In 1975, Indira Gandhi’s Government imposed a state of emergency suspending India’s democratic rights. For almost two years, the country witnessed rigorous restrictions of civil liberties including censorship, political persecution and mass sterilisation. After the Janata Government took office in 1977, the country saw a reassertion of democracy in which the women’s movement was a key effort. This programme presents three recently restored films by India’s first feminist film collective. Founded in Bangalore in 1980, Deepa Dhanraj, Abha Bhaiya, Navroze Contractor and Meera Rao created four pioneering films during this time of radical political transformation:
“…the women’s movement had emerged in full swing in the country, with young women taking to the streets to protest and organize around issues of labour, caste, economy, domestic violence, rape, and more. Inspired by these radical stirrings, Yugantar set out to make a series of films on the theme of “women and work”.” (Girish 2020)
As an aid to activism, the films contributed to the challenge of legislation that saw discrimination at the workplace and home. Choosing subject matter as both “radicals and as feminists”, Yugantar asked, “In what occupations are the greatest number of women employed?” and “In what occupations does the maximum exploitation exist?” (Dhanraj 1986) The films thus focus on factory workers, maidservants, mothers and wives. By documenting these struggles and returning them to the constituency, Yugantar hoped that the films would “reveal clearly the structural conditions which cause oppression” and “demonstrate concrete means of fighting against it in those cases where struggle has taken place.” (Dhanraj 1986) The films were initially shown in small community centres and unions where women began to consider how these things might be possible.
Each film presents the coming together of working-class women as friendships transform into political power:
Molkarin/Maid Servant (1981) uncovers the brutal and isolated working conditions of hundreds of maidservants in Pune. They work ‘purdah style’ with long hours and low wages. Witness these women create alliances, construct agency and forge blueprints for future generations.
Tambaku Chaakila Oob Ali/Tobacco Embers (1982) depicts the exploitation and harassment of female factory workers in Nipani. Made in collaboration with the workforce, the film gives voice to experiences of labour and charts the efforts of women to unionise as they enter negotiations with employers.
Idhi Katha Matramena/Is This Just a Story? (1983) is a fictionalreconstruction of domestic violence, produced alongside feminist collective Stree Shakhti Sanghatana. This emotional portrayal explores the inner struggle of its female protagonist, isolated by the pressures of married life who finds vital support and comfort in the bonds of female solidarity.
By showing the films in a contemporary context, they remain pertinent as strategies for representation, initiating conversations about the conditions of women’s lives, labour relations and trade-union activism. They exist not only as histories nor artefacts of a time passed but rather, speak loudly to issues that remain in society today.
This screening forms a part of a broader curatorial conversation, exploring feminist collective and collaborative film practice in the essay film. Yugantar’s work challenges the essayistic by offering an alternative perspective; outside the canon of Western discourse, the single authoritative voice is replaced by collective testimony. For Tobacco Embers, the film’s voiceover was edited together from varied conversations with women at post-screening debates, creating a collaborative voice for its subjects. Moreover, the script for Is This Just a Story? was cultivated through the sharing of experiences from both Yugantar andStree Shakhti Sanghatana, resulting in a multi-layered narrative that blends diverse stories. Each collective aspect troubles long-standing authorship debates concerning the essay film.
Academic and curator, Nicole Wolf, initiated the film’s restoration with the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art for their “Living Archive” programme. The project links research and preservation with an artistic and curatorial practice of the present, working through the archive to generate new ideas. Initial condition reports of the films revealed extensive damage following years of projection and subsequent storage in poor conditions. The process became a partnership between technical knowledge and the filmmaker, studying scratches and tears, deciphering between defects and characteristics. Many imperfections remained with each blemish belonging to a particular moment in time.
Early screenings in the restoration project saw unions engage with the stories, recognising their relevance to female workers almost four decades later:
“What is still relevant is the intensely collaborative film practice that evolved over the three years that we made the Yugantar films. A process where workers and filmmakers could struggle together to build political trust. To create a form, to generate theory and insights that go against the grain of existing labour orthodoxies…. How to fuse an explicit political intention with creating a process and an appropriate form is a challenge that rears its head with every film I make. This for me is the Yugantar legacy that has endured for 40 years!” (Dhanraj 2020)
Alongside these screenings, the Essay Film Festival is hosting a series of conversations on the marginalisation of the woman’s voice outside the mainstream. They will focus on how the Yugantar Collective developed its thinking and filmmaking practice in dialogue with the emerging feminist movement in India. They will also explore how these films can activate a new generation with meaningful, contemporary debate.
The films in this programme can be viewed anytime between 25th March and 3rd April via the Essay Film Festival screening room: https://essayfilmfestival-screeningroom.com/
Girish, Devika “Radical Potential – A Conversation with Indian Documentarian Deepa Dhanraj about the pioneering, co-creative, and feminist films of the Yugantar Film Collective”, Field of Vision, December 2020
Lesage, Julia “Interview with Deepa Dhanraj – Feminist Documentary in India”, Jump Cut – A Review of Contemporary Media, No.31, March 1986