While we were making UnLimited Girls, a researcher, interviewing me asked, “so would you say you are a feminist filmmaker?” The question alarmed me – I knew I was a feminist and a filmmakerbut the two together seemed to signify a very clear identity and form, one whose meaning I didn’t think I knew.
While making a documentary we of course think about theway in which we willtell the chosen story. But do we locate it within known and available forms or search for some narrative which will emerge organically from within the material? In UnLimited Girls I think we tried to do both. The film was conceived in a formal sense, more or less completely before it was shot. And although much change along the way as reality in its many forms – of other people’s words and lives, but also, of time and money – modified the original conception, the film stayed true in essence to its script. At the same time, this form emerged organically from the material we were working with.
UnLimited Girls is a film about feminism in urban India. It explores various types of engagement with the idea – as social movement, as a consumable convenience, as a philosophy that shapes a life, as a false agenda and as a history. The film’s structure is composed of many interlacing strands, which are parallel but not linked except, associatively. There are documentary interviews, a fictionalized chatroom, and the reflections and interpolations of the narrator, Fearless, which use the live action of her everyday activities or her journeys as well as animation. This braided structure is ‘broken into’ by 3 commercial breaks, with fake commercials, which basically advertise patriarchal attitudes. For a subject as layered and as diverse as feminism, it seemed we needed a form that provide many different windows through which you could enter the discussion, rather than a form which would frame feminism in a linear or monolithic way.
The film was commissioned by a Delhi based NGO called Sakshi. I was asked to make a film about feminism for a younger, urban audience. I had always been nervous of making a film for an NGO, fearing the stranglehold of a narrow agenda, but this was not about the preaching. It was about responding to why a generation that had benefited in every wayfrom feminism chose to delink itself from the idea, not out of a sense of politics, but more from a lack of them and from a larger socio-historical ignorance. I was personally very invested in these ideas and this endeavour, but at all times I had to remember to make the film inviting for this delineated audience.
As my research progressed from the classical to the obsessive modes – from reading and interviewing important figures to talking to everybody I met, it became clear to me that the conversations were the interesting thing – to document an idea not just by external examples and ‘proof’, but by the interior, fluid, personal engagement with it. And so the film’s entire structure was predicated on this idea of a conversation.
Conversation presumes knowledge and it takes certain things for granted. It is an exploratory, clarificatory exercise. It has wit and hopefully, honesty rather than posturing, but it also has elements of performance. So the world of UnLimited Girls, does not set out to explicate feminism, it assumes a world in which the idea is at large and that people have various positions on it – agnostic, atheist and devotee – and it’s a world we discover through the eyes and ramblings of a fictionalized narrator called Fearless and her conversations with others and herself.
The need to inform an un-informed audience about some things was also met by the persona of Fearless, who sort of believes in feminism but knows very little about it formally. But as she personally discovers definitions and histories of feminism, they become intertwined by her larger examination of her relationship with feminism. So, as something implied rather than stated, they hopefully exhort the audience to go forth and discover themselves, rather than passively be given the information.
Fearless was also linked to the idea of the ‘personal’ film. I wanted very much not to be in the mode of personal diary or in a fey confessional mode. I wanted the ‘I’ to be there, without it being me, Paromita. Fearless embodied the performative nature of filmmaking, the act of assuming a stance and a gaze, and a way to add flourishes and digressions to the film as part of this performance. What I found most liberating about creating this particularized voice was the play it afforded with language. As in a conversation, I felt free to use association, small jokes and a narration that was very casual but not overly simple and that actually talked about emotional and philosophical ideas and small and large observations instead of being a commentary in the traditional sense.
The feminist chatroom in the film was the harder thing to write because it needed to echo the historical conversation around feminism and it needed to replicate the feeling of a chatroom – diversity, looseness, innuenedo- without faithfully reproducing its chaos and its frequent inanity. The chatroom was scripted using a mixture of real interviews with feminist activists and theorists and some purely scripted dialogue spoken by actors.
The chatrooms were as difficult to shoot as they were to write because they needed to be shot in real time. That is to say, we had to log on, create our own chatroom and then get 10 college kids who had to be plied with a continuous supply of junkfood as a sort of pacifier, to log on as the characters from a cyber café and then to type the script, while we shot the chatroom from Fearless’scomputer. Given the unreliability of internet connections and speeds, and the reliability of human error (“Ma’am I pressed Enter by mistake! Sorry, sorry, sorry! Please, sorry!”), the whole process took 3 days and it was arduous, because each mistake meant starting from the top. To add to this, because we were shooting on a VX1000, the computer screen had to be shot in strobe and so no live action could take place in any shot where you could see the computer and we had to work to ensure that the cutaways didn’t start creating a sense of artificiality and disconnectedness between the typist and the computer. Editing the chatrooms had its own pains, with many in between frames having to be cut, sentence by sentence, speeding up and slowing down.
It’s probably true that we could never have made a film which uses so many elements, so many forms in a time before DV. Yes DV is fast, cheap and oh so sexy. It also gives you a certain space to learn from trial and error and so forth. But at this moment, as editors have often said (and my editor Jabeen certainly did with characteristic asperity and sometimes exhaustion!) perhaps many of us could also take a moment to reflect on whether we don’t become a little too abandoned, accumulating huge amounts of footage and still sometimes not having the exact shot we thought we had. I do believe there’s an inevitable curve of learning and it is spawning a whole range of expressions, which is exciting. But as we mature in the number of years we spend with this medium, we have, as my civics teacher always said, to think not only of the freedoms, but also of the responsibilities!
Fearless asks a character in the film – do you think people can change by seeing a film? And he says, absolutely, I have written my film with the conviction of belief. Given the many hardships of documentary filmmaking, films perhaps do get fuelled by the ‘conviction of belief.’ But they grow as well from conversation with our colleagues and comrades, and conversations in our heads. They eventually find their way out into the world, much to our trepidation and excitement, to begin a conversation with an audience. I’ve watched UnLimited Girls with many different audiences now and am growing to see its flaws and understand other people’s criticism or praise, but also to marvel at how a film touches different chords in people, which you had never guessed at while making it. Every time I see an audience moving on from the straitjacket of a Q&A to the free wanderings of just talking about what’s in their heads, I think perhaps that honesty and openness is what films can spawn. Does that change people? Not sure, but it’s nice!