After friends persuaded her to turn a story from her own life into a screenplay, Vaishnavi Sundar found herself directing her first feature and falling in love with filmmaking. Her latest, But What Was She Wearing?, a film about workplace sexual harassment, is currently crowdfunding on Indiegogo. Here she talks with #DirectedbyWomen team member Maria Corso about her career and inspirations, as well as Women Making Films, a forum she founded to promote female filmmakers.
DBW: What is your earliest memory of film?
VS: I was born and bred in a rural corner of Tamil Nadu with a lot of restrictions from a ridiculously sexist, conservative family. I did enjoy the privilege of education, thanks only to my mom, but otherwise I remember my childhood to be pretty traumatic, save for some pleasures I derived from sports and other extra curricular activities to stay out of the house. We did not have cable, which means we had access to just the two free national television channels that played films over weekends. My earliest memory of film would have to be that. Come Saturday evening, I would find myself seated in our government quarters, getting enraptured by the magic of cinema. Of course most of the films would be grossly misogynistic and I have been very influenced by them to believe and lead a patriarchal, subjugated life for the longest time until recently.
DBW: You started out as an actor. What made you decide to segue into directing? Do you think your previous acting experience is an asset when working with the actors in your own films?
VS: I have been doing amateur theatre since college, and later performed in many prestigious theatre festivals in India and the UK. I traversed to film acting by featuring in film school projects, which also gave me first hand insights on filmmaking techniques and I have been utterly fascinated since.
Directing happened by chance. I am so glad it did. My first film Pava was written as a short story after I learnt about the death of the barber, (also the character in the film, ‘Kumaresan’) recalling my unique friendship with him. Some of my friends persuaded me to make it into a screenplay, and later the film itself.
Yes, my experience as an actor definitely matters, but personally, I prefer venturing into each film from level zero. I learn, unlearn and relearn during every film, because I can’t assume what worked for me, or for one of my other films, would work for this one too. I give a lot of freedom to my actors, I work with them.
DBW: Your debut film, Pava, is a short about a young girl and her relationship with her barber. What inspired the film and what were some of the lessons you took away after directing for the first time?
VS: Pava is based on my personal experience and friendship with a vintage barber shop owner. The characters are real, and the conversations too were straight out of my vivid memories. Making that film also marked my entry to the glorious world of filmmaking. I was very apprehensive, mostly because I had no training as a filmmaker. Everything I know is either self-taught or inspired from some great filmmaker’s style. When I finished it and noticed how it was appreciated by everybody, I realised this was just meant to be.
I had very little confidence in me that I could pull it off, but I persisted because I had nothing to lose. My expectations were rational, and it would be shame if I didn’t even try. The key lesson I took away from having made Pava is that I should not have waited for so long before making it. Every time the film is screened somewhere and the audience respond emotionally with the film, I remind myself that I should not stop making films. Ever.
DBW: Another of your films, The Catalyst, was made entirely through donations, not through a crowdfunding platform, which has become the norm nowadays. Can you talk about the decision behind this?
VS: This was in 2014. I had almost decided to go with Kickstarter then, but I realised there were a few hurdles which I was not prepared for—like the fee and duration of the campaign. Also, I was battling a broken marriage around the same time so I was constantly reminded of my self worth by family members. My morale was extremely low.
Also I realised I had a lot of things I wanted to write and discuss about the project and the rigid structure of a crowdfunding site would not permit me that freedom. So I made my own website, and came up with a campaign that would essentially convince a visitor to contribute. I didn’t just run a successful campaign. I raised more money, which I used for screening it across India.
DBW: Women Making Films is a forum you started to help promote female filmmakers and their works, as well as to encourage collaborations. Can you speak about what you hope to achieve with the project?
VS: I founded Women Making Films (WMF) in July 2015, and my simple idea was that of generating alliances among women all over the world through cinema and a shared passion for filmmaking. It is an online community with an offline collaboration model. I intend to bring together women under one virtual roof. Sitting here in India, I hear so much about how women in Hollywood and Europe strive to achieve equal opportunities. And though it is solacing, it begs the question of whether a focused endeavor in every country could do better in closing the gap. WMF is, I think you could call it, a result of a lot of angst, disappointment, and frustration over not having such a support group when I started out making films in 2014.
WMF also serves as a feminist space that fearlessly questions and condemns sexism and gender inequality, features amazing filmmakers with interviews and showcases female filmmakers from around the world. Apart from this, I have screened some brilliant films made by women all over India, and abroad. In short, WMF is a one-of-a-kind portal that does all these things, and to think that I have managed to do it all by myself, (sometimes without sleep) is pretty humbling and exciting. So for me, it is way more than just a project. It has now become an obsession to support and promote female filmmakers.
DBW: One of my favorite trailers on the WMF site was Across the Ocean-A Crowdfunded Film Transcending Borders. Film is such a collaborative medium and I love the idea of two filmmakers from opposite ends of the world coming together to make a single film. Can you talk about how WMF helps connect these women and how unique projects like this one have come about?
VS: I have successfully brought together more than 130 members from 15 countries who have the opportunity to work with each other, irrespective of where in the world they are. Across the Ocean is just one of the examples and I hope there would be a lot more. Ever since WMF came to be and became popular on social media, people have been coming to me for recommendations for technicians and I myself have collaborated with so many WMF members. I am happy to be at the helm of such an opportunity to bring women together so easily.
Uma Kumarapuram and Nicole Donadio’s Across the Ocean is a fascinating example of how women can transcend borders and with a tunnel vision, get the ultimate objective of making films, fulfilled. You might also be interested about another International collaboration that WMF promoted: Lyari Notes, which was made by an Indian and a Pakistani woman. (Miriam Chandy and Maheen Zia respectively)
I hope that in future people find WMF as a repository of talented technicians and collaborate with each other from all over the world.
DBW: Film had a strong impact on me when I was young and definitely changed my life. You’ve talked in the past about the Children Outreach Programme offered by WMF, which brings films into schools, orphanages, etc. What impact can film have on a young child’s life, especially one in a disadvantaged community?
VS: There is an inordinate amount of intellectual exchange that can happen via cinema and, in most cases, we underestimate the emotional age of children and presume their ignorance on the subject matter. In my present brief stage as a filmmaker, I have learnt that kids understand so much more than we imagine them to. The conclusion I drew from visiting numerous film festivals for children, making films with children and, quite simply, spending time with children: cinema opens up opportunities for dialogues and discussions on topics they may otherwise be unfamiliar with. Visual medium is, in comparison, the best way to incite various thought process akin to growth, inquisitiveness and overall development of the child’s personality.
The Children Outreach Programme is a great way of communicating with children irrespective of their socioeconomic background. Even in war torn countries, art is known to have had therapeutic effects on children. The above mentioned film ‘Lyari notes’ also addresses the importance of the same. In future, I hope people take active interest in giving liberal arts its due – India has enough engineers and doctors now.
DBW: You’ve also started your own production company, Lime Soda Films. What types films do you hope to make, either from a director’s or producer’s standpoint?
VS: If there is one thing that binds humanity it is the strength of stories that we have come across. Imagine a life devoid of such storytellers; there will be nothing to intrigue and enthrall our imagination, to acquaint us with a past and paint our minds with vivacious imagery of future. Lime Soda Films is the result of creating a unique banner that interweaves stories of everyday lives of people with a strong dash of feminism and social justice. I can’t get myself to be a part of anything that is derogatory to women, so even if they have tried to lure me on the days I have been broke, I have managed to stay true to my agenda very clearly.
DBW: When writing a film, do you ever experience any creative blocks? Where do you draw inspiration from when you’re stuck?
VS: Thank you for asking me this question, I have extensively thought about this and hope to make a film about creative blocks that women face – why it is slightly different and has historic parlance.
You know how the world is quick to point out the mistake of one woman to be the basis of discrimination against all the women in the world? I have experienced such stereotypes a lot, and not a single time was anything discussed or analysed as my individual below par work/opinion. It has always been “women can’t” or “women always” – and at the same time, for all the good work that I have done, strangely, that generalisation becomes a basis of competition between women – so it goes “Vaishnavi is not like other women, she is *different*.” (cue: eyeroll)
I stress myself over my work to the point that I feel responsible to work hard for all of us to never fall under the “women can’t” category. It is silly and unnecessary, but that’s just the way conditioning works. This is not to say that women must not make mistakes or that we ought to be perfect all the time (and what’s perfect, anyway). We must make a lot of mistakes, and never be afraid to own and learn from it. More often than not, these blocks also stem from this overbearing pressure to perform for half the human race – we must be able to tell between that, and a literary block while articulating a character or a scene.
Yes, I experience creative blocks a lot, and I watch films made by women over and over. I watch award speeches and bawl (yes, I really do), interviews and just let woman made films consume me. I feel recharged and confident. It is not a foolproof method, but it helps me to a great extent though.
DBW: There’s a great article you wrote for WMF entitled “20 Badass Women in Cinema You’ve Never Heard of.” Which female directors, both present and past, inspire you?
VS: There are easily 100 of them. It is impossible to list favourites. But I will share three films made by women that I’d watched recently that I thought were absolutely lovely.
The way home (2002) by Lee Jeong-hyang – the coming of age film of a little boy and his grandmother. What I love about this film, apart from the fact that it is perhaps the best film on relationships of two people on two ends of the age spectrum, it is so culturally relevant for me too. The audience is able to draw a larger message the director wishes to convey by focussing on the micro.
Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest (2016) – a wartime film about a group of people making a film. A woman comes on board to offer a ‘female perspective’ and what happens there onwards. This film is staggeringly underrated for I have never been surprised by a film’s plot like this before.
15 Park Avenue (2005) by Aparna Sen – I am not sure if an Indian film has tackled mental illness (schizophrenia) with such finesse ever before, and I would kill to watch this film over and over again. The beauty of this metaphor-laden magical film is that you catch something new every single time.
DBW: With all of today’s new technologies and mediums to watch films, television, and consume content what’s the best way for a female director to get her work seen?
VS: How about all of them? I’d say we only watch, produce, distribute and consume films made by women for another 100 years before calling anything the ‘best’ option. We need to be playing the same game, on the same turf for the inequality game.
DBW: You have a new film coming out this fall, But What Was She Wearing? What motivated you to make this documentary and what do you hope the audience will walk away with at the end of it?
VS: A few months ago, I came across a study that highlighted the failure of large corporate and ‘progressive’ organizations in dealing with the problem of sexual harassment in their offices. One of the findings suggested that 65% women denied that their workplaces followed any procedure in providing justice to them at all. Being a feminist activist who has explored a range of jobs before becoming a filmmaker, I strongly associate with the issue of workplace sexual harassment that has deeply troubled the lives of working women in India. It is rampant in the country with 150 cases to over 500 filed cases, and this is just within 3 years. The core of this issue lies in the aftermath of this havoc, and that’s what I choose to focus on.
This doesn’t end here. There exists an entire world of working women from the unorganized sector of Indian society like housemaids and daily-wage labourers whose redressal becomes twice as difficult.
But What Was She Wearing? will critically examine the nature of workplace sexual harassment by speaking to both the lawmakers as well as the people for whom such laws are made. What constitutes a workplace? What happens if the harasser is your employer? What are the policies and rights of women, and how are the governing bodies responding?
I hope that the film would be a powerful reminder that women won’t tolerate abuse and their inaction should no longer be the veil abusers hide behind. I also hope to provide information on legally ensuring a safe space for working women, and consequences that employers or abusers would face for not conforming.
You can view our indiegogo campaign here.
Vaishnavi Sundar’s social media links: