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Posts Tagged ‘filming’

I started to feel like the literal wicked witch of the west.

I wanted to interview B – one of the senior field workers at the NGO in Dharavi – outside on her stoop. Besides desiring outdoor light instead of a windowless interior, her house had the added bonus of being painted sea-foam green with a red door and she was in a yellow sari. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I should have guessed that white person in kurta + camera and tripod + Dharavi would equal difficulties. But the good light and the colorful background seduced me.

By the time we had started filming 30 people had crowded around us. B happened to live on one of the main lanes in her section of Dharavi, and so there was more open space than in most other parts of the sprawling slum. It stopped feeling that way once I had ten children breathing down my neck gawking at my view-finder. And every time one of them giggled or whispered (and I subsequently heard it coming through the audio in my headphones) I would turn around, put my finger over my mouth and make a clear ‘shush’ gesture.

It didn’t have the desired effect. Either the children would start laughing at my face (literally) or the adults around them would start to announce loudly in Hindi that everyone should be quiet (or so my translator K informed me). It went this way for most of the hour-long interview.

But after all the shushing and hand-gestures and mockery from children, we did end up with a great interview from B. She was lucky enough to have come from a supportive family – her parents had raised her in a very unorthodox home where both parents were active in community organizing and women were viewed as mostly equal to the men. For a woman in her 40’s to have grown up like this in Dharavi is pretty rare.

But it instilled in B a desire to do social work. After she was married, she originally started volunteering with a group in her husband’s neighborhood (their particular area of Dharavi is for people who specialize in pottery-making). She said that in the beginning, her neighbors ostracized her. But since she loved her work, she didn’t care.

Her volunteer group eventually started working with the domestic violence prevention NGO (the one we’re making the film for) and eventually B began to work for them. She enjoyed being the person that women in her community came to, and she didn’t see her job as work. She said most nights, women come in and out of her house at all hours seeking her advice.

When the interview ended, sure enough, a woman was there, waiting to talk. The woman explained that her son-in-law was beating her daughter and the mother was worried that she wasn’t going to get help. As they went inside to talk, I hesitated. I certainly want to intrude on the conversation. But the woman indicated that she didn’t mind.

So I stood and filmed. I asked K to wait outside so there would be as few people ‘eavesdropping’ as possible. But even without understanding the words it was clear that B was the right woman for the job. She listened, placing her hand on the woman’s hands as she spoke. When the woman began to cry B cupped her hands around her face and said nothing, but it seemed to me that the gesture was meant to convey that she had strength enough for them both. When the woman was done explaining B began to talk – quietly, but with the sheer force of a woman who believed she could solve the unsolvable. When the woman got up to leave she took B’s hand in hers and held it for a long moment.

We went back outside and I told K to tell the woman that I appreciated being able to film the conversation. I tried to joke that since I don’t speak Hindi, I didn’t know the secrets in she was sharing anyway. She smiled and put her hand on mine, which was still clutching my camera.

As she walked away, she seemed stronger – empowered with the ability to improve her daughters life, or at least knowing that there was someone strong standing behind her.

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Through the Lens

I felt a tugging at my kurta. I looked down and saw a smiling face staring back at me. She reminded me of myself when I was ten: gawky, wearing a neon blue shirt and bright red jeans with a blunt haircut and bangs that were cut unevenly – although, I never had sported a gold and pink nose-ring. This tiny person just wasn’t the picture I’d had in mind of the person who would be meeting us to take us on this particular trip through the maze of residential Dharavi.

I shouldn’t have been surprised – R, one of the field workers at the domestic violence prevention center in Dharavi we’d been working with, had told us she was sending her daughter to get us. And while R was only 26 years old, I knew her eldest was 10. But it was still daunting to watch this little 50 lb girl confidently navigate the way from the hot sunny streets outside the hospital where met into the dark, confusing tangle of houses.

We were finally about to start filming – after months of research, waiting for equipment, delayed meetings, and permission slips signed by the husbands (yes, this was still a requirement for a women’s health organization in order for filming to be allowed), I felt like I understood what these women were doing enough to tell their story. We had decided that we would follow three of the field workers to illustrate the work being done to eradicate domestic violence in Dharavi. All of them had grown up in Dharavi and all of them could have stayed at home like so many other women here– but they had decided to wake up every morning and combat an issue that is so entrenched it’s hard to fathom attitudes changing.

So we were starting with R. We were going to go to her house, film her morning routine and then interview her in her home. I was going with K, my translator, who was going to have to conduct the interviews, since none of the women spoke English. I was nervous about not having control over the interview, even if I had written the questions. I was nervous about not being able to properly shoot a space too small to capture. I was nervous that I couldn’t ever really tell the story properly, since I was so foreign and so clearly outside. But I was certainly going to try my best.

R’s daughter brought us to their home. It was a five-foot by five-foot room, covered top to bottom in lilac tiles. The bed took up a third of the apartment – it was a steel frame cut short so it could fit exactly from end to end of the room. R, her husband, and their three children all slept in this bed, in their windowless house, with one fan every night. When I came in R was lighting incense for a statue of a Hindu god that she had to stand on her bed to reach because it was up in one of the few cupboards the room had. She and her husband had been able to afford a fridge and a television – and the two youngest children were sitting on the bed watching a dubbed Hindi version of Looney Tunes. I watched as Bugs Bunny chewed on a carrot and leaned in to say, “What’s up Doc?”, although the words came out as whatever the equivalent in Hindi was.

R stepped off the bed and greeted us. She told K that she was just going to do her morning routine and we could film whatever we liked. I felt sort of voyeuristic taking out my camera, but I kept reminding myself that she wanted us to be there, she wanted us to make a film about the subject she worked so hard for every day, and she had no qualms sharing her life.

We all danced around each other in the small space over the next two hours as R painstakingly completed all the household chores (while her husband mostly sat and played with the children). She cleaned everything top to bottom. She went out and gathered water. She gave each child a bucket shower with the water out in the alleyway because there wasn’t enough space in the house. She washed all the dishes in the alleyway, crouched down, scrubbing each meticulously. She came in cut onions and coriander to make a morning pulao for her family and offered some to K and myself. Her portable gas stove took up the entire small counter.

While we were eating, the kids came over to study my camera and play with my iphone. They giggled and pushed each other around – I couldn’t help feeling like their games and actions were so familiar even if I couldn’t understand the words. Two older girls and a toddler son – just like how my family had been. The sisters tickled each other and poked each other, giggling at the games and pushing each other around every time their parents stopped looking.

It’s a conflicting feeling, watching a woman in Dharavi’s morning routine from the lens of a white, privileged person. You don’t want to glorify it by saying, “Oh, they are so happy. They don’t seem to care that they are poor. They work hard and love each other.” But you don’t want to diminish it by saying, “How can they live like that? How can people survive without space or light or privacy? How can this powerhouse woman, who I’ve spent so much time with over the last few months, possibly find the strength to do this every single day?”. The truth seems to lie somewhere in-between that – it’s not beautiful and its not impossible. It’s not a glorified life of poverty but it’s also not a miserable existence. This is life.

R’s husband left after breakfast- he works ‘cutting fabric for pants.’ R’s kids were out of school for Diwali so she instructed them to either leave or keep quiet while we set up the interview. R sat on her bed and K and I sat on the floor – although K had to kneel and try and keep herself on R’s eye level so it wouldn’t look weird on camera. It was assumed that no one around us would have a chair she could use.

And so she began talking – it was really hard for me, to sit back and hope for the best as my interview took place, essentially, without me. Because I didn’t want to interrupt the interview, K couldn’t translate for me until R finished answering each question fully, and even then she only gave me a summary, since I thought it would be awkward to have long pauses for R between questions. When I interview someone I normally can listen out to make sure the question has been answered, or whether I need to rephrase it to get a little bit more – here I’ll only find out whether it worked or not once everything is transcribed and translated.

But I was able to understand the basics of R’s story: her husband – the one who I’d marveled at moments before for his tenderness towards his wife and children – had previously had a habit of beating his young wife. R had confided to an aunt about the beatings and she directed R towards the non-profit she now works for. Initial counseling was difficult – her husband didn’t think he was doing anything socially unacceptable – but eventually he came around. She feels lucky, because so many of the women she sees now can never convince their husband that anything is wrong. R eventually began volunteering and was hired by the NGO a year ago. She doesn’t think violence will ever come close to being eradicated. But she’s hoping that they can make even a small difference.

When the interview ended we thanked R for letting us in and sharing her story. She smiled, we said goodbye, and made our way back into the alley.

As we put our shoes back on, K looked up.

“Can you imagine stepping outside your house and not knowing whether it was night or day?” she said. It was true – the layers of sheet-metal and drying clothing and extra stories and tarp all made it very dark and difficult to see the sky, even though we were outside of the house.

“I can’t,” I said honestly. But the thought was interrupted as R came out too, purse in hand, ready to walk us back out to the street. She led the way.

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Film City

It’s not very often a person gets invited to go inside the heart of Bollywood. It’s probably even less often that the person doesn’t know where they’re getting invited to.

I, of course, am that silly person in this scenario.

To be fair, no one ever told me what Film City was. I was mostly just happy that someone was willing to lend me equipment.

You see, the biggest challenge for any person hoping to volunteer their time to Mumbai NGO’s as a journalist/documentarian (or, filmstress, as one friend recently dubbed me) is that to be productive you need the help of some very expensive equipment.

I’m used to working for organizations that own innumerable cameras, have all the editing space you need and technical support whenever you want. Here, I’m like a jockey without a horse.  NGO’s don’t have a budget for even the most basic resources, let alone thousands of dollars worth of camera and editing equipment.  So for the projects I’m working on, every scenario has been a bit of a scramble.

Luckily for one, we got a little bit of help.

I’m doing all the documentation for a large education conference taking place next weekend called InspirED (www.InspiredIndia.in if anyone is interested). The aim of the conference is to bring teachers and educators in from across the country to discuss ways to improve innovation in India’s classrooms.

One of the conference’s partners happened to be connected to someone at a major film school – and as such they were able to convince the film school to become a sponsor of the conference and donate equipment. It was a huge relief.

Our contact at the film school told me that I should come out to see the equipment and facilities I would be using. We set a time to meet and then he told me the school was located within Film City. The words flew over my head.

When I got in the car the next day I confused my driver: “Can we go to the film school in Film City. Do you know where Film City is?”

“You want to go to Film City?”

“Yes, it’s in Goregaon.”

“Yes, ma’am. I know where it is. Everyone knows where it is. Are you sure you have permission?”

“What do you mean?”

“You can’t go in without permission.”

“I… I have permission.” I said, still a bit confused by what he meant.

“Why would I need special permission?”

“Ma’am, Film City is where all the Bollywood movies are made.  You have to have authorization to go in.”

I assured him that we had permission, and he began to drive. But I was still quite curious- I asked him to tell me more.

Apparently, the land for Film City was given to the film industry by the Indian government and it’s been home to thousands of Bollywood movies since the first film was shot there in 1911. It’s on the edge of Sanjay Gandhi National Park (the largest urban park in the world) and it is a sprawling place- forests are next to large sets next to various sound-stages. While films are created across India, Film City is known as the hub. It’s as though half the studios in Hollywood were located in one place. And in an industry that puts out  over 900 films a year (more than Hollywood), that’s really saying something.

We drove up to the gate. A glowering guard stared at me as I rolled the window down. I gave him my name and he checked his list. Apparently, I was good to go.

An unused elaborate film set

We drove in and it was as though someone had turned the city on its head – the noise and dirt and pollution instantly disappeared. It was like we were driving down a remote dirt lane – hills stood tall in the distance as a lush forest came right up to the road.  It was hard to remember we were two minutes from the insanity of Bombay.

At every turn there was something else hidden in the space– an elaborate set, a soundstage, a group filming some movie or tv show. I know that hundreds of extras must see this every day but I couldn’t help but feel like I’d entered some secret compound. It just didn’t feel like the city anymore – and I suppose that’s what movies are supposed to do best. This was the perfect hidden space to make a film about anything.

We pulled into the film school and I was greeted at the door. I was shown the equipment and everything looked perfect- they were giving us great cameras and unlimited time in an edit room. It was fitting that they could give me everything we required for filming the conference – we were in need of a bit of magic and they, apparently, were in the right place to make it happen.

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I have finally begun what I hope will be a long-term effort during my time here in Bombay.

Everyone has been asking me since I arrived: What are you hoping to do here? And the answer to that question ranges from vague to very specific. It’s either: “I’m hoping to take a step back from my hectic life and do something valuable.” or, the more honest and blunt, “I have no actual plan.”

I knew one thing: I wanted to use the skills I’ve learned over the last few years to be truly valuable somewhere in a way others couldn’t. The only question was, what on earth would that entail?

Luckily I was put in contact with a woman who certainly understood my vantage point. She is a former journalist who tired of the profession and started her own non-profit that aims to give underprivileged women a voice through the use of media and communications.  After listening to my story and hearing what I was hoping to do, she suggested a seemingly great solution: I could go to the various NGO’s her organization partnered with and document their stories. They could use it for their websites, or presentations or fund-raising — wherever it would be helpful.

We decided to start with an organization that works with domestic violence victims in Dharavi, one of the world’s largest slums.

It’s hard for me to explain Dharavi in any knowledgeable context, since my first visit was very short and contained. But just the statistics alone can bring some perspective. It’s estimated that at least a million people live in Dharavi — an area that’s less than one square mile. Or, to use a National Geographic estimate, there’s 18,000 people living on every acre. Rents can be as low as $4 a month. And you won’t have trouble finding it – Dharavi is a 15-minute drive across the highway from Bandra. This prime real estate has led to some controversial re-development proposals in recent years (although none seem to be quite able to get off the ground, from what I have been told).  Most people in the West became familiar with Dharavi (even if they don’t know it) because the childhood scenes in the film Slumdog Millionaire were shot there.

With all that in mind I drove into Dharavi to discuss the work that I would be doing.

I didn’t see a lot – the organization is based in a public hospital on one of the main roads, so I have yet to experience the teeming mazelike interior of the slum. But even just driving down the road you can understand why there are two very different mindsets about this place.

The obvious negative descriptions are apparent – Most of the structures appeared to be built with sheets of materials cobbled together, often rusting and filled with holes. One building’s owners had tied ladders horizontally in-between wall materials in order to create an open window. Dirt was everywhere, casting a dark pall on the haphazard structures. The bright bursts of color that exist everywhere else in Mumbai were only visible on the saris of women walking through the street.

But it was clear from the outset why this place is also known for a sense of community. Those sari-clad women chatted animatedly as they walked together down the street.  Down the road, a man tried to lift something into a truck and another man crossed over the street and offered to help. The main road was lined with every kind of shop imaginable – grocery markets, restaurants, clothing stores. You can understand why residents have been so vocally against development — they have created a life here and their neighbors and families own businesses. It is a city unto itself.

I went into the hospital, up to the small area cordoned off for the domestic violence center. The woman accompanying me told me that the public hospitals are often empty because the doctors who are appointed to work there just don’t show up. Since they are political appointees, no one higher up notices (or chooses to notice) the absences that take place throughout the system.

But the center itself was full of life – the women who worked there were in full motion — holding meetings, typing away at computers, and discussing work over chai.

I took a glass of chai when it was offered and began speaking with the center’s director about what might be useful. What she wanted was to be able to tell the story of their work to the outside world as well as to the organizations that give them funding.  We agreed that I should begin by spending a few days with the women before filming in order to gain a bit of trust and goodwill before jumping in. I could then start filming the women’s daily life in Dharavi as well as the work of the center.

We shook hands and agreed to touch base next week after she’d run the plan by her board. As I got up to leave she announced to the office, “This is Ali. She’s going to do some work with us.” I was immediately inundated with various women coming over to shake my hand and welcome me.

Even in that first meeting, I got the sense that this was a place where I could bring some value. And I hope in the next weeks and months I will be able to.

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