that talks about forgiving and moving on. It is about a girl who is sick and when she dies, she takes a promise from her partner, that even after she is gone, he shouldn’t love anybody else. I think that when you are incapable of living with someone, loving someone, then why would you possess them? They should be given the right to love someone else. The protagonist in Eleonora falls in love with someone else, but because he is committed to his dead wife, Eleonora, his first partner, he is unable to love the second woman completely. The spirit of the dead girl realises that he is unable to love the second woman because of her promise. She realizes that life is not about possessing; it is more about giving, forgiving and understanding. So she comes back from the dead, tells the protagonist that she has forgiven him and that he should be with the other woman and love her completely. It’s a short film, only eight minutes and it was very tricky for me to convey the message in such a short span because I wanted to do it metaphorically.
Your films have been recognised and celebrated at various international festivals. How open are Indian audiences to such concepts?
Audiences have been very open but at the authority level, there are still restrictions. With Belly of the Tantra, the main issue that I faced with the Censor Board was nudity shots. There are tantra rituals in the film where they worship naked women and they worship the vagina. It’s a naked practice. But the Censor didn’t want to show it. The Censor board official told me, ‘Hota toh sab hai, par dikhana kyu hai’ (Everything happens, but why do you need to show it?), which was absolutely non-sensical. I told him that if there are rapes happening in the country, we need to know about it, only then could we do something about it. We cannot shun away from reality. You have to recognise the problem, only then can you cure it. As an artist we should come closer to the truth, that is art for me.
How are these films funded? Is it easy to get financiers on board?
For us it has been good. We have investors from around the globe and collaborators who believe in our vision. They understand our clarity of thought and purity of intent. When I was doing my first project it was a little difficult but now it’s easier. They have understood that we are here to create art and not just make money. We have an amazing team; we all think on the same lines and we are not here just to make money.
How would you describe the documentary scene in India? As a filmmaker, what is the change that you would like to see in the filmmaking scenario in the country?
The authorities in our country need to be a little more lenient to filmmakers. They have to give artists their space. People now go to different countries to study cinema and we are exposed to the cultures of the entire world. So we cannot be limited to the culture and things of just our country. There should also be some organisations which provide funding for artists who find it difficult to fund their documentaries, specifically, in India, as nobody wants to put funds in documentaries. They are either self-funded or funded by patrons who are here for art. I would also like to see upcoming filmmakers making truthful cinema and portraying authentic stories. India now has a new set of filmmakers who want to express things in an authentic way. That is a beautiful change. I would also like to see people distributing these kinds of films.
Filmmakers that inspire you?
Stanley Kubrick was phenomenal, he was one of the most rebellious artists. In contemporary times I liked Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, he made us take that journey with the film, which is amazing. Paul Thomas Anderson had made a beautiful film called There will be Blood. Even Godard and Fellini were great. In India, I like Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak for the way they have portrayed human emotions. When we watch their films even now, they are way beyond comparison.
Please tell us about your next project.
Our next is a psychological thriller, The Rope in the Darkness, presented by Onward Entertainment and it’s sister companies with an immensely talented, gifted actress Shauna Macdonald from the UK, who is most known for The Descent. Again, it’ll be bold, rebellious, cutting edge and intense like our other projects. We call it Heavyweight!
Behind the scenes:
There is a new moon night where all the tantriks and aghoris come to please Maa Tara. It is like a mela but not like the kumbh mela, this is more like a secret society where no press, no cameras are allowed. And it happens in a cemetery. So we waited for that particular night because these are very time oriented rituals. There were over 2000-3000 tantriks and aghoris in one cemetery. It was Diwali night and we were at this crematorium, where they were beating dead bodies that were on the pyre. It was a very disturbing sight. When we asked them why they did this, they told us that the person had died of a disease and they didn’t want him to have any pain left in his body when he left from the earth. There was one tantrik who made us have prasad, which was raw whisky without water in a human skull. He also gave me a piece of meat and I didn’t know whether it is human flesh or animal flesh. And I am a vegetarian and don’t consume alcohol. But the sadhu said that it was prasad and we must have it. When I refused, he got very serious and we were in a very dangerous situation then. I had a team with me and Pankaj told us that we have to have the prasad or they would kill us. We had no phones, no Internet connection, nothing. We all had to have what they offered. I can never forget that night. There was another tantrik who was eating human flesh. And when I asked him, he told me a very interesting thing. He said that everything is one, so if I can have chicken flesh then why not human flesh. Which is actually bizarre! But that made me think a lot about the material world we live in. We all say that everything is one but we don’t treat them as one.[/quote]