Tata Institute of Social Sciences
Unit for Media and Communications
InfoChange News & Features, August 2005
SheWrite (Tamil, with English subtitles) 55 mins, 2005
The four poets that the film focuses on are all young women, Salma, Kuttirevathi, Malathy Maitri and Sukirtharani. One is married, with children, one has a daughter, the other two are apparently single, but all of them speak about the space that writing affords them as women. Each of them also speaks of the freedoms of girlhood that are snatched away as we get to be teenagers. Salma says that while we can accept these restrictions in our lives, we cannot in our writing, for “writing has many more spaces”.
The poetry these women write is not comfortable or easy to digest. There is anger and bitterness, even as they claim the inner and outer spaces of their bodies for themselves. But what is far more astounding than the strength and ease of their poetic voices is what they say to the camera. Clearly and without a flicker of hesitation, they speak of their experience and expression as having been dominated by patriarchy and male-centred language. They are also sure that what they articulate in their poems, even though it arises from their own lives, speaks not simply to, but for other women. As Kuttirevathi says, “I write the voices of other women…(the poetry) belongs to all women who have not written.”
These are not women who grew up in urban centres, exposed to various politicised and articulated feminisms and self-conscious women’s writing, or to growing feminist (or simply female) solidarity. Their words speak with absolute integrity and one cannot doubt the universality of women’s experience and the way it colours our expressions of how and where we are located in the world around us. Eve Ensler, the self-celebrating author of The Vagina Monologues, would find her material completely up-staged here. The writers that form Anangu go well beyond the specificity of their body parts to mirror and reflect upon a woman’s experience more holistically and with far greater depth than the borrowed voices that Ensler showcases.
As much as SheWrite focuses on the poetry of the four women, we also see them in the wholeness of their lives: arguing with their mothers about marriage, cooking for their families, playing with their children and chatting with friends and, in Salma’s case, running the local panchayat. The film reminds us that as much as they are poets, they are women, with multiple social relationships that create multiple, simultaneous identities.
Monteiro and Jayasankar have extended themselves in this film, working away from an obvious correspondence between word and image and then, breaking down the materiality of the image itself. These are new and exciting areas in “documentary”, where filmmakers attempt to resolve issues of form and content in increasingly defiant and interesting ways. SheWrite is an excellent contribution to the growing documentation of women’s experiences and also to expanding the boundaries of non-fiction film.
For more information, contact: Unit for Media and Communication, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai 400 088. Phone: 022 25563290
TimeOut Mumbai, July 1-14, 2005, page 52
Nandini Ramnath meets Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayasankar, who’ve made a new docu, SheWrite.
Even in the worst weather conditions, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences campus, with its thick trees, rolling corridors and staff rooms with French windows, looks very inviting. In the monsoon, TISS Deonar looks like an enchanted forest, and maybe it’s the romance in the raindrops that makes filmmaker Anjali Monteiro suggest that we photograph her and her working partner and husband, K. P. Jayasankar, under an umbrella.
Just what we’d wanted, but were too deferential to ask. Monteiro and Jayasankar teach media and communication at TISS and have been making documentaries together for 19 years. They married in 1989 and have made over 25 films. Neither of them has made a film individually. They’ve won praise and a truckful of awards for films like Identity – The Construction of Selfhood and Kahankar:Ahankar. Their absorbing new film, SheWrite, premieres at the Vikalp Film Club.
“Jayasankar is an artist, his forte is visualisation,” She says. He cuts in: “One of is us a left brain and the other is a right brain.” They laugh heartily, and Monteiro continues. “ I do a lot of the interviews and the writing, the people management. “He adds, “We’ve spent so many years together, there’s no difference between personal life and work at all.”
In their new collaboration, four women poets open their hearts, bare their souls and set themselves up for slanderous rebuke and threats of violence from their male compatriots. The film grew out of a report in the Tehelkaweekly. Two Tamil film lyricists were getting outraged at the “vulgar” and sexually frank poems that were flowing out of the pens and hearts of modern women poets. The poems spoke of bodies, breasts, bedrooms; of womanhood, patriarchy and loneliness. “ If you see them on the road, slap them,” one of the men said. The other lyricist expressed his desire to “kill them” if he ever met them. The women went into a huddle and emerged as a team: they formed Anangu, a collective of poets.
SheWrite meets four of these poets – Salma, Malathy Maitri, Kuttirevathi and Sukirtharani, each distinct in personal history and style, yet each with a heard-before story of oppression and eventual resolution. “We were very excited by the powerful work coming out of a grassroots context,” says Monteiro. The filmmakers scripted each of the stories separately instead of mashing them together, so that each woman gets the chance to leave a lasting impression.
The word “SheWrite” has the same intent and agenda as “herstory”. Both the words imply that women’s experiences and sexual lives have been silenced for decades and need voicing.
“There were commonalties among the four women, but there were also differences. Each has her own style of negotiating relationship of power,” says Monteiro. The fact that the women express themselves in Tamil adds a layer of marginality. “These women are also writers in regional languages. We are so overwhelmed by Indo-Anglian writing, we don’t hear voices from the so-called backwaters,” Jayasankar says. “Also, there is an intolerance of any mode of speaking up. You can’t even smoke in a film any more! In that context, the work of the poets becomes more significant.”
Our body, our space
SheWrite talks about four Tamil women writers who have dared to speak out boldly and have fought for their right to do so
Can you name the one "object" that has been tirelessly described down the ages in creative writings of all genres — from ancient epics to the latest film song? Of course, anyone can. After all you need nothing more than plain commonsense to know that it's a woman's body.
Used as they may be to this kind of endless "exposure", why do women themselves feel ashamed and even "dirty" about standing in front of a mirror and facing their own bodies? And when a rare woman dares to shed inhibitions and speaks openly about her body and asserts that it is her "own space", why is she instantly dubbed shameless, bad and even a blot on our "pure" culture?
These were, quite predictably, the charges hurled when a few Tamil women writers wrote about things forbidden — their own bodies, their own spaces. Brickbats, interestingly, came from male writers who were famous for their double entendre-loaded lyrics in Tamil films. One of them went to the extent of urging people: "If you see them on the road, slap them."
But these women were in no mood to show the other cheek. Those who were directly under attack and others who believed women have the right to speak about themselves came together to form a forum called Anangu (meaning "women") which has since then fought patriarchal mindsets and their ugly manifestations.
It was a report in Tehelka on this controversy that got documentary filmmaker couple Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayasankar interested in the issue. Their film SheWrite brings together vignettes from the lives and works of four women writers involved in the controversy — Salma, Kuttirevathi, Malathy Maitri and Sukirtharani S. "This was particularly interesting because we, as documentary filmmakers, are constantly addressing questions of censorship. The way these women have fought for their precarious spaces is inspiring," said Jayasankar at the recent screening of the film at Centre for Education and Documentation.
Salma, the first woman featured in the film, lives in the small town of Thuvarankurichi. An avid reader as a young girl, her schooling is cut short when she and her friends dare to go to a film, which turns out to be an adult film. Then begins the search for a husband and some suitors reject her because she does "disgraceful" things such as writing poetry and reading Lenin and Marx. Post-marriage, she writes under a pen name and pretends sick and tells people at home that she is going to the hospital and sneaks off to the launch of her book! She is now a Panchayat President, which gives her a new sense of power, though within a circumscribed space.
Kuttirevathi, on the other hand, believes that the most important and creative space for a woman is her solitude. It is here that she questions all established notions and rethinks her own self and what surrounds her. Her bold and remarkable poem "Breasts", for instance, looks at the "politics of breasts", rejects its representation as a "plastic, quantifiable object". It then moves to the level of owning up one's body on one's own terms.
The space that Malathy talks about is marked by her awareness of Dalit, Leftist and Feminist thoughts. Her articulations have an activist edge and she talks in the film about a period of lull in her writing, when she couldn't decide if she should write romantic stuff like all others or should write in the Marxist mould. She finally decides to write about "herself and those like her".
Sukirtharani, a school teacher in Lalapet, writes boldly on body and sexuality and the empowerment that comes with this articulation. In a remarkable conversation at the end of the film, she tries to patiently convince her aged mother why we should reject male-centric discourses on the female body. This unselfconscious mother-daughter banter reflects two worldviews and the manner in which they can touch each other, if not come to a consensus all the time.
SheWrite shows that the four women writers have their own diverse ways of carving out their space — ranging from finding a space within the traditional community, marriage and so on to rejecting it and wanting to breathe free beyond it all. But the space, for all of them, is precious and what brings them together is the aspiration to doggedly preserve it. Through an interesting play of images, the film visually explores the spaces within and without.
The film moves between straightforward documentation style and a more metaphoric representation as the narrative itself moves between specific details of the women's lives and their creative works. Some images — for instance, of two puppets churning in a washing machine as Salma reads her poem on matrimony and of several rounded objects and their reflection in two mirrors as Kuttirevathi reads her poem, Breasts — manage to find visual reflections for the written word and lend it a new dimension.
For details on the film write to the filmmakers on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sunday, August 28, 2005
Poetic licence or porn?
Shewrite is a film about four women who refuse to buckle down to societal pressures of propriety and write poetry that is provocative and bold, says Mala Kumar.
“If they don’t want you to write, why do you want to write?” asks a mother of her unmarried daughter, Sukirtharani, a schoolteacher in Lalapet who was hounded for writing ‘obscene’ poetry. The young poet writes of desire and longing, celebrating the body in a way that affirms feminine empowerment and a rejection of male-centred discourse. “But do you think what I write is vulgar?” persists Sukirtharani.
“As a group of over 250 documentary makers in the country, we are fighting against thought control,” adds Dr K P Jayashankar, Reader (Production), TISS. “Social documentaries face several levels of censorship— first there is the thought-control from institutions and society on what they think are appropriate topics to be filmed. Then we have the marketing censorship— some films are acceptable by theatre owners and some are not. Our films are therefore screened at informal gatherings and through an informal network of people who are interested in social issues,” says the filmmaker who has an MA in German language and a PhD in Humanities and Social Sciences, from IIT, Mumbai.
SheWrite was screened to a small audience at the Centre for Education and Documentation. The film starts with Salma, who had to quit school when her family found out she and her friends had sneaked in to see a movie, which they later found out was for adults. “I loved to read, and all I wanted to do was to read and write,” says Salma in the film.
Salma negotiates subversive expression within the tiny space allotted to a woman in the small town of Thuvarankurichi. She has been able to defy and transcend family proscriptions on writing to become a significant voice questioning patriarchal mores in a powerful yet gentle way. When her anthology of poems was launched, she had to feign sickness— a male cousin accompanied her and her mother to the book launch instead of to the hospital.
‘Not just my poetry’
For Kuttirevathi, a Siddha doctor and researcher based in Chennai, solitude is a crucial creative space from where her work resonates. “I write about my own feelings, but I also write about the feelings that other women are unable to express. So, my poetry is not just mine but also of other women,” says the young lady who took to Siddha because it involved learning content in verse!
Her anthology entitled Breasts became a controversial work that elicited hate mail, obscene calls and threats. “Why is it that the world only talks about sizes and shapes of breasts as though they were something made of plastic? Why is it that they are so rarely seen as the human part that nurtures life?” questions the poet.
The rubbishing of many women poets by film lyricists led to the formation of ‘Anangu’, a group of poets and other artists which is attempting to expand the subversive creative spaces available to women writers and poets, across Tamil Nadu. Says Malathy Maitri, a Pondicherry-based Dalit and Marxist activist and founder member of Anangu, “We were upset that people who use double entendre and bad language to attract people should call our poetry ‘vulgar’.”
Monteiro and Jayashankar worked on a very small budget in unknown territory to document the lives of these four poets. “We allowed them the freedom to tell us what we could and what we should not shoot,” says Dr Monteiro. “We are not here as activists trying to set free the ‘victims’. And we do not believe we can change the world with our documentaries, but we do believe that the strength and personalities of these remarkable women needs to be documented,” adds Dr Jayashankar.
The couple, married now for 16 years, are both Howard Thomas Memorial Fellows in Media Studies at Goldsmiths College, London and complement each other. Jointly they have made 25 films, and won nine national and international awards for their videos.
“We want to show the complexities around people and situations. Everything is not black or white. In SheWrite, for instance, Salma’s husband is not a ‘bad’ man just because he has not openly encouraged her writing. She is not a ‘rebellious working woman’ just because she is now the Panchayat President. And the poets are not ’modern’ just because their writing is bold. They continue to live conservative lives.
“We did a film where we showed prisoners writing poems. The dominant identity of a prisoner is that he is ‘bad’ and therefore incapable of the finer arts like writing poetry, but we found that so untrue,” reveals Dr Jayashankar, a poet himself.
Using straight documentation and cinematic techniques like soft focus, Monteiro and Jayashankar have made a film that gives wing to the poetry of the poets. Whether society gives them the right to write or not, these women invite readers to take a glimpse of the world that their mind sees. “Poetry burst out from me like a spark,” says Sukirtharani in the film. And the sparks have flown to light many minds across the country now, with SheWrite.
© Pictures and Text: TISS