Monday, May 7, 2018

Lemonade from an orchard of lemon trees

Insia Dariwala is the co-founder of Sahiyo, an organization that empowers Dawoodi Bohra and other Asian communities to end female genital cutting (FGC) and create positive social change. Insia speaks against the lack of knowledge about FGM/C prevalence in the Dawoodi Bohras communities, and how most work against FGM/C fails to support Asian communities and advocates. Insia further addresses FGM/C as a film-maker activist and founder of The Hands of Hope Foundation, an organization working against sexual abuse on children using visual art and education to create awareness in schools, communities & slums in India. Insia’s organizations are part of the Women Thrive Alliance, and she has worked pro-actively to ensure that the alliance’s Achieve SDG5 Initiative includes advocates from minority communities like the Bohras. Read her story below.

I grew up in a 100 square foot home, which taught me all that I needed to survive in this 510 billion square metre world. Food was scarce but imagination was aplenty. I had an interesting childhood, full of good and bad, void of material things, but rich in life experiences. Education was in a modest setting, where I graduated from a local college of suburban Mumbai. The credit for that most certainly goes to my very brave, and strong mother Denise who never allowed fate to dictate our destiny. She runs in my DNA, and I think a lot of her reflects in what I am today. At a very young age, I immigrated to the USA, started working at 19, because we needed the money to survive there, and then after a few years felt a deep vacuum within me. That void led me to explore my creativity through a degree in Advertising and Mass Communications at F.I.T, New York. I then worked as a Copywriter for a couple of years out there, returned to India after 11 years, joined the Indian Film and Television industry, and the rest as they say, is history.

Today, after giving 14 years to the creative industry, I have managed to successfully merge my passions for social advocacy and the visual medium, through my NGOs Sahiyo, and The Hands of Hope Foundation.

Life for me has been a never ending roller coaster, personally, and professionally, but I never regretted it then, and don’t even now. I truly believe we are a sum of all our experiences.

What inspired my journey as a filmmaker was LIFE. What are we, if not the many stories that makes us, and this world around us? Like I said earlier, food was scarce, but not imagination, or creativity. What I lacked in life, I created through this imaginary world, which helped me navigate through an otherwise rough terrain. It also fuelled my passion to tell stories-mine, yours, and so many others who crossed my path. I have not yet got the chance to tell all of them, but I sure got a chance to tell the ones that mattered. ‘The Candy Man’ for me was one such film.

I think it had to be the life after the abuse, which laid the foundation for all the prep needed to make this film. It was not intentional. I had no idea that I would ever tell a story on child sexual abuse. Over the years, the memory had safely been tucked away. But in 2008, when I read the news about how little street kids were lured with candy, raped, and molested, it triggered my latent memories. It brought to surface memories of the neighbouring uncle, the older cousin, the young tutor, all who gave me a candy too before fondling and molesting me. This story then, had to be written. Trust me it wasn’t easy. I still remember, one night after I got the news that a Producer was interested in making the film, I had a catharsis through a song I wrote for this film. That was a painful and lonely journey. I had never ever publicly revealed that I had experienced sexual abuse as a child. In fact, I did it a couple of years after the film. However, today when I look back at what this film did for me and many other child sexual abuse survivors, I am filled with gratitude for the man who believed in me, and gave me the platform to bring this film to life. This film is not a film, it is me. It is the many children out there who are being sexually abused daily. It is my movement to end child sexual abuse in this country, in this world even, and I am committed to it for the rest of my life.

The other film, Cock-Tale was an amazing journey. It happened during one of the darkest times India had ever seen for its women. It happened just after Nirbhaya. I had a few Producers who wanted to join the ‘make a film on rape’ bandwagon. But I didn’t want the film to be about rape. I wanted it to be a film about the rapist. I wanted to get under the skin of a rapist, to find out what was the environment, which birthed a rapist. I think it was important to ask these questions at that time. So I researched rapists and found out that there are four types, one of them being a ‘Gentleman Rapist’. I could not get over the irony of this oxymoron. How can a gentleman rape? But as I dug deeper, I found out that a man who wanted to prove his manhood, but not necessarily hurt the woman, was classified as a G.R. That was like an eye opener for me because in a place like India, the concept of machoism, is massively co-dependent on how much he can suppress a woman. So you can imagine how many closet gentleman rapists we have in our midst. This theory was further cemented when my film won awards and got screened in multiple cities of India. I still remember, I was in Delhi when a stranger came and told me that a man he knew in his village had many characteristics like the rapist in the film. That was it. I immediately knew that I had to do more than make films. I had to work on the ground and change mindsets there. That’s how The Hands of Hope Foundation was born.

In a recent TEDX talk I spoke about how most people got lemons in life, but I got an orchard full of lemon trees J So I just became innovative and went beyond lemonade. There was a time when challenges wore me down, made me feel hopeless, and life seemed pointless. But I have always been someone who refuses to get knocked out. In my boxing ring, the round 16 doesn’t exist. Doesn’t mean it’s been easy. If you ask me what has been my biggest challenge, I would say it is to keep on going. Trust me staying down is much easier than picking yourself up. There have been times when I have just wanted to curl up, and never come out of my Cancerian shell again. But then I ask myself, “If not you then who?”. That helps me get up, and continue working in this space despite all the odds. I think at the end of it all, it’s the perception, which makes a hell lot of a difference. If you can only look at every challenge as an opportunity to learn a new lesson, I think you are good.

As a filmmaker, I am a storyteller who takes fact out into the world through an observer's lens. I guess now I have to walk my talk about how every challenge is an opportunity right? J I think it really depends on what your own objective is too, you see. Every film is a journey, and like every journey you cannot pre-decide what you are going to encounter on this journey. You could anticipate certain things and prepare for it. But eventually, it becomes what it is destined to be. Generally, When I set out on a film journey, I like to retain my objectivity while executing a project on the sets, because there is a lot riding on you at that time. But while I am creating, I employ all my sensibilities and invest myself in the process.

With ‘The Candy Man’, though, it was a whole different ballgame. This was my first film and a difficult dialogue to bring out in the open. So there was a lot of emotional investment. However, I was aware that this film was going to eventually also be seen by people who may be living in a lot of denial regarding these issues, and therefore this film could not just be about me. I think I achieved that with the questions raised after the audiences viewed both those films.

Why a boy in Candy Man and not a girl? Why a film about a rapist, and not the victim? These were just some of those questions, and on hindsight these whys were important, because it created room for more communication, and consequently more solutions.

On the other hand, an international documentary film which I recently made on a Dalit Woman, ‘Serving up Success’, was her story, I was just a spectator there, hence the degree of objectivity was more. Not to say that there was no emotional investment in that film. Of course there was, and it’s hard not to, because these are all human stories, and we connect through the sharing of these stories. But the degrees may vary, and those degrees depend on what your personal investments are on that topic.

7. You also co-founded Sahiyo. Could you talk about your journey into that? 

Aah Sahiyo!! Sahiyo has been an interesting journey as well and like my other organisation, I would also like to credit Sahiyo’s birth to my passion for films. In 2012, I had started writing a film on FGM. Again, this was a story living inside of me for many many years. I had not gone through the ritual of Female Genital Cutting, thanks to my mother who put her foot down and didn’t allow me to get cut. Nonetheless, I had heard and seen many girls in my family go through it. Again, as a little girl, there was no conversation, no recall, nothing. Do we ever talk about our anatomies? But then when I was in the advertising world, I came across campaigns on FGM in Africa, which triggered memories of what I had heard in my family. I started to again talk about it to my sister, cousins, probed, researched , and that’s how a film called ‘The Good Girl’ was born. The research also led me to my other co-founders, and we all decided to combine forces, and address this practice. That is why I love Story telling. The more we share stories the closer we become as a group, a collective, and a community. Today, after 4 years of working through the Sahiyo collective, I can proudly say that our storytelling platform has been instrumental, in giving women the space to come out and talk about what they have held in since childhood. In fact, just recently, Sahiyo had its first on ground Story telling event in Mumbai, where I reached out to the Bollywood film industry and got some very fine actors to lend their support in voicing these stories. The event was a massive hit, and helped in mainstreaming the issue of FGC in India.