Sapna Bhavnani recounts her growing up years fondly. Her father owned a very popular cabaret joint in Bombay in the early 70’s known as Blue Nile located at 35, New Marine lines – “It hosted a formidable line up of striptease from Calcutta, the sassy Anglo-Burmese siren, Tamiko the Tamato -known for her humour and jiggling bosoms. Some of Bombay’s most elite attended these shows.”

Hailing from such a charismatic and colourful background, Bhavnani graduated with double majors in Marketing and Communication and a minor in Public Speaking from Chicago’s Barat College, following which she looked at fashion designing to pursue a career in, before turning to hairdressing which has been her primary claim to fame.

My documentary includes stories from India and Sindh (Pakistan) and mine illustrating their journey on my skin using art forms like Arjak (Sindhi) and Madhubani (India).

And now, her directorial debut, the documentary Sindhustan premiered as an Official Selection at the New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF) 2019, shortly after which it was screened at the Atlanta Indian Film Festival 2019 as part of its Official Selection as well. The documentary tells the “story of the largest migration of a culture in History, told through tattoos.”

In her words, “My documentary includes stories from India and Sindh (Pakistan) and mine illustrating their journey on my skin using art forms like Arjak (Sindhi) and Madhubani (India) to tell the story of a land carried on the shoulders of its people and not rooted in any soil. My legs, symbolising our journey and my feet, the lack of our roots.”

Bhavnani says that the first tattoo she got is not covered up with many other layers of ink. It’s still there somewhere under her other tattoos in another layer of skin – “It was a tattoo from the Hot Stuff comic- the image of a sweet little devil child. I realised that I could turn myself into an art gallery- my own personal art gallery.”

The filmmaker compares herself to a packet of seeds when she started working on this documentary, boxed in – “I burst open and was sowed in the ground after the film – in the beginning so to speak, I was born by myself but in the course of time I carried the spirit of my ancestors. My legs became my roots and I could now flow everywhere.”

The challenge was to figure out the language of telling this very personal tale being true to it- and I found ink to be my truth.

In spite of having such a transformative experience, the shooting process was not without its challenges. She was denied a visa to go and shoot the film in Pakistan personally. Has that in any way altered the perspective of the film?

“Yes, it would have been nice to go to Sindh in Pakistan and walk those lands. It would have changed the film dramatically. I did hire someone from Sindh to be my eyes but of course, it is not the same thing. Hopefully one day I will go to the land of my ancestors.

The challenge was to figure out the language of telling this very personal tale being true to it – and I found ink to be my truth. Dealing with the pain of the ink and the healing after were some of the challenges – I didn’t realise I would go to such lengths to tell my story that I become my story,” she informs.

I am so seeped in the process – the art and the stories are on my legs – giving categories to the film is for someone else to decide not me.

The artist says that it was important for her to get these stories etched permanently on her body because when people feel safe they become indifferent, that she wanted to be in extreme pain to tell this story, to seep herself in truth – “I wanted to be an active participant in this story through the process of being inked – for me it is passiveness that dulls feelings and all I wanted to do was feel, feel even an iota of what my ancestors felt when they were ripped away from the place they called home.”

After having won the award for the best documentary at the New York Indian Film Festival 2019, Bhavnani doesn’t feel apprehensive any more about her directorial debut. It was important for her to tell the story in terms of the fact that there is very little representation of her community in the mainstream cinema.

She feels that it is not up to her to decide what the audience takes away from the film – “I am so seeped in the process – the art and the stories are on my legs – giving categories to the film is for someone else to decide not me.”

Image Credit: Sapna Bhavnani

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