Pushpa Rawat is an emerging independent filmmaker who uses her camera to initiate a very personal dialogue with all the components of her immediate environment. Her films — Nirnay and Mod (a film supported by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences) — constitute a discovery of the world around her and answer the questions that have occupied her consciousness for as long as she can remember. This interview was conducted at the Bal Bhavan, New Delhi, where she is an active member of the photography club. Bal Bhavan is also the institution where her journey as a filmmaker started. The following is an excerpt of her conversation with Suraj Prasad, published in Issue Seven of Umbra.
Could you tell us about your childhood, upbringing and the journey of your life?
I was the firstborn in my family in Uttarakhand, where I spent most of my childhood. I have two younger sisters and a brother. We first moved to Delhi, and then later, Ghaziabad, where we have been living ever since. Due to financial constraints, we led a very modest life. At school, I participated in craftwork, dance, and also sang in chorus despite possessing no talent in singing. In 2007, a boy from my locality named Pawan told me about Bal Bhavan. He was involved in various activities that piqued my interest in coming here. Apparently one has to be younger than sixteen years of age in order to get accepted into Bal Bhavan, but since I was older, I submitted fake documents with the help of a relative. I was terrified, but also very keen to learn photography. The course had optional classes on videography taught by Anupama Srinivasan. It was during this workshop that I made my first film, a twenty-minute short called Nazar, about visually impaired people. A few months thereafter, I received a call from Anupama, asking me if I would be interested in working with her. I agreed as no other prospect seemed to give me hope. I did a few workshops with her in Ghaziabad and made another seventeen-minute short film involving my siblings. I later assisted her on her film, I Wonder, where I worked as a sound-recordist and assistant cameraperson. People spend years learning and perfecting the art of filmmaking, but Anupama had faith in me when I was still taking baby steps, and insisted that I make something of my own. When she asked me what ideas I had, I was hardly sure; I could only think of the people around me, how my friends back in the locality were modestly educated but were not able to find their place, were not independent. In spite of being educated, these people did not know what do with their lives or how to get out of the circumstances they were stuck in. Perhaps they lacked awareness because of the fact that we were all migrants, and were therefore scared.
You said that filmmakers need a lot of preparation and practice, but how were you introduced to the cinema? Was it just that one workshop?
Yes, it was largely that, and other than that we had a TV at home, and we would watch films on Doordarshan as children, but that was it. I was definitely fascinated by the camera, even as a child. No one in my family – immediate or extended – owned even a still camera, but I would often borrow one from friends or neighbours, and spend my savings on buying reels to click photos. We also used to go to studios and get photos clicked. I got scolded a lot for wasting money. So I was naturally very happy to attend photography classes, for which I would travel daily from Ghaziabad.
You said you were migrants, and there were problems because of that status. What kind of problems, and how does being a migrant in a massive city like Delhi feel?
Ghaziabad was a scarcely populated area when we moved here. Most of the flats were unoccupied, and often one heard of corpses being discovered in some of these flats. Those days were frightening; we were scared to venture out. The building of the primary school I went to bore a resemblance to the flats. I was scared of going to school. At the same time, I was not interested in academics and wished to not return for the next academic session. We were afraid for several reasons: our family was not financially sound; my father was an alcoholic and, I think, was unclear about what he was doing. I used to always default on the payment of my school fees and would have to stand punished. Because we were girls, our safety was a huge concern. My mother would always tell us to be wary of something wrong happening. We had no idea what she meant by ‘something wrong.’ My sisters and I were not allowed to meet people or play out on the street. We were constantly threatened with severe punishment if ‘something wrong’ happened to us, but this unnamed ‘wrong,’ which was never clarified or explained, confused and scared us. She told me to be responsible for the safety of my younger sisters, when I, myself, was just eight years old, yet she would tell everyone that I was 13 or 14. I am not bitter or resentful, but I wish my parents were not that careless. I wish things were different. Coming back to the films, you were in the workshop and later worked with Anupama too.
What kind of films were you watching during this period?
As I said, I have not watched many films [laughs] and even now I do not watch many. I watched whatever films were shown on Doordarshan, and we did not have a TV, so we went to the neighbours, and in those days the TV antenna had to be constantly adjusted to receive a clear signal. I have mostly seen black and white films, or perhaps they were coloured but the TV was black and white. We also watched some funny cartoons. We were often berated, even beaten, for getting glued to the neighbours’ TV because mother did not approve of it.
It is interesting because often such lived experiences and exposure to other films have a direct impact on a filmmaker’s work. However, your films, Nirnay and Mod, do not have anything to do with what you were seeing on the television. How did you arrive at the films that you have made?
I don’t know really, but I guess it has to do with a lot of questions that were inside of me, right since childhood — questions such as why my father did the things that he did. The surroundings were very suffocating, people were not allowed to do what they wanted to. After completing Nirnay I, too, felt that I should not make any more films. In Mod, my brother says ‘tum ghar ki badnami kar rahi ho’ (you are besmirching the family’s name) because he felt that I was revealing personal matters. I was trying to understand what he meant by ‘besmirching the family’s name’. Is it wrong if I did indeed reveal personal matters which were unsavoury? Or is it wrong to not bring them up and talk about them? Regardless, I think every issue should be represented and talked about just the way it is.
I was told that making a film about my personal life would not be easy, but what is personal? Just because it is happening in my family, is it personal? We do get to read similar stories in newspapers, see them on television, is that not personal too? Why do we not consider it personal then if it is happening in other families? While I was making Nirnay, Anupama asked me why I was making this particular film. I said perhaps it could inspire others, at which people laughed, and I didn’t really know if what I said made any sense. I think these are social films, and I have always wanted to do something socially relevant.
Often filmmakers are aware of where their films might be showcased and film festivals where the film would find its audience, and the film might win an award somewhere. When you were making Nirnay, were you also thinking of these things?
I had no knowledge of these things; it was Anupama who planned everything. I knew that people watch such films, but I did not know that the films travel to so many places. I had no idea about the awards, and I did not make my films with an award in sight. You may
not believe it, but when I received the Pramod Pati Award and one of the reporters started me asking questions, I asked her to excuse me so I could look for Anupama who could answer her. I did not even know who Pramod Pati ji was.
I was sure that I would not get selected for the grant for Mod — and was very surprised when I did — because everyone else had given presentations and brought documents in the right formats, they were all well-read and technically prepared. I have only my reservoir of lived experiences, which I pour into my work. I am not well-wellversed with technology. For instance, if you give me a new camera, I would not feel confident tinkering with it on my own; you will have to teach me how to use it. Sorry, what was your question?
I just want to know whom were you making this film for? And were you aware of it when you were making the film?
I think I was making it for myself because our work must bring us joy, and there was never anyone else in my mind. Through Nirnay, as well as Mod, I wanted to understand the people around me, but it was also an attempt to understand myself, study myself. It is, in a way, an outlet for all the commotion in my mind, for all the frustration that I have lived with. For my own questions, I am seeking answers from others because barring a few differences, I believe, all our lives are the same — what ails me, must ail you also. We are united in our suffering. I am therefore trying to arrive at an understanding of how others would respond to the doubts that assail me.
I recently saw Mod, and one of your characters, Rizwan asks you why you are making the film. I would like to ask you the same question: you focus your camera on someone, and unless they get totally frustrated and annoyed, and maybe run away, you let it linger on. Why is that?
You know, maybe I am a little adamant and I want to know what I want to know. Although Rizwan questions my actions in Mod, I think he also wants me to continue with them. I think that one should not stop doing something just because it is incomprehensible to someone else. As with everything that is beyond comprehension, it tends to frustrate or enrage or scare us. But once we get past our wariness of the nameless, we could perhaps learn to see things anew and understand the world better. How many times is he going to ask me to stop? For how long will he remain annoyed? He might slap me like it happens in families — everyone is at their wits end and usually, we end up fighting. With Rizwan, but more so with other characters, there were moments when I was afraid we would come to blows, but I also felt that if I needed to understand them better, I had to overcome our differences. I have understood that confrontation often leads to a fight; people start yelling at each other. I have seen this happening in my family and so have I seen this in the world outside. Families are the first circle, and a microcosm of the larger society, and usually people fight, have arguments and blame each other when they do not have the right answer to the questions that they are being asked. This understanding has helped me to stay and try to have a conversation after the silence; yelling and initial resistance are overcome.
How long do you think you can continue making films? What subjects would you like to engage with hereon?
I think I should continue with boys. There is a lot I have yet to discover and make sense of. I don’t know, really. I mean, I don’t plan things in life. Most of our life does not go as planned in any case. As a child, I wanted to be a doctor and asked my father if I could opt for Science in the eleventh grade. He said that I was not the only daughter. When I was in the seventh standard, I wanted to learn Judo. After just one month of training, I could throw off two boys outside the mat. The teacher was very impressed. He came to my home a few times to see if I could continue, but my father could not permit me to do it. So what we plan may never happen, therefore I don’t like to plan. I do as I please, at my own unhurried pace.
Your characters are all real people from your neighbourhood; your friends and family, people you have grown up with. Do you think they accept you in this new role of a filmmaker, and do you think they are telling you the truth?
The thing is, I have spent so much time with these people that I know them. I know what is happening in their families, I know their concerns, and I know who is telling the truth and who is not. Lata, the prominent face in Nirnay, is a liar. The moment she sees the camera she becomes an obedient person and she sugarcoats her words. I was always angry with her during the shoot, and I also fought with her over this. Of course, the fight is not in the film, but she admits that she has been deceitful. As for the parents, I think everyone makes mistakes, but we should not treat them as sacrosanct and overlook their flaws. Lata used to do that, and I am completely against it. For me what is wrong is wrong, and people must accept what they do. I am not saying that one must always confront people and fight with them, but there has to be an avenue for dialogue. I think the elders should not infantilize their children; they should discuss family and social matters as much as they can. One must let go of the parent-child hierarchy. If I ever become a parent, I will try not to be like them.
So when you enter your own home and switch on the camera and keep it focused on your family, how do they react?
[Laughs] You must watch Kyun. My father even says in Mod that I have lost it, he was a bit excited in the beginning but now no one bothers, I guess. Initially, they did not know what I was doing. My mother behaved the way she does in real life, but she was a little angry when she saw herself in the film, but now she, too, doesn’t care. I think a camera does not have a catalytic effect on the lives of people it interacts with. Take news reports, for instance. People are initially excited to be on camera, but soon they lose interest and get on with their lives. The camera will not bring food to their table. I think this idea of how camera brings change or alters the behaviour of people is just an elitist myth. You see the boys in Mod — my camera was with them for months, but it has not changed a thing. Their life is still the same. I even asked them how they felt that I had entered their space and their life. Rizwan said that at first, they thought that I was mad because girls never went there. They also thought that I was really troubled in my family, else I would not be there. He also said that when I would switch on the camera they would try to behave, but the moment I would leave they would start with the abuses and slangs. I think that was their comfort zone, and they would get back to it as soon as I left. But towards the end you see them using crude language in the film as well. They had become comfortable with the camera, and they had made me a part of their world. I guess I was adamant and also Ankur’s sister, so they could not get rid of me.
In Mod the characters in the films are all tied to space they inhabit, the paani ki tanki (water tank) becomes the central place around which everything is happening. There is a similar correlation between space and individuals even in Nirnay. Is this something that you are consciously doing?
No, it happens on its own. As I said, I am just doing things as they are presented to me. I am not trying to alter things, to make them beautiful or enhance the emotion. I am just trying to see things properly. People did ask me what is there to film there; there is a tree that is used as a urinal by everyone. Even in a place like that, there is so much to see. Among those young men, many were criminals and fugitives, most were drug addicts and petty thieves, too. Many people advised me to be very careful
and warned me that I might lose my equipment or someone might hurt me, but I was surprised that those boys would return my things if I left them behind. I think I had placed my trust in these people and this place. I was scared how I would pay back if I lost any of this rented equipment, but I think one needs to build trust in people. So no, I was not trying to create the relationship between people and places, but rather just being where people were.
In Mod there is a shot when the camera pans from one of the boys to a donkey nearby, and the boy also retorts as to why you are comparing him with the donkey.
[Laughs] No, I was not trying to compare. I was asking him some questions and he was not saying anything, and I saw this donkey there so I moved to it. It was not something that I had thought about, it just happened. I don’t dwell over these things; instead, I let them take shape organically. I think this idea of how the camera brings change or alters the behaviour of people is an elitist myth. You see my film. My camera was with them for months but it has not changed a thing.