With the advent of Netflix in India, a lot of us have been catching up on our American TV shows sans interruptions and piracy. Sometimes we delve into the documentary section, but while it’s illuminating, it lacks something a little close to home. Through the years, we have had many of our own produce documentaries that are interesting, relevant and feminist, showcasing a side of life that apply to many of our own. With documentaries that showcase how sectarian violence divides us, to ones that show the lives of multicultural experiences and bar dancers, we’ve compiled a list of 10 must-watch documentaries that are feminist, fascinating and fun for you.
I. My Mother India
Told from the point of view of Safina Oberoi, an Australian woman, My Mother India chronicles the lives of Safina’s family, a dad of a Sikh father and Australian Mother and her life growing up. The film starts with the story of how Safina’s mother used to hang her underwear out to dry in her Indian neighbourhood, Needless to say, the community protested and were quite scandalised. The film talks lovingly about a father who loves kitschy calendars, a grandfather who’s a self-styled guru and a man-hating granmother. The personal tapestry of the film plays well with the more serious material of the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, and how lives were disrupted because of it, whether you were completely Indian or Australian-Indian like Safina was.
II. Guhya by Kirtana Kumar
“Guhya is the name of the goddess in an aroused form sitting deep in a cave”, this is how we are first transported into Kirtana Kumar’s unashamedly exuberant masterpiece Guhya. It spans the Devadasis in Karnataka, sex workers and goddess worshippers in Kerala and a yoni temple in Assam, and it makes it clear that this is no mindless celebration of tradition, religion or sexuality. It’s a responsible film which initiated dialogue and debate with claiming it has all the answres. “All I wanted to do through the film was to widen the discourse on sexuality,” adds Kumar. The film brings awareness to the link between sexuality and spirituality, probing the roles played by caste, religion and menstruating goddesses in relation to how we have progressed as a society. Focusing on sari-clad devadasis who rhythmically sway to their own drum, these women force out giggles when talking about intercourse despite a country that’s increasing its singular, “Hindu” identity and what it means to be a woman in a time where womanhood is so policed.
III. Scribbles on Akka
Akka Mahadevi once wrote “You can confiscate money in hand; can you confiscate the body’s glory?”. Known as avery famous 12th century poet and ascetic saint, Akka gave life to her poetry though the use of contemporary music. The film explores whether Akka ever wore clothes and conformed to societal expectations, and was frequently described to be a celebration of rebellion. Scribbles on Akka showcases he life of and work of Mahadevi Akka, and her radical poems written using the female body as a metaphor. In her search God, Mahadevi gave up the domestic arena, and abandoned her modesty and clothes. The film uses the meaning of this denial by showcasing numerous contemporary artists and writers who nurtured her image through the centuries with oral literature and folklore. Expect to see a celebration of all that is feminine, rebellious and respectful to the legacy of a woman down nine hundred years.
IV. Ladies Special
Be sure not to confuse this with the tv show, Ladies Special is a warm film hat will crack you up if you’ve ever been in the local train compartment in Bombay as a working commuting woman. The film cashes in on the snippets of every day conversation and problems that women who travel face, as well as showing them enjoying themselves as they connect with each other. The film is described a as a celebration of travelling companions who share their more intimate lives, religious ceremonies and birthdays. Each compartment is said to have its own unique subcommunity, which makes women careful about boarding the same coach every day. These lives are shared, gossip and talk is exchanged and the journey between Virar to Churchgate is brought to our consciousness in vivid detail, celebrating all there is to love about female relationships.
V. Where’s Sandra
The adorably framed question begs us to ask, do you know a Sandra from Bandra? Parohmita Vora managed to capture the lives of 5 Sandras from Bandra in a part fantasy, part stereotype, total comedy that pokes fun at community stereotypes and draws attention the 5 different personalities that represent the working population of women in India.
VI. I Am The Very Beautiful
Anyone who’s ever seen a Bollywood film will recognise the tropes of female femininity expressed on the silver screen, with the greed of the male gaze being the most apparent.”I am the very beautiful” explains the muddled dynamic between a filmmaker and his subject Ranu Das, a Kolkata bar dancer and singer. The film is expressed to be one that does away with notions of political correctness and portrays Ranu as a combination of steel and coquettish charm, rather than using a tired old trope of her as a fallen, suffering bar dancer. The film is explores the relationship of two spirits that try to accept each other despite having very different ideas of morality.
VII. Unlimited Girls
Who doesn’t enjoy a movie that dissects the ideas of feminism humorously? Unlimited girls is an epic documentary that’s rife with girlish attitude and sass, and caused several old conservatives to cringe at the “fearless” content (an inside joke that you need to watch the documentary for to get). The film circles between young and old feminists in a chatroom using aliases like Marxist Usha, Chamki Girl and Attila the nun. It interviews bad ass women like Urvashi Butalia, Vina Mazumdar, Sonal Shukla, Meena Menon, Satyarani Chaddha and Shahjehan Begun. Definitely a must watch!
Nina Shivdasani might have been the first Indian woman to direct experimental films. The painter and photographer reconstructs a true story of Dalits who confronted the Brahmin elites and police when their only source of water, a well, dries up. After the re-enactment, it moves on to the real life interviews of the people that were impacted. It’s a pat breaking film about caste discrimination and carries a voiceover by the famous late Amrish Puri.
IX. Char Diwari
Char Diwari is a film that brings out domestic violence to the forefront as something that is a friend (and monster) to all classes. The film explores the story of Rinki Roy Bhattacharya, the daughter of famous filmmaker Basu Bhattacharya. RInki was married for 20 years before she walked out on her abusive husband. In a heart-breaking interview with Madhu Kishwar of Manushi magazine, Rinki shares her story, a story mirrored by countless people who have survived violence and abuse in their relationships.
X. India Cabaret
While the Indian cabaret might be a vestige of the past, the dancers who performed there still sear the mind and provide a beautiful narrative of a lost age. Mira Nair’s voiceover-free documentary sheds the light on the women who are unashamed of their profession and are more than willing to share their personal stories working as bar dancers. One woman rejects a respectable position and the advances of a man, because she doesn’t want or need to be rescued. We meet different characters, such as the morally “superior” good household men that frequent these bars and maintain a bitter love-hate relationship with the women who entertain them.