Monday, July 3, 2017

Of the Earth

Paulami Duttagupta is a novelist and screenplay writer. She shuttles between Kolkata and Shillong.  She has worked as a radio artist, copywriter, journalist and a television analyst. Her first film script, Ri—Homeland of Uncertainty, received the National Award for the Best Khasi Film. She wrote Onaatah, a National Award (India) winning film, and adapted the same story into a book. Here’s a conversation with Paulami.

Could you start by sharing a bit about your background to the extent comfortable - your childhood, growing years, education and family? 
I grew up in Shillong, in a nuclear family with parents teaching in colleges. For the most part of my childhood I had the freedom to let my imagination run wild. I was kind of a loner and preferred to read , play or just imagine things. Loreto Convent, my school wasn’t particularly the kind to pile students with loads of homework etc. So the pressure to spend time with school text books was never really there. When I was in class ten, I would spend a lot sleeping in the infirmary, not because I was ill but because I hadn’t slept the night before, was up watching a cricket match or because I had a book that needed to be read.
My bestie was and is my brother, and we shared fun times, had some good fights. We still do. Nothing like a good bout of wrestling and beating him. As I grew up, the choices of my life were left to me. There were never things I couldn’t tell my parents. Even now the four of us take family trips, drink wine and have long addas. 
I took up humanities and literature and the three years at college were the best in my life. That was the time that I begun to question and research on things. Also, a year before joining college the Kargil War happened and changed my life forever. No , there was no one from my family at war front. But reading about the steady list of men coming back wrapped in coffins had altered something. That was also the time when I started reading a lot of nonfiction, writing articles etc.

What got you into writing, both fiction for print and for film? 
It is not that I didn’t write while in college or university but that got lost somewhere. I got into television and said good bye to creativity. Life was boring with eight hours at work and movies in the weekends. And then one evening there was a TV show, I was smitten and there were fan fictions written every day. Friends made me publish the stories on my blog, I got readers and I became a writer. My first book was published- a fan fiction too. Writing cinema was an accident too. It just happened. I have no degree, have never been to a film school.

Let's talk about Onaatah. What inspired it? 
It was the director Pradip Kurbah’s brain child. He had met victims who wondered what lay ahead for them. When he discussed this with me, we realized we needed to tell their stories and Onaatah happened.

Could you tell us a little about the journey of writing it and any memorable incidents from the writing journey? 
Writing Onaatah was a lot about learning, about cinema and writing. I was just a one film old screenwriter when I took up Onaatah and had lot of drawbacks in my approach toward screenwriting. So chunks of the screenplay and sometimes even entire drafts had to be rejected. I am also a little obsessed with research and read case studies etc to identify with what a victim of gender violence goes through. I believe the memorable part of penning the screenplay of Onaatah is the strong women I learnt about. Their strength might not be honoured with medals and accolades in TV studios, but they teach us common women to lead our lives fearlessly.

The film had a resounding impact that drew plenty of awards. Would you like to talk a bit about the positive impact of the film on people - were there any turnarounds / mindset changes?
It was a Film Festival, my first as a writer and I was there to present my film to the audience.  As the film got over and I was called to go up on stage for the Q&A session, a couple of young girls came and hugged me. They were strangers, but they were overwhelmed by what they had seen. Later while answering the questions as I talked about society’s hypocrisy in associating honour with sexual violence, there were lot of men from the audience who agreed and supported by views and came up and talked to me about the screening. As much as I want to believe Onaatah has changed mindsets, I know for a film to do so is an uphill task. However, what I feel good as a writer is how people have reached out and talked about the story and voiced their support.  Now after launching the book version of Onaatah, I feel a lot more needs to be done. Just narrating a story is not enough. The charm of cinema is that it gets to reach even the illiterate of those who don’t realize the power of written words. The journey would get some meaning if I could reach out to victims and facilitate their rehabilitation while also sensitizing young minds. I do have the idea of a support group in mind and would be glad if more women and of course men join me in this initiative.

What challenges / resistance did you face while releasing / after releasing Onaatah? 
For a small indie film from a state that is still in its nascent stages of filmmaking and does not make too many films, it is always a challenge to make a film. There are issues with funding and you realize you never have enough funds for publicity and release of the film. But when you know you have a story that needs to be told, you have to do it. I believe that is what we did with Onaatah.

Let's talk about the book. It is not an easy task to fill in the interstices that another media form fills into the silences in the story. How easy or difficult was it to communicate through another medium?
I would be lying if I say it was difficult to write the book version. The story had lived with me for so long, and the performance of my team members had impacted me so much that the words just came out when I sat at the keyboard.

Onaatah reflects a very important journey that shows contrasting shades between the men in the portrayal - as purveyors of violence, and as purveyors of unconditional support. What, in your opinion, is the reason for this toxic patriarchy that keeps reinforcing itself on the one hand, and, what do you believe can make men question the privilege their masculinity affords them? 
Men need to realize something very simple. Patriarchy does not just make lives difficult for women. It erodes male sensitivity, places undue pressures on them, makes them believe they have to be providers and protectors. This very idea makes them think that they have an edge over women and women silently feed these egos.  What makes a mother feed a little more to her son and teach her daughter to adjust? What makes a mother not realize the importance of educating the girl child?

Patriarchy cannot be smashed with rap music and poems on social media. I might sound like a bitter critic but circulating pictures of knickers with menstrual blood or memes of Goddesses has little or negative impact on people. We have to realize we live in a country where basic education is denied to people. I was reading a report on rapes in one of the states in India and a young boy had believed that if a friend had raped a girl of the same village, it was because he had loved her. Young girls are still forced to marry their rapists, because village elders think it is ‘ the right thing’.  Unless we reach the grass root level and talk in a language they understand, it is all futile.  A man needs to understand that the privilege he thinks he enjoys is just an idea. He today has been reduced to a commodity, whose pay-packet determines his price tag.  If men are happy with that shallow positioning of their selves then I believe we should let them live with their false lives.  But before that what we need is a mass movement against the portrayal of both men and women on both Indian television and cinema. That is what reinforces ‘ toxic patriarchy.’ 
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