I brought the actors to a point where they became the characters
An award-winning filmmaker, Madhureeta Anand has dabbled in various forms of filmmaking ranging from features to series and documentary films. Her latest venture, Kajarya, is a hard-hitting feature that explores the grave issue of female foeticide that plagues various parts of our country. With an all new cast and a no-frills approach, Madhureeta has weaved a fictional tale into the realm of reality. The film that premiered at The Dubai International Film Festival, was also awarded as the best foreign film at The Silk Route Film Festival in China and has been receiving rave reviews across various festivals. In a chat with Pandolin, Madhureeta opens up about the genesis of the film, her apprehensions, her love for filmmaking and more.
As a filmmaker what draws you to a subject?
Each film will have its own story of where it comes from. But usually what happens is that a visual, a kind of scenario, starts to appear in my mind. And the story emerges from this scenario. For Kajarya the scenario involved three characters; two women – one from the village and one from the city – and a hangman. As filmmakers we live in the world and absorb what is going on around us and reflect that. And what we absorb is entirely dependent on how we are feeling at that moment. So it’s a combination of both.
So was there a particular incident that inspired Kajarya?
Many years ago, I’d read an article in the newspaper where a woman was interviewing a dai – a midwife about female foeticide. The line of questioning of the interviewer had a moral judgment in it. She kept asking the midwife questions like – ‘Don’t you feel ashamed for doing something like this? Do you think what you’re doing is a good thing?’ And the poor lady could barely say yes or no. But at the end of the interview the midwife said something that really struck me and led to the genesis of this story. She said, “I’m just a hangman. Somebody else has sentenced them (the girl child).” So I thought about this scenario where there’s this woman who is like the hangman of the village, who doesn’t really hang anybody. But they have the label of death hanging around their neck for absolutely no reason at all. That was how the genesis of the story happened.
From a mainstream film debut to a hard-hitting issue based film, how different was the approach and treatment?
Filmmaking is filmmaking and we use our tools according to what it is that we’re trying to say, the kind of film we’re trying to make. It’s highly boring if you have to keep making the same sort of films and you’re not challenged to put to use all the tools that you have as a filmmaker. Internally it’s not that different because you’re telling a story. Externally, of course, there are a lot of differences. It’s more comfortable being on a commercial feature. You have a vanity van inside which you can sit and there are lots of people scurrying around you. But a film like Kajarya has its own advantages and coming from a documentary background, I have absolutely no problem with dust and dirt, heat and so on.
Was there a specific reason why you chose to work with an all new cast in Kajarya?
When you see the film you’ll realize that the story is like a fable. It’s completely extraordinary – there’s a village woman and a city girl who meet and the outcome of this meeting has a fable aspect to it. To make it believable, I felt that the entire story has to feel like a documentary. In a documentary we try to show you what is real, but in this case, I’ve taken fiction and made it real. For that reason I wanted the actors to feel absolutely like the characters. The actors I cast are quite close to the bone of the character itself. My lead actress, Meenu Hooda who plays Kajarya is nothing like Kajarya. Kajarya drinks, she abuses and so on but Meenu would never do that. But they are both from Haryana, and when Meenu came to me for audition, she had this pain in her eyes, which is very Kajarya-esque. Also my entire secondary cast is real – the villagers are playing villagers, and some of the journalists are really journalists. I had real people playing themselves in the backdrop.
In such a real setting, with real people also involved, how did you go about getting the desired performances from everyone?
I did an intense workshop with them. To the actors it was a workshop to work their scenes out but I was working on turning them into the characters. Through a series of exercises, I brought them to a point where they became those characters. And then while on set, I started taking away the lines that they knew and asked them to say something else. So they had to think of what should be said in that situation as that person. That was a difficult but interesting process.
Did you have any apprehensions at the start of the film? If yes, how did you get over them?
At a subject level I reconciled it, because I’ve written and researched the story. On set as a director, your craft of filmmaking comes into play. And the next emotional reaction you have to the film is when its already made and you’re looking at it in the theatre. So I did have a lot of apprehensions because I was attempting something really difficult. I was taking actors into real locations; each location in this film is real and we haven’t built any set. My secondary cast was all real people. And at the end of the day I had to tell the story, which is the most important thing. I had a added a lot of variables (to the film) so had to think on my feet all the time. I had to develop the situation and then film it. I had a lot of apprehension but was extraordinarily lucky because I had this fabulous team and a bunch of really good actors who completely trusted me. I didn’t have to spend a lot of time convincing anybody and therefore it all happened.
Going by the reviews at the various festivals, the film has definitely been ticking the right boxes. What next have you lined up for the film?
The film is releasing pan India on December 4. After it releases in the halls we will be looking at a digital release as well. I will be doing a tour to the villages and smaller areas where NGOs invite me to show the film and talk to people.
Several indie films have found their way to the theatre in recent times. But most of them do not get a long theatrical run. What according to you are the reasons behind it?
It’s just that we have a lot of films being made today in India. And there are only those many weekends. If a new film comes, an old film has to go. That’s the reason films get moved from the theatre. And it happens generally and isn’t restricted to indie films alone. Of course indie films have a bigger challenge because our promotion budgets are not so large and our audiences are not like the mainstream audience that turns up first day first show. There are many challenges in those terms. But the fact is that versus before, these films are registering a presence. So people are seeking out options beyond mainstream film and that is very encouraging.
You’ve dabbled in various genres of filmmaking – commercial, documentary background etc. What excites you the most as a filmmaker?
It’s the sheer crafting of a story. When I write something, it’s a couple of lines and sentences. And I have to translate not just those words or sentences but the spirit of what I’m trying to say. That crafting of the film from sound to visual to actors, every little aspect of it, has got to be the best thing in the world. You can just sit there and I can make you experience what I’m trying to say and take you into that world. It’s like a privilege that very few people have.