Svati Chakravarty Bhatkal On Women’s Voices In Our Visual Narratives
She was a co-director and helmed field research for the television show Satyamev Jayate that ran from 2010 to 2014 on Indian television, with superstar Aamir Khan as the anchor. In Satyamev Jayate, Svati and the team brought to the forefront stories that mattered. When Satyamev Jayate ended, she decided there were stories she still needed to tell, and she began the filming of a feature length documentary researched and directed by her and produced by Aamir Khan Productions. The film, titled Rubaru Roshni was released in early 2019. SheThePeople.TV’s Ideas Editor, Kiran Manral spoke with Svati Chakravarty Bhatkal about her oeuvre and how she perceives the voices of women in our present visual narratives.
As a creative person, you have chosen in the space of real narratives. What made you chose this as your focus?
Real narratives carry within them immense potential for change. They have the ability to inspire and transform people. I also find real narratives extremely dramatic — they make for great storytelling. A real narrative springs from the life that somebody lives and often has at its core an emotion or experience that is universal. My belief is that we can gather the lived experiences of thousands of people and share them in the form of engaging stories, we would have created a powerful tool that can help us deal with many of the issues that affect us as human beings.
A real narrative springs from the life that somebody lives and often has at its core an emotion or experience that is universal.
Do you feel we tell enough stories of women in our popular culture?
More than the number of stories, I feel concerned about the kinds of stories dished out by much of popular culture. What is it that these stories say about women? How are women portrayed in these stories? If one were to piece together a picture about women’s identities, lives and beings through snippets from these stories prevalent in popular culture, I shudder to think what that collage would say about our gender.
If one were to piece together a picture about women’s identities, lives and beings through snippets from these stories prevalent in popular culture, I shudder to think what that collage would say about our gender.
How can we re-examine the patriarchal lens through which most storytelling happens in our popular culture?
Step 1. Acknowledge honestly that the lens exists, that it’s a real thing.
Step 2. Take the lens off.
As a woman director, do you feel it is your responsibility to present the stories of women with as much honesty as you can?
I’d edit two words out of that question — woman and women.
As a director it is my responsibility to present stories with as much honesty as I can. Women are part of those stories; as are men and trans people.
With Rubaru Roshni, you deal beautifully with narratives of forgiveness. How important is it for us, as viewers to go beyond always wanting to be entertained, to seeking stories that provoke thought, conflict and resolution within us?
Thank you so much for your appreciation of Rubaru Roshni. It’s been a labour of love and I am trying hard to practice the philosophy of the film in my day to day life. Personally, I love being entertained. Yet I recognise how nourished and enriched I have been by the consumption of books, cinema, poetry, music, theatre that have provoked me to think and question. As a society, we absolutely have to develop an appetite for meaningful content that opens one’s mind. Unfortunately, if we raise someone on a mono-diet, how can we expect that he or she will develop a taste for a variety of foods? The same is true of content. I think that both, content creators and content consumers need to put their heads together and see how we can change this cultural mono-diet situation.
As a society, we absolutely have to develop an appetite for meaningful content that opens one’s mind.
At Satyamev Jayate, you were focused on bringing forth social issues, often buried, often taboo, to the spotlight on national television. Among the issues on gender you dealt with, which was the one you found the most resistance against?
Of the specifically gender-based issues we dealt with, the episode on Domestic Violence met with a lot of negativity and resistance. The other episode which resulted in a lot of friction is the one that we called Intolerance to Love. It dealt with ‘honour’ killings which may not be perceived as a gender issue, but does in fact negate a woman’s right to choice of life partner and her expression of sexuality. ‘Honour’ killings are also an outcome of deeply misogynistic thinking.
When you deal with such intensely personal stories, how difficult is it to be objective, to separate the you of the director, from the you as a person?
Absolute objectivity is a myth. Nobody is capable of being entirely objective. Each of us is a product of our experiences and environment and subjectivity is as such a manufacturing defect inherent to human beings. I aim for fairness and honesty. Rather than trying to artificially separate the person and the director I try and recognise my own inherent subjectivity and deal with it, make an effort to neutralise it.
Each of us is a product of our experiences and environment and subjectivity is as such a manufacturing defect inherent to human beings.
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A story like Sister Selmi’s, it has the power to shake up the viewer. Would you say as a woman, you brought a different gaze to her story, to how it was presented?
Well, one’s gaze is undoubtedly influenced by one’s gender, but that’s not the only factor. A lot of it has to also do with your worldview. Certainly, my being a woman helped to break the ice with Sr Selmi more easily in the initial stages. Then very soon she and I discovered that we are almost exactly the same age, share similar health complaints and have a lot in common. We spent some time getting to know each other and really hit it off. When we finally sat down to record her interview, we had grown comfortable with each other and that I think created the space for her to be very open and transparent.
Well, one’s gaze is undoubtedly influenced by one’s gender, but that’s not the only factor.
How can we get more women into visual storytelling, but the real and the fictional, so that women’s stories get told without the layers that the male gaze adds?
The number of women storytellers is growing. I find many individual content creators in non-formal, digital spaces are women. If it were possible to create collectives of women storytellers, their voices could be amplified to reach out to and inspire others.
And finally, what kind of stories do you think are still to be told, about women, for women, by women?
There is an infinite variety of stories to be told. The sky’s the limit.