The Medium and the Message

In a conversation with Viewpoint, Elahe Hiptoola discusses the power of the moving image to tell stories tucked away in the shadowy corners of our society and to stir up reformative social movements

It is a conscious choice filmmakers have to make. You  can either choose to ignore the different raging concerns in society and plunge into a disconnected world or you can choose to make life around you better. Or, you can make an escapist satire like Charlie Chaplin did with his Great Dictator. But it is undeniable today, that cinema and the moving image provide a powerful medium to create change and stir up a cultural revolution. This medium has the power to tell stories and plant images in your mind; to provide potent ways through which to spread ideas and thoughts. It is a platform from which filmmakers can gently nudge out an issue simmering in the backdrop of our lives – things we refuse to see, let alone acknowledge.

How do we choose to turn the camera on a particular social problem? Why are we drawn here? In the case of Lakshmi, a hard-hitting film focusing on human trafficking and child prostitution, Nagesh [Kukunoor] had stumbled upon the real-life experience of a young girl who took her traffickers to court. He had been invited to visit a safe house sheltering and rehabilitating rescued sex workers outside Ongole village in Andhra Pradesh. After hearing their horrific stories we decided to put our time and money into making a film on human trafficking, rather than writing a cheque and moving on.

The girl who inspired the movie had been sold at the age of thirteen and forced into prostitution. After she was rescued by the police, she began her fight for justice with the help of an NGO. It was an extremely important story to be told, to jolt audiences out of their safe zones. In India, 44,000 children are abducted every year and 3 million are trafficked for sex. She was the first one in Andhra Pradesh to take traffickers to court and nearly 93 of them have been convicted so far. We wanted to tell a really powerful story to support the battle against human trafficking and we found it in this girl. But we’ve just covered the  tip of the iceberg because the kind of inhumanity these women are subject to is unbelievable.

At the 2017 Palm Springs International Film Festival, where Lakshmi won the best audience award, there were shaken and distraught women eager to do something to help. We raised Rs 12 lakhs for Lakshmi, and Nagesh- through Prerena in Mumbai – has educated 86 children of sex workers. The film was screened at Kamathipura to an incredibly emotional response. There are many issues in India and they can be overwhelming. You have to pick your battles and choose to work on issues that are close to your heart. Dor, for example, is about women’s empowerment on the surface but when you delve deeper, you notice the film works at other levels too. Here’s an educated and progressive Muslim woman, Zeenat (played by Gul Panag), who does not cover her head, and ends up teaching a cowering, Hindu child bride some significant things about life.  The Hindu protagonist dressed always in a stark plain blue outfit, is the oppressed woman. Her Muslim ally – in sharp contrast to prevailing beliefs – is the spunky and modern woman who proves to be the game-changer in the film.

It is an absorbing story embellished with subtle messages. We have tried to break the stereotypical images surrounding Muslim women in particular. Our point here is that you cannot slot people according to the community or religion to which they belong.

In Iqbal, we wanted to promote the idea of a more inclusive society for the physically challenged. We wanted the audience to forget the protagonist had a disability. In our films, we have stuck to producing probing but engaging stories with happy endings. You can show a problem to the world but if you don’t also offer a solution, you risk losing the audience.

Filmmakers have a choice to make an entertaining film like Raees or to make a My Brother Nikhil (on homosexuality and AIDS) or a  Lipstick Under My Burqa (about women’s empowerment). And today, audiences are growing for such kinds of films that are being made without big stars. Filmmaking has become cheaper today with easily accessible technology and there are multiple platforms to release films, from Netflix to Youtube.

However, unfortunately in India today, there is a growing wave  of intolerance. But the pushback against progressive movements is something we are seeing worldwide. I don’t believe a cultural revolution  is unfolding as yet. Issues like same sex marriage should not cause a stir in 2018. There are more and more young filmmakers out there As communicated to Viewpoint who are willing to test uncharted waters and tackle taboo topics. But the government continues to pander to religious and other groups at the expense of socially relevant storytelling. For example, S Durga, a macabre tale on the safety of women in India was not allowed to be screened at the international film festival in Goa in 2017 because a sexual adjective was attached to the name of a Hindu goddess. In reality, however, the movie had nothing to do with religion. Why view life through such a narrow lens? Cinema and the moving image are powerful tools for societal change and you should not take this power away from a filmmaker. Their work can be real fodder for a cultural revolution.

Elahe Hiptoola

is a producer in the Bollywood film industry who has worked frequently with well-known indie filmmaker, Nagesh Kukunoor.