Neeraj Ghaywan said he has always tried to break away from the notion of good and evil in his cinema as he believes everyone has a context and their identities are fused together.
Indian cinema often fails in capturing the overlapping of social identities, be it caste, class, gender or sexuality, giving characters a single-dimensional treatment, says Masaan director Neeraj Ghaywan, who uses his cinema to take forward the concept of “fused identities”.
“Our identities are intersectional in nature but I don’t know why we see these things in isolation in our movies,” said Ghaywan, who has directed the ‘Geeli Pucchi’ segment in Netflix’s upcoming anthology Ajeeb Daastaans.
Intersectionality of identities is at the very centre of his latest work, which stars Konkona Sensharma and Aditi Rao Hydari and revolves around two women, one upper caste, newly married and hired to do a desk job, and the other a factory hand denied the same job for coming from a lower caste.
As the only two women in a factory full of men, they end up being close but their bond is tested by their surroundings and the background they come from.
“The way we approach movies and things in India is that we always see things in silos, in isolation… Subalterns are also seen as a whole but they are always intersectional in nature. That’s what I wanted to do in this film. Intersectionality is the theme of this film,” Ghaywan told PTI in a Zoom interview from Mumbai.
The director said he had thought of the story as one of the sub-plots for his critically-acclaimed debut Masaan but felt the idea was too radical for the film at that time.
Ajeeb Daastaans, a compilation of four stories from four different directors and produced by Karan Johar’s Dharmatic, seemed like the perfect platform, he said.
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Ghaywan cited Abhishek Chaubey’s dacoit drama Sonchiriya to illustrate his point. It features a discussion between characters about Phoolan Devi and he said he was surprised to see a conversation about intersectionality, so rare for Hindi cinema.
“I have not seen that kind of thing again, how each of your identities kind of rubs into another. What privilege you derive from one identity may be a deterrent for another identity that you live with.”
Ghaywan said he has always tried to break away from the notion of good and evil in his cinema as he believes everyone has a context and their identities are fused together.
“I don’t want to show abject villainy. I want to contextualise each individual’s surroundings and how they end up taking certain decisions and how they go with certain moral conflicts and dilemmas. It is all about your conditioning and surroundings and how you examine and see it in your personal life and how it changes your expression in the world.”
In ‘Geeli Pucchi’, he said, the women may come from a different class and reality but they have one thing that puts them on the same platform and that’s patriarchy.
“Aditi’s character Priya is being told at home about how to behave or who to mingle with, while Konkona’s Bharti has seen all these realities and is hardened. They are not right or wrong. They are victims of their circumstances.” Women assert their agency and identity through their jobs and career can be a point of conflict in a story, he said.
In Ghaywan’s view, the absence of a career is not just limited to women in Hindi cinema, where the conflict is mostly restricted to the love story of the characters. “Women express their aspirations via their careers because it’s one thing that can insulate them from their marginalised background, be it patriarchy or the class or caste conflict. So I always think about it,” he said in a reply to a question.
“We are what we are because of how we see the world and how we see our partner but also how we want to be seen in the world. I don’t know why our career aspirations are ignored in our films. I have always tried to bring that and sometimes, you can also make it the central conflict.”
Another subversion that Ghaywan was keen to explore in the short movie was the idea of the manic pixie girl, a character that often exists in cinema to forward the story arc of the male protagonist. She is there in the film to look pretty, is naive, and full of hope.
“The idea of Priya’s character (Hydari) is sort of the manic pixie girl which has been explored in many Hindi films which I’m not very happy with. It completely comes from the male gaze… This is a subversion of that. Here we have put a female gaze onto a manic pixie girl… how she still expresses her agency by wanting a job because manic pixie girls are not supposed to have their opinions or thoughts, they are not supposed to have careers so this is a subversion of that,” he said.
The Netflix film, set for release on April 16, brings together four unusual stories that explore human emotions such as jealousy, entitlement, prejudices and toxicity, and their effects. Ajeeb Dastaans has been directed by Ghaywan, Shashank Khaitan, Raj Mehta and Kayoze Irani.
Besides Sensharma and Hydari, the ensemble cast also includes Fatima Sana Shaikh, Jaideep Ahlawat, Nushrratt Bharuccha, Abhishek Banerjee, Inayat Verma, Shefali Shah, Manav Kaul and Tota Roy Chowdhury.
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