I’m Trying To Make People Realize Their Own Power – Harjant
Mardistan (Macholand) is a film that gives us a much needed respite from the idea of overpowering masculinity and its pressures that we are subjected to on a daily basis. Screened recently at PSBT’s Open Frame Film Festival and Forum, it introduces us to four characters who offer alternatives to typical Indian manhood by actively making different choices in their lives. Director Harjant Gill, an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Towson University, Maryland, USA, critically examines the intersections of masculinity and modernity in India and walks us through his filmmaking journey and intentions.
Can you briefly tell us about your journey till here to provide some context to your approach to filmmaking?
My background is in anthropology and during my undergraduate training, I was introduced to the use of films to explain and engage with culture. Even though I write as well, I approach my work in a very visual sense. When I was getting ready to do my doctoral dissertation on ‘Gender globalisation and transformation of Punjab’, I knew that in addition to the dissertation I was going to write, I was going to have a visual component. It was initially a photograph and later I came back and did three films that I have been working on for the last five years – Roots of Love, Mardistan and currently I’m working on Sent Away Boys. All three films are like three chapters of the dissertation, which I’m in the process of turning into a book – it explores issues of gender and migration in Punjabi masculinity. In some ways for me, filmmaking is not removed from anthropology and I explore anthropology by filmmaking – it is my academic journey to be a filmmaker.
I grew up in Chandigarh till the age of fourteen and then moved to California. I had been dealing with issues that every standard Indian guy deals with, in terms of identity and also coming out as gay to my family and community. I felt very isolated. Films became a medium for me to channel that isolation and the sense of rejection that I felt, being queer. That is why my films have a strong personal, intimate dimension to them. The main themes I play around with are gender, culture, migration, sexuality and religion.
Do you plan to diversify into other themes as well?
Punjab is a very rich site for exploration and I’m not done with it yet. We’ll see once this film gets over – the third in the trilogy on Punjabi masculinity, which I’m in the process of shooting right now. If I find something interesting somewhere else, I might diversify but I think in socio-cultural anthropology, you are trained to be an expert in a particular location, community or culture – to dig deeper rather than spread wider. The way we understand the world is through that one particular lens.
How do you carry on your research for movies? And how has your academic training in anthropology allowed you to look at the theme differently?
Anthropology is very flexible in terms of the methodology that we use to do our research. A lot of our methodology consists of just hanging out and observing, which can take multiple forms. I am very methodical in the sense that I never take my camera into the field or during the pre-interviews, when I’m still getting to know the people and trying to earn their trust. I just record their stories on my phone, come back and transcribe them, and then structure the script in the way I want to. Actually, the film really comes after anthropology.
When talking about a topic as sensitive and wide as masculinity and its different shades, how did you select the perspective you wanted to take?
The approach I ended up taking was partly circumstantial and partly due to a disadvantage for myself. I’d initially thought that I’ll take interviews of the guys who depict typical Punjabi masculinity but in due course what I noticed is that people say one thing and do quite the other. They’d say, “of course, we respect women”, but the way they’d behave would be quite the opposite. They don’t even realize they’re doing it. It was quite challenging to get these guys to be their authentic selves on the camera. I then thought that if I can’t show what a typical Punjabi man is, I could instead show Punjabi men who don’t fit into that mould of masculinity. I decided to flip the script on its head. We don’t actually need another documentary to tell us how terrible men can be in India. We have enough already – you just need to put on a Punjabi movie or on a music video. Honey Singh has already done a good job of it. I realized then it could be very powerful to actually show men who do not fit into the narrative.
How did you ease the men out of their shells to talk about such sensitive issues?
I found it significantly harder to get people to talk about their masculinity than to probably talk about their hair or desire to migrate abroad or their religion. With Tarun specially, who is a college-going typical Punjabi guy, it took a long time. I had three separate interviews with him to get him to a point to finally get his guard down and talk to me as his buddy and not a director. It took quite a bit of patience with him. For instance, we were talking about mobility and how men have the privilege to migrate abroad or even within the city; Tarun too grew up somewhere else and then moved to Chandigarh. But when I asked about his sister being allowed to do the same, he said that he’d never thought about that. There were a lot of these moments when Tarun was saying things out loud which he hadn’t even thought about earlier because he had been taking some privileges for granted. I had to be very patient and respectful. I had to push but do it in a very gentle way to get him to open up.
To what extent does pop culture play a role in shaping our ideologies regarding gender and sexuality?
I’m going to define pop culture broadly and just call it ‘visual culture’ because these days it’s not just Bollywood movies or music videos, it is also the circulation of pornography on phones, which a lot of these boys do – it’s their new form of entertainment.
It does play a role but I don’t think it plays as important a role as we make it sound like. Visual culture will always be there. The problem occurs when it is the only kind of script we have access to, in terms of masculinity, and when parents don’t talk to their kids about sexual violence or treating and respecting women and men equally. Visual culture is not made for samaaj sewa, it is made for entertainment. We should be critical of visual culture, and what it represents can often be problematic. But to give it so much power to say that it makes people violent would be incorrect. Families should use opportunities like a controversy around a Honey Singh song to start a dialogue. What we say instead is, “channel change karde.” The kid then wonders what’s so wrong with the song. It’s the shame that is attached to it that causes the problem.
Didn’t you come across many other shades of masculinity as part of your research? How did you zero down on these four stories?
I did. Some of them were really good but I couldn’t include them in the film. There was a story of a Punjabi trans guy who was born female and was undergoing the transition to becoming male. I thought that if somebody could have an intrinsic perspective on this issue, it is somebody who is transgender. But because this person did not want to appear on TV and was still undergoing the transition, they didn’t feel comfortable telling that story on film.
What sort of a dialogue do you hope to initiate with your movies? Considering the fact that most discussions with regard to sexuality and gender do not really move beyond academic circles and perhaps those who are most closely affected?
My hope is that by showing it on Doordarshan or putting it on YouTube and circulating it as much as possible, there would be some dialogue outside the academic world. I think there are men out there like Gurpreet or even Tarun who are scared to speak up about not feeling like the alpha male. Hopefully they’ll see this and realize that they don’t have to be a macho man. It can be very exhausting in some ways to always have to put this ‘macho’ front forward.
Do you think the Indian audience is ready to look at gender and sexuality beyond the binary?
Of course. I feel that we have been challenging these things for quite some time in different ways. Even our pop culture, media, books, films and writings have been pulling and tugging at gender as we know it in many ways. I don’t think I’m the first one to do it.
I believe you are in a position of power to strike a discourse on the theme and demystify any taboo surrounding it. How do you plan to utilize this power going forward?
I don’t think of myself in a position of that much power. Getting my PhD and becoming an expert in the field does give me a sense of power but I see this power with the responsibility towards the people whose lives and cultures I’m trying to represent. I try to paint a complex picture and say that each person’s experience has all these shades. I hope that this will allow people to make more compassionate decisions towards each other. If I can get somebody to look at another person as a human being, I think I’ve been successful. I’m not trying to exert my power over you. I’m trying to make you realize your own power.