Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Woman behind WMF

Vaishnavi Sundar
Women Making Films, the brainchild of Vaishnavi Sundar, just turned one. We're breaking our Monday Mould with this story to celebrate her success on the birthday of the organization, and cheering her on for the brilliant things they're all set to do! Read on to know more about Vaishnavi's story.

1. Let's start with your story. Could you tell us about your childhood, your growing and working years and education, to the extent that informs the work you do currently?

My mother tells me, she was this close to losing me when I was born. There were complications so I was away from her in an incubator, for weeks. And thanks to this complication, I had a perennial case of breathing disorders and other ailments that kept me in and out of hospitals. I was born in a small suburban town called avadi and we lived in an army neighborhood. I took to sports and that’s how I beat my ailments too.
I would cycle to my school and sports stadiums. It was only after school did the first reality check consume me - graduation and onward. I had to leave the comfort of accessing everything in a cyclable distance behind. I got through Ethiraj, Commerce department and later SRM for my post graduation in Business. Because my folks would say, I told you so - I would never complain to them because they wanted me to study in just any college nearby.

I must admit to being a rather gullible, ignorant teenager and thus my first contact with city life was expectedly traumatising. With every embarrassing moment, be it my poor english speaking skills or well, my existence, I missed the little girl who cycled nonchalantly in her little world. Add that with the endless harassments in public transport, roads and bus stops, I have had to endure it all. It would be insensitive of me to not check my privilege here - many young women have had it a LOT harder than I. But it is this awareness about everyone’s collective struggle that makes for a source of strength and conviction, rather than a means of comparison.

I have worked in human resources, marketing, advertising, writing, adventure sports, software etc. while constantly juggling a full time job with my love for theatre. I have acted, directed and written plays, which then led to acting in films and then making films, eventually! It has been three years since I quit working for corporates, and have taken up filmmaking and activism, full-time. I am a writer, actor and filmmaker, who is on a mission to break the glass ceiling in the industry.

2. You work in the fields of filmmaking, gender equality, and LGBTQ rights. Was there a specific defining moment in your journey that drew you into it?

It does not take a genius to pick on biases in a country like India, and people who deny it must be from another planet. I have seen a lot of established women, pioneering in their respective fields, cold-bloodedly refusing to acknowledge the disparity, thereby bringing down the entire movement of feminism to a momentary jolt. I have been a victim of patriarchy throughout my life - with a family that has heartlessly dictated what I need to wear, who I need to talk to and which uncle’s lap I need to sit on etc. And a job that (if it picked me in the first place) defined my “boundaries”, “rewards” and “expectations”. This anger has been going on ever since, and I got drawn to the movement of feminism as a perfect way to tackle it. So a culmination of this ongoing war with patriarchy had to find its catharsis - thus came to life the community. Through it, and through every form of art that I make, I have consciously and quite rightly brought in elements of equal rights, ever since.

3. What do you notice as being the pressing issues in the fields you work in? What are some of the intersectional impacts they have on each other?

Issues in progressive filmmaking do not stop, not even after the film has been screened. It’s like every step has got its own different pack of obstacles that comes along with it. The plight of independent filmmaking starts right from laying out the plot- whether or not it is going to be accepted or even perceived by the minimal of audience. When I am writing a script, I make sure I do not conform to any sort of societal generalization for the sake of selling it out to the masses. I just can’t. The world has had enough of it, and filmmakers with a rational mindset are sparse, so we kind of have face a whole other set of hurdles.There are always mobs ready to lynch you out for different reasons. While one mob is ready to besiege you for making a film on homosexuality, other encircles you for making one on the irrationality of the Indian mindset. Not to mention the added aggravation when you’re a woman. I think a major part of my entire work speaks of the persecution faced by female filmmakers, as well as those belonging to the other minorities. There have been very few cases where a woman has managed to be funded for her project, on its face value, as it is written, verbatim.

4. As a filmmaker and someone who works closely with the media, what are your thoughts about the portrayal of women and men in the mainstream media? Do you believe that this portrayal reflects what exists, or do you believe that the media influences society through this portrayal?

I promised myself to constantly keep calling people out for their bigotry, no matter how filtered or “glorious” it seems to them. It’s funny how modernization takes place within discriminatory behaviourism - We did not really alter our thinking but sought new, exciting and appreciable ways to present it. The same thing happens with today’s cinema and its fallacious portraitures.

I have recently started a series by the name “misguided portrayals” in which I try to congregate the ridiculousness in delineating the lives of homosexuals, women and all the other minorities within films. It also features some of the most rational and liberal filmmakers who have done it right. And I’ve unapologetically called out those who have got their very professions wrong.

5. Let's talk about Women Making Films. What is the project all about? What milestones would you like to share and highlight in your journey so far?

I started Women Making Films exactly a year ago, today. It is an online community with an offline collaboration model. I intend to bring together women (and all those who identify themselves as women, of course) under one virtual roof. We hear so much about Hollywood and Europe being obstinate in their means to achieve equal opportunities. And though it is solacing, it begs the question of whether a focussed endeavor in every country could do better in closing the gap. WMF is, I think you could call it a result of a lot of angst, disappointment and frustration.

Though it has been a year, my experience has been bittersweet. Sweet because I pinch myself now and then in disbelief, that I have created something revolutionary and one of a kind. Bitter because, the community is NOT getting its due. There are no page 3 affiliations or star endorsements to make it sound elite and upper class. This community is ground-up, anti-bourgeois and anti-bigotry.

6. What are some of the biggest personal and professional challenges you have encountered in the work that you do? How have you, or are you, overcoming them?
I think, a misfit will remain a misfit irrespective of their profession or area of interests. I do not remember a time when “everything has worked out just fine” for me. It is as if, I am always on my armour, waiting for something to attack or to go wrong, and I need to fight it off. I have gotten used to this combat life so much, that it doesn’t surprise me when something goes wrong. Existentially speaking.
But professionally, yes there are challenges I face when it comes to approaching someone with an idea - the outcome of any meeting (if I get one) is largely based on my gender. I have had to be at the mercy of my male colleagues to do certain tasks owing to the fear of rejection, embarrassment or harassment.
At this point I should clarify that I am yet make my feature film, though I have written the screenplay for a film that is going into production soon - the struggle is real. I do not know if overcome is what I would, but as women, we have learnt to fit the square peg in a round hole and depending on the strength of our conviction, we will get from point A to point B.

7. What inspires you to do the work that you do?
It is our responsibility right?
8. There is so much of an unnecessary premium attached to the label "female" and "woman" - eg., woman filmmaker, female president, woman prime minister etc. What are your views on reordering the language around gender and equality?
I do not mind myself being addressed with the term “female filmmaker” and I certainly think, no woman should. We need it the most right now, when female recognition is in jeopardy in every field. But, here is the bombshell, what I utterly despise is when I am labeled the same thing just to spot the ignorantly assumed incapability of my gender, that’s where it all goes wrong. If I am sitting in an interview and the male interviewer asks me “What problems do you face as “female” filmmaker?”, it’s not the same question anymore because that tone is dipped in a patriarchal gravy. It’s a conjecture right? And they say it like it’s such an astonishing thing to be a woman and even work. So, my answer to the question asked by that that guy would be, “traffic, pollution, rising temperature etc.,” Language has a very important part to play when we discuss about gender equality, because, let’s face it, ‘gender’ is one immensely complicated knot with no ends. We need need awareness, sensitivity and a little bit of brains to manoeuvre conversations concerning gender equality.
9. As a person working in the field of social awareness and activism, you are undoubtedly vulnerable to resistance, attacks on your ideology and individual choices and even the imposition of the consequences of privilege (in all its intersectional dimensions - gender, caste, economics). What has your key response to this been?
A short answer to this should be - I should do my job. That’s all there is to say and also to understand. When Deepa Mehta started with her project Elements - trilogy, her production was stopped by the religious fundamentalists with all kinds of threats which made her shoot the film in Sri Lanka. So many more examples to quote, and all of them pointing towards the exact same outcome. Aren’t we all glad Deepa resisted the bigoted right-wing buffoonery? Resistance is a given, when you’re an activist. People hate it when their delusions are disturbed and they hate it even more when reality screams at them (and of course, if a woman is condemning them). Yes, there is fear, but there is anger too. Dissent in a country like India is on life support. Everyday there is a news about another author/writer/artist being brutally shamed or assaulted for giving out a blunt advocation to what people are missing.
10. What are your plans for WMF in the coming years? How can we as consumers of the brilliant work you do, support it?

The plan is to grow exponentially with as many collaborations as possible. I want to span out and go global, making the work of WMF internationally recognised. I have successfully hosted one film festival in New York this year and I hope to do more. I aspire to establish WMF as a not-for-profit organisation and work with many schools and other colleges too. I have recently collaborated with a similar organisation in Pakistan and I can’t express by words how excited I am about it. We intend to create a cross-border solidarity movement and use cinema as the medium for promoting gender equality, and peace between countries. I also am planning to organise country-wide workshops and seminars on niche topics from eminent filmmakers - though I know it is a bit far-fetched, it never seems impossible. And I would be over the moon if I can collaborate with various feminist organisations, and keep making noise to break the deafening silence that women have been subjected to.

Check out Women Making Films on Facebook and online