A powerlifter whose brother burst into tears as he complained about his life choices. A woman who adores Amy Dunn in Gone Girl and bats for immoral female characters. A policewoman shows her “angry nature” only outside the house, leading to a complaint that she is not smiling there.
These are just a few of the voices featured in Rebana Liz John’s 77 – minute documentary Ladies Only, which tracks women from all walks of life traveling in the ladies’ compartments of Mumbai trains. Illustrated by Milan Tress John in black and white, Ladies Only develops into a series of interviews within train compartments, with observational moments and occasional audiovisual abstraction.
Interviewers are insightful and often funny. On the one hand, a middle-aged woman explains why she never gets married: “Two good halves are said to come and make one,” she says. “I’m not half, I’m a full woman, I’m not looking for a half person.” An elderly woman, on the other hand, shares a part of her mind: “If there is anyone [in my village] He asks me why I do not cover my head, and I say if I nail it [the saree] To my head? ”She later complains about her daughter – in – law.
Surprisingly, Rebana Liz John said she did not face any opposition from these women when it came to collecting their stories.
“I think it has something to do with the ladies’ compartment that provides a safe space,” the 35-year-old Mumbai-based filmmaker told News9. “If there were men or women or family around, they would not talk like this. Would they have told me this from the general compartment? It’s a different movie.”
Launched as part of Rebana Liz John’s final year project at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne, Germany, Ladies Only premieres in the Perspective Dutch Kino (Perspectives on German Cinema) section at the 72nd Berlin International Film Festival starting today. The film is co-produced by Rebana Liz John’s Film School in Cologne. It is competing for the Festival’s LGBT-Themed Teddy Award. Excerpts from an interview.
What was the origin of Ladies Only?
When I was looking for ideas for my diploma film, the #MeToo movement was running its course. I was in Germany, reading these horrible articles about violence against women. They will make me sad, because this is something you grow up with and constantly interact with in India.
I remember the photos of the women’s compartments I clicked 10-15 years ago. Then, all together. I came to India in 2018 and traveled back and forth on the train with the camera. In 2019, we had the main shoot, which provided up to 75 hours of footage.
I took my own time editing the film for two years. First, I copied all the visuals into a textbook and led them to a 400-page document. It had a textual description of the shots that helped me digest the material. As I read it, I came up with different ideas, depending on how I jumped out of the material. Later, it was an intuitive process of tying a tape from these many sounds, themes, and layers.
You seem to start with simple answers, followed by interviews that develop themes in those answers, and then more comments.
Well, when you dine at a restaurant, you start with the lightest stuff, which gives you a taste of the place, and then comes the great dishes. In some interviewees, what they said was too heavy, there was humor in it, or the tone stood out.
But editing that way was not a conscious choice. Each interview represented several topics. There were actually a lot of reorganizations.
How did the women agree to be a part of your film? Did you have a questionnaire or did you play it by ear?
I had a bunch of questions on a piece of paper, but we avoided the open mind that one person offers. I had to be careful about what kind of questions to ask and how to ask them. In this fleeting environment, there was a desire to connect with them. In the limited time, I had to dig deeper, pointing out the boundaries as a game instead of crossing them.
We would sit in the compartment and set up the camera. Women ask why. We will explain. I had a small card in Hindi, Marathi and English that said Ladies Only, Your Stories Are Important. If anyone is interested in contacting me, it will include pictures from my phone number and email id. I will give the card to those who ask what we are doing.
It was easy to get permission from the railways as it was a student shoot. With the women, we had a book tied together in a spiral with partnership forms. We bought their consent to the maximum. I’m still in touch with 60% of the people I interview. I call, trying to establish a real relationship, because it was a one-sided relationship, I knew about them, but they did not know me. I sent them the movie. After all these days it is interesting for them to see themselves framed in this particular way. I had a conversation with one of them recently, and what she is saying now is the opposite of what she said in the movie.
How we interact with women is intertwined with the technical side of the film. We only used the prime lens, not the zoom lens. So, to get closer, we need to get closer, be transparent with people, not voyeuristic. We made it a point to shoot only people who could see us, and only shoot if we could make eye contact with them. If anyone is inconvenienced we will not film them.
Why portray black and white?
First of all, a lot of light changes happened and a lot of black and white allowed us to distill everything into the essence of the place. Secondly, in Germany, there is a strange view of India as this colorful, la-la-la place. I wanted to switch it off and take out all the colors.
Did you have a theme in mind when you went out to make a film – or did the themes come up while shooting and editing? For example, you persuade many interviewers to read Kamala Bhas’s poem Ladkian aloud.
When I sit inside a women’s compartment and look at it from a feminist lens, the theme is already there.
I’m looking at how these women talk about this topic. Here, feminism is seen as this foreign object, but we are ruled by a patriarchal setting as in Western countries. There is a Western narrative of feminism in Germany and the West. I wanted to see how Indian women handle this. Western feminism has a rebellious, violent side. But in India, I think our feminism is more sympathetic to the diversity of cultures, ideas and values.
For example, Kamala Bhasin is very handsome [cheerful]. She wants to include everyone. Her poetry was important in exposing these women. If I had asked them a question directly they probably would not have said it openly. Bhas’s words are very simple and carry many layers of meaning. I could see those words somehow touching their faces on these women, and it made me curious to know what they were going to say next. ‘No, there is no problem in our lives … patriarchy, feminism, these are all Western issues,’ many women say. But they do exist. This poem reduced their resistance and made them look more inward.
But things have changed a lot in the last few decades. In 2001, the term patriarchy was not used as we do now. As our country becomes increasingly hyper-capitalist and hyper-industrialized, so does our feminism. But our religious cultures are very strong and it will be very interesting to see what happens next.
It is interesting to note that the Ladies Compartment is a work that was ultimately made to protect women, putting women in a position where they need to be protected again. A male police officer occasionally walks around these compartments in the evenings, and his job is to protect women. I do not know what it means.
There is nothing good about marriage. Married women complain about drunken spouses. The rest declare that they never want to get married.
Well, those women who came from established joint-family situations also look good in marriage.
Like this woman traveling to buy jewelry for her daughter’s wedding with her. [Not included in the documentary]. She was very calm about how it was common for women in their family to get married in their 25s. She is proud to uphold that tradition. But at the end of our conversation, in a short moment, she revealed that she was married when she was 18 and no one asked her if she wanted to get married. So, all this is not happy.
Married women have a neutral attitude about it. It is a kind of Indian philosophy in which a woman casually rationalizes her life as a result of her past life activities. So, if the Indian way of life pushes you into acceptance, what will happen to the feminist struggle? Will you stop fighting? That’s why most people ask, ‘But does that make you angry?’