In Conversation with Aparna Sharma: Feminist and Decolonial Documentary Practices in NorthEast India
MAI: We thought we’d open up the conversation with a question in relation to your own work and female authorship in general and, of course, the #MeToo movement. Have you seen any changes, Aparna, within the film industry in India? And does this resonate with your own work and identity as a female decolonial filmmaker?
AS: In India, there has been a #MeToo movement which started last fall from the film and media industries. In 2017, before #MeToo as we know it, the Kerala film industry, which is a regional industry, had seen an actress express harassment at work and this led to the formation of the Women in Cinema Collective for the welfare of women in Malayalam cinema. Every effort, in my view, is welcome—but at the same time, I don’t think such efforts are enough. A key question for me with regard to #MeToo in India has to do with economics and access: who has access to computer technology and the internet to be able to partake in #MeToo? A lot of energy has been given towards #MeToo across the board, but we cannot overlook that access plays a fundamental role here. I’ve been talking to some colleagues at universities in India, and we note how technologically intensive this movement is and therefore, it can also be economically restrictive. That’s the first point.
The second point is that there has been a kind of backlash against #MeToo from women of lower castes. They have talked about how #MeToo at the moment is the movement of mostly upper caste and upwardly mobile persons. I think this critique is relevant. What this opens up is: how can gender-based violence and gender inequity generally, be addressed in all of its enormity and complexity? If we want to do that then in a country like India, we have to address the experiences and needs of women from socially, economically and politically marginalised sections of society such as women from minority communities. And we will have to understand that we cannot talk about sexual violence or harassment in the abstract. Sexual violence tends to be one element within much wider structures of power operating in society. These are the questions right now that we are trying to think through.
Something that I feel about this moment is that amidst all the celebration and affirmations about #MeToo, which are valid, we need to think about this movement critically in terms of addressing how these ideas, how this movement is going to percolate or disseminate across different sections of society. Doing so to an extent requires that we face our own privilege and ask some difficult questions about power and its operations. This can be a very productive moment to develop critical thinking. For women such as myself who are educated and mobile, the relevance of this movement may appear immediate. But it may not pan out in exactly the same way for women who may not command resources of the kind on which this movement rests, which is not to suggest that they are or have historically been without any resources for resistance of their own. Here, I am reminded of moments in postcolonial theory when there have been calls for strategic alliance building and unlearning our privileges. These calls have assumed renewed relevance in the context of this discussion.
MAI: Do you think it will have an impact on your future projects, on your material or what you choose to work on?
AS: I haven’t thought about it in this way. I am thinking about some sort of scholarly intervention that might be a place to start this kind of work. This also has to do with my position as a practitioner wherein I am very resistant and deeply critical towards the use of documentary and media more broadly, as vehicles to deliver pre-constituted messages and/or agendas.
MAI: Yes, that is indeed a very old-fashioned approach to documentary as a form.
AS: Yes. This has its place in the world, this kind of activist mode of representation in which one uses the medium to spread a pre-constituted message, often for the purpose of creating awareness. But, I have very strong reservations towards this modality. Partly because in this form documentary is hijacked by a message or an agenda that precedes it. For instance, when the gang-rape happened in Delhi in 2012, there was a documentary made by a British filmmaker, Leslee Udwin entitled India’s Daughter, that received a lot of attention in India because it was going to be released around the time of the trial of the four men involved in the case. While I do not dismiss the place and value of any effort including this film, but when you see the film, one thing that becomes very apparent is the complete evasion of the social and economic context of the crime. This is not necessarily to do with the filmmaker being British, but to me, it seems this has to do with liberal thinking, more broadly. The film followed a lot of emotion for the aggrieved. Of course, we have to respect the experience for everyone involved as a whole and also the filmmaker’s commitment towards making this film. But where a film like this becomes limiting is when it approaches persons as individuals, not as subjects of history, class, social structures or structures of power. I am not instituting a false binary, but I feel that it would have been very educative if the crime could have been viewed from a socio-economic and historical standpoint.
MAI: I think this is something that has struck me as being symptomatic generally about the #MeToo movement, Aparna. First, that it’s been co-opted from Tarana Burke by white, Hollywood actresses who perhaps feel safe(r) when speaking out about crimes of sexual assault and harassment—Burke has been doing this work already for years, but seemed to go largely ignored in that early stretch of the movement on social media (which she has openly said was extremely painful for her to witness). Second, it’s been very evident that only certain people can seek the means of redress because they are not supporting children at home, they are not the working poor who may be, for instance, cleaning hotel rooms for a living or working under precarious conditions of employment from pay cheque to pay cheque with multiple mouths to feed and bodies to clothe. People have known about R Kelly, for instance, for a very long time indeed now, but nobody seems to have expressed much interest in that because the women he has abused are black and not at all famous. This is how it seems to me, and I imagine, to a lot of other people it seems this way, too. That #MeToo has accomplished most for the women who were already, demographically, the most privileged and that working class women and women of colour are being occluded altogether from the movement or do not have access to it.
AS: Yes. I see a tendency that such movements become moments for liberal, in India specifically middle-class people who are upwardly mobile, to vent their frustrations/perspectives and align with the cause. This has its place and is very much needed as a way to raise awareness. I am not saying that such support should be in any way undermined or depleted. But the limitation comes when we cannot think past the immediate instance. There can be this tendency to hijack discussion in favour of the individual as though the individual exists purely as an abstract category. There is a lot of Women’s Studies scholarship in India that talks about how a crime against women can be understood through such terms as caste politics, economics, the history of communalism in India, among other factors. Another related point in the case of India towards which I would like to take attention is that there are parts of the country where there has been long-term political uncertainty and military rule has been imposed. For instance the state of Kashmir and parts of northeast India. Here, the history and terms for discussing sexual violence are more specific and include such violations as custodial rape. So when #MeToo comes up, how do we place it next to a situation where unfortunately crime against women has been normalised? It is implicated in structures and operations of power. How do we place a movement like #MeToo in conversation with places—not just Kashmir or northeast India—but say war zones where such violence is, very sadly a part of the very fabric of daily life? The celebratory tone of the #MeToo discourse, perhaps unbeknownst to itself, is at some level exclusionary and it would not hurt to have some room for critique in the spirit of advancing critical thinking through this movement.
MAI: Yes, we completely agree with you. We’re curious to know how you picked the community of women for your recent documentary on weaving:
AS: I’ll begin with some background to my work. I went to a progressive women’s college, The Lady Shri Ram College for Women (LSR) in New Delhi where we were encouraged to think about the feminist project in the context of India. We were made aware, often uncomfortably, of our own privileges such as the fact that we lived in the capital of India or our own social and economic backgrounds. LSR made an effort to bring women from other parts of India into the educational institution and fostered, without forcing, situations that brought together disparate even incongruent voices onto a shared platform. I was introduced to very beginner-level subaltern studies and political thought during my undergraduate studies. This, I think, inculcated a practice of being critical in the sense of asking questions, not being content with immediate rationalisations particularly around women’s movements and ‘progress.’ At least for those of us who reached out there were avenues to cultivate a method of thinking in which one understood that for every reading or interpretation, there can be a counter reading and interpretation. I then worked as a journalist in news media and television programming. This was a brief phase that exposed me to how the day-to-day functioning of the media apparatus could be hostile towards women and their perspectives. I could not continue though I do feel, in hindsight, that exposure was a deep learning experience in terms of seeing, first-hand how structures of power operate.
My PhD was practice-based and I was looking at an Indian diasporic community in Cardiff, South Wales whose social and cultural life centred around a Hindu temple. In the course of that work, it became very apparent to me that there was a very proud and celebratory narrative about how a Hindu, migrant community had settled and integrated within the fabric of British society. It was very real at one level and yet, in the physical margins of the Hindu temple, the structure itself there were personal narratives, mostly those of women that were so removed from the narrative of an ideal, migrant community. My PhD film Crossings in a Beautiful Time and thesis, Montage and Ethnicity, opened up these seemingly incongruent dimensions of the migrant experience. By the time of this work, I think I had developed a gut instinct to look for women’s interpretations and usually find them as distinct and more complex from more normative rationalisations of things!
The reason I started working in northeast India goes back to my undergraduate studies. I had completed a BA in Journalism at LSR and as part of the degree programme, I had undertaken a series of courses on Indian politics, political history, diplomacy and economics. One of those classes, Indian Government and Politics—II, had introduced the centre-periphery model that was influential in Marxist political thought. Specifically, I had been drawn to discussions around communalism in India and the centralised model of governance that India has come to adopt despite being a federal democracy. I was interested in how the centralisation of power perpetuated powerlessness at India’s peripheries. The essays of scholars such as Atul Kohli and Zoya Hasan deeply influenced my understandings. This centre-periphery model drew me into studying the politics of northeast India. A separatist and insurgent movement was riding high in the state of Assam at the time. There was a clear correspondence between the newsprint I would read each morning reporting on violent unrest in Assam and the theory I would study later in the day in the classroom that would enable to see Assam as more complex than the newsprint allowed for us appreciate.
In the final year of the BA programme, we were required to undertake a piece of field-based research with a view to critiquing an aspect of mainstream news media operations. My project focused on broadsheet newsprint’s reportage related to Assam and in this work I argued that mainstream news media both under-represented and misrepresented the state and its political conditions. I travelled to Assam, interviewed Assamese language journalists, local stringers and I was introduced to a whole different ecology and texture of media work in Assam. I became aware of how processes of stereotyping in national narratives work and, the role of northeast India in the construction of national narratives. My thesis had favourable reception in both academia and media circles. My research from this project led to the making of a television programme critiquing media operations in northeast India that was aired in the summer of 1999 on Doordarshan, the national television network of India. By the end of this project, I was committed to return and work in Assam. But I was very conscious that I am not Assamese and more crucially, I felt limitations in methodological and theoretical training that would enable me to work in Assam.
My PhD project, though on a differing topic, provided me a methodological training on how one would work in a community. I felt equipped to ask questions around the position and power that resides with media-makers. After finishing my PhD, I returned to Assam in 2009. The separatist movement had subsided by then and there was new scholarship in fields such as folklore studies and anthropology in which I got interested. I contacted the University of Guwahati, a renowned institution of learning in northeast India and over time, I have developed strong professional relationships there. Returning to Assam, I was aware that my practice would embody a critique of mainstream media representations of northeast India. My first film in Assam, Kamakha: Through Prayerful Eyes (2012) was about an iconic fertility worship site and the visual arts practices that it inspires. The local Assamese press received Kamakha with seriousness.
After finishing that film, I was visiting the small and sleepy town of Tezpur (Middle Assam). I’d gone there to research early cinema in Assam and I was looking at one of the first filmmakers of that region, a Gandhian freedom fighter by the name of Jyotiprasad Aggarwala. I was particularly interested in a 1935 film he had made, Joymoti that features a strong female protagonist—an Assamese princess called Joymati, who played a pivotal role in the pre-colonial Ahom kingdom’s history. I could see that the film Joymoti was influenced by Soviet montage and some other forms of melodramatic storytelling. Joymoti had been censored by the British establishment because it was thought to be exemplary of a kind of Gandhian spirit of non-cooperation. The film had very limited showings in the region.
Aggarwala was an important figure of the cultural renaissance in Assam and he had played a crucial role in the independence movement there. During the independence movement, Mahatma Gandhi had visited Assam in 1921 and become very interested in Assam’s rich and long tradition of weaving. Popular iconography surrounding Mahatma Gandhi often depicts him with a spinning wheel. For Gandhi, the idea was that one fights colonialism through self-reliance as symbolised by the spinning wheel and handloom weaving, more broadly. Cloth production in India was tightly implicated with colonial forms of exploitation: raw materials/raw cotton were taken from India and finished cloth, often produced in cities like Manchester, sold back to Indians. In his movement for freedom, Mahatma Gandhi had called for a boycott of British-produced goods. The freedom movement is populated with images of Indians burning the foreign-produced cloth. This is an iconic image of India’s Freedom movement. When India became free, the spinning wheel became a motif in India’s national flag.
Returning to the women’s weaving workshop in Tezpur, Assam: this workshop was started when Gandhi called for a boycott of foreign-produced cloth in Assam. Jyotiprasad Aggarwala and his family played a key role in organising the boycott and starting a women’s weaving workshop to preserve and promote Assamese weaving.
During my research on the film Joymoti I was taken to this workshop. At once struck I was captivated by the sounds of the handlooms. I immediately sensed that the community of weavers at this workshop form a social collective and the whole atmosphere of the workshop seemed infused with the values of economic self-reliance and pride in handicraft labour. The very fact that this workshop has existed for a hundred years as an independent non-profit organization is in and of itself every bit worth celebration. So that’s where the idea of this film Mihin Sutta, Mihin Jibon/The Women Weavers of Assam came from. The resilience and sense of community this weavers’ collective symbolises inspired me to make this film.
MAI: Yes, I was struck when seeing the film by the atmosphere of confidence that women had in that workshop. They knew their value and professional impact. That was wonderful to see.
AS: That was what I was after in the film and that was what took so long to establish because, in a space such as this workshop, where women come from different and on occasions, challenging backgrounds, conversations can very quickly slip into discourses of victimhood. Even though the women work so hard to overcome the challenges with which they may have been confronted. It took some time to establish myself within the community and that my work was not using want or victimhood as a framework. The weaving workshop works from grant to grant from the government and they have to focus on how the grant money will help the weavers. So, to some extent, there is this bureaucratic narrative around upliftment in the space. I was very determined to work against this. The weavers were very cooperative and they grasped that I was not interested in those pre-constituted terms of representation. The pre-production phase was lengthy—two, perhaps even two and a half years with no camera. Just spending time with the community, being with them and talking to them so that we could all bring our own perspectives to the filmmaking process.
MAI: would you say that this film mobilises a kind of collaborative authorship, then, Aparna?
AS: I use the word collaborative with a degree of caution. I am the one with the resources, the time and the security of a university position to go out and make these films. So, we—the subjects of my films and I—are not approaching this equally. The start for me is always in terms of those who I am filming. I often start by asking: how do you see yourself represented, and what will be of most value to you? So that is a very direct question for me in the process; not just in this film but in every documentary film I have made. Nine times out of ten this has to do with me unlearning ideas about what I want to make a film about—a process of working against my own (often romantic!) ideas in the face of the realities of people’s lives. This is why I never enter the space without announcing myself. I never just show up and start filming. People are very sensitive to being filmed. They sense how they are talked about. My process is to ask them what is useful and valuable to them. It’s a learning process. I find it deeply valuable to be told what to film rather than me showing up and shooting what I am drawn towards. It’s great when these moments come from the subjects of my films: We’re going to the market to buy vegetables for our picnic. Would it be interesting for you to film this? Tomorrow, I will go to see my old father in the village. Would you like to come too with your camera? Collaboration in my filmmaking processes has never really extended to, for instance, handing over a camera to the subject and seeing through their eyes. This is because we know that if one were to hand a camera to a subject, for instance here a weaver, you’re taking her off her loom where she could be producing cloth and earning money. So even if people are interested, one has to weigh it against the economic costs. But there have been occasions previously when someone I was interviewing expressed a willingness to co-direct the sequence about them with me. So, it varies from project to project. While wanting collaboration, one has to be alert about how that will work out for the person you want to collaborate with.
MAI: Can you tell us a bit about your editing process?
AS: One thing that is integral to my process is to show the subjects what I have shot with them—whether it’s daily showing, or on a Sunday afternoon or during a tea break, or however it works out for them. Whenever they have time. The conversations that result from these showings often give me ideas for the editing process. For instance, in this project, the weavers would often suggest—’oh, perhaps you want to film us cooking in the kitchen because we don’t work all the while on the looms, our time is often interrupted, it’s not solidly spent weaving’. So, then I can see I need to create a shift there from the workshop to the kitchen. There is cooking that needs to be done, there is cleaning that needs to be done, there is shopping that needs to be done. These things, how they flow in the everyday lives of the weavers, shape the editing. I also use voiceover minimally. This is in fact one of the first films in which I have used it to the extent that I have. I am inspired by observational cinema and I prefer to show everyday life unfolding through its own patterns. Showing things in the order in which they unfold is important for another reason: my own rapport with people changes as the filming progresses. I need to retain that evolution in relationships because that invites the viewer into the space that is built and shared between the subjects of the film and myself. It adds another layer of meaning and experience to the film that is not something in and of itself, but which nevertheless enriches the encounter for the viewer. I hope … Of course, that backfires when one is confronted with a viewer who is not used to this kind of documentary. But for the viewer who is willing to give themselves to the experience and bring something to it—well, then it is a very rich place to be, I think. I am not interested in being deterministic in the sense of offering digestible or neatly crafted meanings or messages.
Another thing that I must mention about The Women Weavers of Assam is that the spinning wheel being linked with Gandhi and the freedom movement in India’s recent history, has also, in some sense, been a masculinised image through that process of history writing. In the process of weaving, the handloom comes after the spinning wheel and I was acutely aware of the need to bring out female labour in the making of cloth. While editing I was committed to bringing to the fore the female body’s relationship to the handloom and labour. That guided the editing process in its own way.
MAI: We were struck by the woman who described the loom as her partner:
AS: Yes, that is a moment that tends to spark debate when I show the film. But she’s not talking about the loom in a narrow sense at all. For her and for me this was a poetic moment. It came about without any planning when she was one afternoon reflecting on the role of weaving in her life. She says this loom occupies the intimate place of a partner. This statement by her has a real poetic charge, I think. I know this was compelling for her. She has told me so.
MAI: We wonder if the sound of the looms influenced the editing of the film which feels both meditative and rhythmic.
AS: The moment when I heard the sounds of the handlooms for the first time was the moment at which the film was born. These moments when a film comes to one are quite internal, subtle yet palpable. The sounds of the handlooms were at the front of my whole experience of making this film and, I wanted to give these sounds, their rhythms a prominent place in the film. The relationship between sound and image is extremely important to me as a filmmaker. When I was shooting I had no particular ideas in terms of rhythms for editing, but I knew I wanted to document the sounds of these looms from as many distances and perspectives as possible so that I would have a lot of options in the post-production process. I have hours of recorded sounds of the looms from different perspectives most of which have been embedded in some way or the other throughout the film. I didn’t have a boom pole so we made one out of two bamboo sticks … it was really a very local and organic process! The sounds of the looms add another layer to the film. They are crucial for our sense of the atmosphere of the place we are seeing on screen. They are also crucial for our understanding of the relationship of the labouring body to the handloom.
MAI: Are you yourself a weaver, Aparna?
AS: Yes, I can weave. Not in a professional or highly skilled way.
I usually make films about the making of things and whatever art or craft practice I am looking at, I need to learn that in the process of making the film. I think that influences the way I experience, think through and cut a film. It enables me to think through and sense things. During the making of this film, I had a residency in Finland near Turku. Major portions of this film’s post-production were conducted at that residency. It was quite subtle. I was for the most part alone in a vast landscape that is very flat, cold and quiet. As part of the residency, I went to a workshop where I learned Scandinavian weaving. I was also introduced to some very old weaving practices of the region and designs that are rooted in the Scandinavian landscape. I wove a medium-length rug, observed how the technique works and what it does for the person practising it. This learning opened something inside me that deepened my relationship to the weaving that I had principally seen from behind a camera. I think this kind of work experience is very essential to the whole learning one goes through while making a documentary film.
MAI: Anna is very interested in weaving and she’s actually quite good at it so …
MAI: Oh my goodness! That would be my dream to weave intensively in Finland. I should organise a residency and go there immediately.
AS: It’s not very expensive to learn, Anna—you really should go!
With regard to the workshop in Tezpur, when I had started filming I had learned some spinning with the weavers there and a bit on the handloom too. But they are doing this work for their livelihood. They are making money out of it so they can’t have a novice on the loom taking up room and time. So, I tried as much as was possible within the context of my filming.
This is something I try to do in all my films: I attempt to learn the art or craft I am making a film about.
MAI: So how do you choose these artistic topics, Aparna:
AS: To put it simply, I want to know what people do. With their hands, with their bodies. This is important knowledge. This also has a direct correlation with my interest to work in Assam because the reason why communities of northeast India feel removed from the Indian mainland is in large measure because there are little to no terms of understanding the people of northeast India socio-culturally. It is not uncommon to run into this kind of colonial, paternalistic mentality that these are ‘tribal’ and therefore essentially, ‘primitive’ people and that they are backward in the worst sense. The whole political movement in this region is very different from Kashmir or Palestine. Across northeast India political and cultural self-assertion have been historically inseparable, say for example through the language movement in Assam. So, for me to be making a film about the cultural life of this region is in that sense an act of political affiliation with this region and this, more than anything else has been the reason why my films receive a certain kind of reception there. Cultivating dialogue with the communities I work with is important for what I do. It is when I am standing on the ground and looking through the viewfinder that I can engage most strongly with postcolonial theory and feminist thought because then these ideas and discourses assume a life beyond the paper. The northeast region is my principal audience.
Of course, my work gets shown outside India and I am interested in the conversations those showings provoke. But one of the primary considerations I have with showing work outside of India, where I am often a ‘person of colour’, is that my filmmaking constitutes a kind resistance towards having my agenda set by someone else. My peers in India and I, we often discuss what kinds of expectations there are about the stories that come out of India. Most independent Indian documentary-filmmakers steer clear of these expectations. To me, as I said earlier in the interview, it is against the spirit of documentary-making that there be a message or an agenda that precedes a film and/or dictates its contents and aesthetics. A further dimension to this is that when others define how Indian documentary filmmakers should tell stories, they are at a very profound level enacting an ignorance towards India’s cinemas, artistic debates and practices.
MAI: How does your work in practice relate to your teaching?
AS: The academic community is very supportive of my work and my trajectory with it. I can show the work—as I did last year in Gothenburg—at conferences and workshops. Academic environments are the places where we ask difficult questions, questions about power, where we develop critical thinking and critical art practices. But in my teaching, I am not sure I have shown my own work as much. In my teaching, I find myself preparing the ground to make students aware of media acculturations, dominant media discourses and how those shape understandings about non-western and women filmmakers. I invite students into developing a contextual understanding to appreciate what filmmakers and artists do, why they do what they do, and how they do it. Postcolonial studies and feminist thought understood most widely, converge quite seamlessly in this work. My teaching is about confronting that problematics of power in the fields of cinema and visual cultures. The bringing together of feminism, postcolonial and decolonial thought is quite important. I want to resist the idea that postcolonialism is about thinking about ‘those people out there.’ Postcolonialism is about the world and the history we have come to share. Postcolonial criticism is equally about the coloniser as it is about the colony. So much of third feminism has articulated how structures of power did not disempower the colonised in equal terms. Some entities—human and non-human—were impacted to greater disadvantage than others. Further, postcolonial thought invites us to create strategic alliances. The work of theory and practice then, in my view, is to demystify structures of power. That is what I am trying to do in the classroom and in my own filmmaking practice.
MAI: Aparna, I’m really interested to understand what the cardinal difference between the terms postcolonial and decolonial—and the perspectives these terms offer—is for you specifically because I know this is important for both your teaching and filmmaking:
AS: Both terms have to be used, but the postcolonial has an embedded temporality—with the ‘post’ implying after colonialism. That is not satisfactory. In my thinking postcolonialism is the study of the effects of colonialism especially in the field of culture. This is how postcolonialism assumes use and value for my work. Decolonial, in my thinking, is a wider project to demystify and disassemble colonial thought, discourses and practices. As such, it constitutes a fuller confrontation with hegemony and power: colonial, patriarchal, corporate … I think both postcolonialism and decolonial thinking allow us to critique and demystify power. To me, here is where feminism, esp third world feminism, becomes a necessity. It invites us to contest and complicate our understanding of women in the third world, their experiences and their narratives. It encourages us to identify and appreciate how women have enacted resistance in the third world. These are sentiments I borrow from postcolonial studies and feminist thought. My work, on the whole, owes much to this thinking.
Photos reprinted with kind permission from the photographers, Aparna Sharma and Bhaskar Jyoti Das.
To those interested in further reading, MAI recommends Aparna Sharma’s book, Documentary Films in India: Critical Aesthetics at Work (2015), published by Palgrave MacMillan.
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