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When And Why Do Women Choose To Write? Filmmaker Annie Zaidi Answers This, And More

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By Shambhavi Saxena for Youth Ki Awaaz: 

Editor’s Note: As part of our coverage of PSBT’s Open Frame Film Festival And Forum 2015 that begins today in Delhi (15th-22nd Sept), Youth Ki Awaaz will be featuring interviews with the directors who are screening their films at the festival, along with a candid chat later with the organisers who make this excellent festival possible each year. With this year’s theme being ‘DIVERSE PEOPLE, DIVERSE STORIES’, the documentaries being screened include “those that document, narrate, follow, investigate, represent, challenge, advocate, affirm, empower, unsettle and sometimes disturb.” Scroll down for schedule details.

First, the sound of a woman’s song, and then the camera pans slowly over stacks of books. The opening of Annie Zaidi’s new documentary, ‘In Her Words’ is symbolic of how the written and the verbal intertwine to present the experiences of women. The theme of said documentary is precisely that – the ways in which women’s lives have been inscribed in literature. Zaidi captures the bond that is forged between the people on the page, and those beyond the page. In the run-up to this year’s PSBT Open Frame Film Festival, where her film will be screened, the director shared her vision of her film in an exclusive interview with Youth Ki Awaaz.

Shambhavi Saxena (SS): Many of the women in the film have been directly involved in the ambitious project of recovering women’s voices in literature, and many continue to ensure that women’s literature is not just a niche subject. But what role has literature really played in people’s lives? Considering only 12% of Indian students pursue their post-graduation in the Humanities, how effective can this project be?

Annie Zaidi (AZ): ‘Literature’ is a very wide term. At its broadest and most technical, it includes brochures and pamphlets. At its most exclusive, it can be limited to creative writing as in novels and poems. But words – the voices/minds/perspectives behind those words – are a big part of the life of the average citizen. After all, the Vedas, the Ramayana, mythological stories are all literature. As are newspapers and magazines. They form the basis of a shared culture and a national or regional consciousness. One doesn’t have to study the humanities to be exposed to literature. Even illiterate people have literature. On the other hand, I know many students of literature (English and Hindi) do not read anything outside the syllabus. Sometimes they don’t even bother to read the books prescribed, choosing to make do with ‘kunji‘ or ‘guide’ books.

Literature, along with other art forms like theatre and film, shapes us. It forms ideas, shifts ideas, destroys ideas. It can change human behaviour. If its influence were limited to post-graduates in the Humanities, nobody would bother to ban books, destroy libraries, exile writers, and kill scholars. If you cut off people’s access to certain kinds of literature, then you build a culture that doesn’t even know what’s going on in that society. If you don’t educate or publish women, for instance, you build a culture that doesn’t know what women are thinking. That becomes a culture that doesn’t care what women think or punishes women who do think and express themselves.

SS: Noted scholars, feminists, novelists, and media personalities all make an appearance in the film. Urvashi Bhutalia and Maitreyi Pushpa certainly do talk about peasant and small-community women, but why weren’t they themselves in the film? Has it been difficult tracking down a women’s literary tradition that is not urban?

AZ: Do you mean peasant women who are also writers or scholars? I suppose I could have found a few rural women who have written, but it would have been much more expensive to travel with a film crew. It is partly a budget decision, partly a question of the film’s scope, and partly on account of our cultural geographies. Maitreyi Pushpa herself grew up in a village, then moved to a small town and then to a bigger city. I think most writers (male or female) do that. Publishers certainly are concentrated in cities.

That aside, there are non-urban literary traditions, including folk songs and plays. But if I were to focus on that rather than books in the published form, I would have to make another film or a much longer one. For this project, I was supposed to make a shorter film.

SS: What has changed in the writing and production of women’s literature since the days of Ismat Chughtai and Qurratulain Hyder? Are we in post-Independence India any closer to the vision women writers had back then?

AZ: There is a lot more writing and production, for one. Thousands of women write in nearly all Indian languages. Some are recognized not only as cultural icons but also as significant political voices speaking for various communities, not just women. Literacy is up. We drink at a very diverse pool now.

I cannot say that women writers had a single vision at any time. But in general, I guess, they would have wanted women to have full autonomy as individuals in India. We aren’t quite there yet.

SS: Mridula Koshy mentions the text Sultana’s Dream, an alternate universe of the Matriarchal rule over men. She calls it an interesting combination of wit and humour that tests our understanding of and complacency about the world we live in. However, the focus on women’s worlds has drawn much criticism from many beneficiaries of the patriarchy. They cry, “you’ve made everything about women!” As someone who is also contributing to this broader project, how do you respond to that?

AZ: Well, everything is also about women! Do we have the option to NOT live in this world, to escape from the larger collective culture? If we are half of humanity, then we must reach for our half. In every way possible. Equally, we must bear the burden of being the half of humanity. We must not shrug off responsibility any more than we should surrender our rights.

SS: The Western tradition of writing has featured countless women writing under male nom-de-plumes – George Elliot, Currer Bell, H. D., even J K Rowling writes as Robert Galbraith today! Have Indian women writers had to hide their identities or have they been more open and embracing of them?

AZ: I think Indian women used pseudonyms (as mentioned in the film at one point). But not enough research has been done, not enough translations available. Some women writing in recent decades used female pseudonyms. Perhaps they wanted to protect their personal identity but still want to be read as women writers.

SS: To put to you a question C. S. Lakshmi raised in your film, “under what circumstances does a woman start writing?”

AZ: I think that’s a question the film itself tries to answer. The set of circumstances includes personal history and family environment, the culture she experiences, the culture she wants to be part of. Writing – serious writing that continues for years – requires time. The writer needs time to read, to dream, to think, to write. Such time is very precious, very costly. It costs independence within the family, and from the demands of family, household and jobs. It means risking disapproval. How many women can afford all that?

Catch Zaidi’s film at 6.30pm, 18th September, at the India International Centre, on Max Müller Marg, New Delhi. She will also be holding a discussion ‘Being Women, Writing Women’ at 7.30pm with Maitreyi Pushpa (other speakers to be confirmed).

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