The short film Devi, which recently released on YouTube depicts an unusual sisterhood among a group of women. The film which has several well-known women actors including Kajol, Neha Dhupia and Neena Kulkarni shows how women from different social realities are connected with the same fate, of rape, violence and oppression. It has been written and directed by 23-year-old Priyanka Banerjee, who is also the Founder-CEO at the Leogirl Productions. However, the film has been hit by a plagiarism controversy. Abhishek Rai has accused the filmmakers of plagiarizing the story of his short film FOUR which is also a story about four women who have faced rape.
SheThePeople.TV approached Priyanka Banerjee to know about the idea behind the short film Devi and how it addresses a very crucial aspect of women empowerment in India.
What was the idea behind making Devi?
I’ve been a student of theatre since I was 17 so I’ve always been amidst playwriting. I’m drawn to some kind of surrealism or the absurd mixed into a realistic situation. Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit is one of those classics that every theatre kid knows and I think the idea of deceased people discussing their lives in a purgatory state was inspired from that. I also remember seeing an illustration showing two rape victims chatting in heaven. I remember thinking then that it might be an interesting idea to see what a group of women that have shared a similar fate like that would say to each other if we kept them incredibly human and realistic. The writing emerged from this line of thinking.
It is painful how common experience of violence connected women of different ages and class. Why is it important that women in India develop sisterhood to battle against patriarchy when it comes to the pervasive social hierarchy and discrimination in Indian society?
I think it is counter-productive to look at this as an “us versus them” battle. I feel if any solutions can emerge to social hierarchy and discrimination, it can only be from complete understanding and inclusion. We must be inclusive of where these social models come from in order to shun them, similarly, women must be inclusive and understanding of one another to get to the root of the problem. Creating walls, whether amongst women or between men and women, only further perpetuates the current state. When we develop empathy for one another, sisterhood will be a natural outcome, I think.
The title of the film is intriguing. Would you like to tell why you named the film as Devi while it shows how the concept of Devi is deeply hypocritical in India?
I would credit our producer Niranjan Iyengar for this! We wanted a single-word title that would capture the essence of the film. This immediately clicked with everyone when he titled it; I guess because this word has such a subconscious significance for us and to think of it in this context is very moving.
It was interesting how Neha Dhupia’s and Neena Kulkarni’s fight based on the difference in education is silenced by the common violence that they both have faced. Would you like to talk about how the education system makes no difference when it comes to battling patriarchy and violence?
Abuse is simply a form of asserting power and dominance and that remains the same across ages, qualification, appearance, socio-economic class, etc. The frequency or degree may differ, but it is based on the same ideology. I think Neha and Neena ji’s characters were meant to reflect how inherently divisive human beings are, and how they will find avenues to divide themselves even when their grief is the same.
The categorisation of who is oppressed and should be a part of the community fails when the girl child enters as one of the oppressed women in India. Would you like to tell us more about it? Why connecting child abuse with violence against women was important?
Even during the writing process, I did not look at any of these women as “causes” or forms of social messaging. They were all simply characters who wanted something specific or were dealing with certain insecurity. The entry of the girl is a device that awakens the empathy amongst this group of bickering women. Empathy for the new entrant as well as the empathy they have for each other. Still, I am glad we have also managed to shed a light on the issue of child abuse through this scene because it is an important, disturbing reality.
Towards the end, the news on the Television about increasing violence among women fades away in the silence of the oppressed women. What message did you want to convey through this?
The TV is a silent messenger of sorts; every time it loses connection, they know someone new is entering the room. In order to stay updated, they usually tune into a news channel so they can know about the latest cases. At the end of the film, we have used an eerie rumbling sound that increases with the swell of the emotion that the women are feeling and even overpowers the statistics being given by the reporter. Because at the end of the day, they were each more than just statistics. I wanted the audience to see the numbness the characters felt listening to these statistics again and again. It was more important to connect with how the women are feeling in that moment.
When it comes to sisterhood, it could have been about protesting and raising voice against violence that each one of them has faced. What was the reason behind choosing a silent sisterhood?
I don’t think the film portrays a model sisterhood at all. It perhaps hints at it a little towards the end of the film; we feel that perhaps now they will accept what binds them together in the wake of the new entrant. I wanted the women to look like women we all knew, not perfect, angelic beings doing the right thing. Pain can often make us ugly and unlikeable, and I wanted to show that side of the women. Hence, the film actually doesn’t show much sisterhood at all, but in the end, it seems they may discover it together.
Even though all the characters were able to connect with each other based on violence, the difference of class, education was still visible which can be a threat to the community building the movie portrays. What do you think about it?
I think the differences in class, education, etc is a reality of the spectrum of women in our country and the film only reflects that. Had they not had the same experience, there would be little reason for a group of this kind to even gather under one roof. Perhaps if that changed, we’d all experience a sense of community with women in our day-to-day lives far more!
Pain can often make us ugly and unlikeable, and I wanted to show that side of the women.
Since the movie released when the world was about to celebrate women’s day, what message you wanted to convey through this? Is women’s day relevant when so many cases of violence against women are pending? Or the sisterhood that you portrayed is the women’s day in real sense?
Women’s day is relevant for me regardless of the social context of the year or at any given point in time. The film simply attempts to reflect the reality of the current situation, to do with women’s safety, sisterhood and general empathy in our society. The message can be interpreted differently by each viewer.
Neha Dhupia’s character talked about the mental trauma that women face due to oppression. Why was it important to bring this aspect in connection with the brutal physical violence other women faced?
When cases like these happen, there is always a segment of people that compare tragedies or grief or even the degree of importance a case deserves. It is a well-known fact that mental health is still seen as an indulgence in many parts of our country. Through Neha’s character, the idea was to challenge both these ideas: neglecting mental health or being forced to neglect it can be fatal, and especially in cases like these it is almost criminal to compare tragedies or try to fit survivors/victims into boxes as per our convenience.
Can we say that the sisterhood developed in that room could lead to a new dawn in the struggle of women in India against patriarchy? If there had to be a sequel to the film, what would it be about?
Short films, for me, are usually stories or ideas complete in themselves so I don’t think there is any scope for me to write a sequel! Hypothetically though, the sequel might just look at the next couple of days in the room where they suggest to live with the new entrant and what they discover about their sisterhood through that. Sisterhood will always make each of us stronger which will invariably upturn the patriarchy. But, I think it requires massive individual effort from every woman, we cannot simply choose to ride the wave of sisterhood.
Through Neha’s character, the idea was to challenge both these ideas: neglecting mental health or being forced to neglect it can be fatal, and especially in cases like these it is almost criminal to compare tragedies or try to fit survivors/victims into boxes as per our convenience.
Abhishek Rai, the director of short film FOUR has accused Devi of plagiarism. Would you like to say anything about it?
Nothing other than that both films are available on the same platform. Please watch both and decide.
What is the next project you are working on?
I am writing a few things, let’s see which one materialises the fastest!
Rudrani Kumari is an intern with SheThePeople.TV.