Class and inequality are a real presence in India, completely not bettered: Irfana Majumdar

Days before leaving for Locarno to attend the premiere of her film, 'Shankar’s Fairies', director Irfana Majumdar spoke to National Herald. Excerpts from the long-ranging interview

Irfana Majumdar with her mother Nita Kumar
Irfana Majumdar with her mother Nita Kumar

Namrata Joshi

Despite the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, Indian independent films—The Disciple, Meel Patthar, Fire in the Mountains, Writing with Fire, Anita, Lata, Koozhangal (Pebbles), A Night of Knowing Nothing, Invisible Demons—have been travelling to festivals the world over. The latest to join the list is filmmaker and theatre director Irfana Majumdar’s debut feature film, Shankar’s Fairies, that had its world premiere at the Locarno Film Festival on August 13.

Set in 1962 Lucknow, the quiet but deeply resonant film is based on the memories of Majumdar’s mother Nita Kumar, professor of history and anthropology. It is about a little girl’s relationship with her house help that doesn’t just fire her imagination but also makes her aware of the deeply embedded fissures of class, caste and religion in the Indian society.

Majumdar, who is also the founding artistic director of the NIRMAN Theatre & Film Studio in Varanasi, stars in the film in a central role inspired from her real grandmother and her own husband Gaurav Saini doubles up as her on-screen husband.

Days before leaving for Locarno to attend the premiere, Majumdar spoke to National Herald. Excerpts from the long-ranging interview:

Irfana Majumdar
Still from Shankar’s Fairies

It’s your mother’s life that is said to have inspired Shankar’s Fairies. How did the idea take root?

The film is based on certain incidents that happened in her childhood. She grew up while moving from one small town to the other while my grandfather, who was in the IPS, was transferred.

The idea came about suddenly in a way, through personal circumstances. My grandmother passed away in January of 2016. She lived in the ancestral house of my grandfather, built by his own grandfather. After her death the extended family decided that the house should be sold. This house was connected to me and our family in many ways. It was not the house where my mother grew up but a similar home. It was a bungalow in the cantonment where they moved after my grandfather’s retirement. It was the house that I spent my childhood days in. It was where I grew up in a way. It symbolized my grandparents’ lifestyle, the way of life in India.

My mother said that we must make a film in the house before we lose it. She had written a short story for children called Shankar’s Fairies. It’s a very different tale but had the seed of the film.

Seed of the film in terms of the child and the house help and their relationship with each other?

In terms of Shankar, the house help, and in terms of this idea of imagination and stories being at the heart of what makes a childhood and its memories so vivid.

How much did you adhere to the material that your mother provided you? How much liberty did you take? What approach did you decide on as a filmmaker?

I have never really worried about being true to something. The incidents were powerful because my mother remembered them for so many years. Once they entered the script, we felt totally free to tweak them according to the narrative we were trying to create. These were memories of her entire childhood, but we are looking at 2-3 months in a child’s life in the film. We strung them together in a certain way, found ways that they could lead to each other.

In a way it is connected to the work I have done in theatre and documentaries. It was about looking back at a time that was important where there is a change or understanding starting to take shape.

In documentaries, for instance, you have a vision, but you also have a lot of material and see what it reveals. In theatre we do a lot of devised work where we create stuff, work with actors, and then put it all together.

In a way it was like that. It was like I was taking all this stuff, finding what it meant. It was there that my voice was important, and it came in. You could do anything with that material in a way. You could make 100 completely different films.

With your background in theatre and documentaries you could have opted to make the film in a different format. Does a fiction film make the material more resonant for a larger number of people?

It is freeing. I love documentaries but I like the imagination, the freedom with creativity. It wouldn’t have worked as a documentary because we don’t have footage from that time. When we were doing pre-production in the house, I had this idea of having it as an immersive theatre experience. People come to the house and see the characters in person. But we were really caught up with the idea of a film and to create this feeling of being back in a certain time and witnessing things happening then was important. Which is why the medium.

So much of the film is about storytelling, flights of fancy, imagination. Perhaps the medium of fiction also ties up with that aspect of the film...

In a way it’s about the fact that everything is a story, and we choose to tell ourselves the stories we want to about everything that is happening around us. Children are ones who can tell the most wild, fantastical stories. Some adults can retain a glimmer of it, like Shankar.

Apart from the setting, there is the time. 1962. Did you choose it?

My mother would have been ten at that time, the girl in the film is nine years old. The film is based on material spread over a period of ten years. For us that particular year was important. It would situate it in a context that would resonate with people and add a certain dimension to it.

I was taken in with the child’s point of view. The innocence as well as the sense of discovery make the politics—aspects of caste, class, religion, the divides—hit you stronger...

The first time you realize something is very important. All of us have discovered something at certain points in our lives. We don’t think about those times. We just accept that we don’t like this, or that we are against this kind of inequality, but we don’t remember the specific moment where we might have noticed something. I wanted that to be important. That we see this little girl herself notice a certain thing. Even if she doesn’t articulate it totally to herself. The intellectual processing happens later.

Through the family dynamics you are looking at the larger issues in the society. The divisiveness, the hierarchies, the distances, and proximities that one sees vis-à-vis Shankar. How much of it was factored in the script? Or did it flow spontaneously while you were shooting?

We discussed the script in depth for many months. After the first draft of the screenplay was written, we spent many hours every day going through every scene and dissecting it, what were the themes, how the characters were being revealed, how were we placing the different elements and layers, what was important to emphasize. We worked on it a lot and then the final screenplay was written. I decided to trust the work that had already gone into the script. So then during the shoot I tried to use my intuition more. I felt that all the groundwork was there, so when I saw a scene, I let myself sense if it was true to that and working in the moment.

The element of default guardianship, how the help becomes as much a parent figure as the parents themselves. I thought it was very compelling. Was it drawn from something you feel strongly about?

It’s a way of life. The anglicized idea, there’s a nursery, a nanny. Parents and children are separate and interact in certain ways. The person who is with the child and must answer its questions, comfort them and provide security when they need, is the person that the child feels comfortable going to. It didn’t really happen to me. My parents and I were quite close, and we didn’t live this kind of lifestyle at all but I have seen it a lot. It’s part of my mother’s experiences, it’s part of the system. So many people grew up like this.

There’s a duality the film underscores. How Shankar is a dignified man but believes in the societal divides, there’s a benevolent authoritarianism in the family...

This is what we were trying to go for, in a way, with all the adults in the film. They have these two aspects—as part of a larger context that they are conditioned by. So many ideas are there because of the upbringing. But, at the same, they all have their individual personalities and characters. Only person outside of it is the child who is not yet fully formed. The little girl is seeing all this. Who will she become? We don’t know yet.

It’s also about a certain moment and period in India’s history. How far do you think we have come from there?

Unfortunately, we are struggling with so many of the same issues. In fact, even more with certain issues. Class and inequality are as much a real presence in India, completely not bettered. We have a huge class and the same dynamics. The manifestations may have changed a bit because of the changes in political climate over the years. Even if it was 1962, you will see the same conversations even today. I don’t think India has found the solution or resolved any of them. In fact, we are deeper into the mire... One thing we don’t have is the idealism of a new India, but we are not as naïve. Everything is more complicated.

The pacing and editing make the viewer transport to the world and time. Who were your collaborators for it?

It was a five-year process of editing it in a certain way. In 2019 I did my first edit myself because I wanted to understand the footage and material better before working with someone else. That’s the cut I submitted to the Work-In-Progress lab at NFDC Film Bazaar in 2019. In early 2020 we worked with a German editor for a short time but because of the pandemic we couldn’t continue together. Because I had been away from the film, I again made a new edit and then we worked with Tanushree Das. It wasn’t from a scratch although she brought a lot to the project and came up with certain crucial ideas. I had thought a lot about the rhythm and the pacing and played around a lot with the footage.

What about the camera work and production design which is so crucial? How much a stickler for details have you been in creating this world?

The production design was mostly done by my mother, and we were lucky in that we shot in my grandmother’s house. We were able to use a lot of things that were already present although we had to recreate 1962. We were able to use a lot of embroidered things, the chinaware. We already had a rich pool of things to draw from. Basically, we prepared the entire house, redesigned it totally. Because we didn’t that much about making a film, we probably did much more than we needed to. We re-did the whole house than just sections we filmed. But it gave us a lot of freedom because we could choose to shoot anywhere. It took us a few months. We moved into the house in January and shot in September. The whole while we recreated the house. The house sold a month after the film shoot ended.

Your mother is also the producer of the film and its most crucial viewer. What was her reaction to the finished film?

It has been something she has been close to. I don’t know if I was able to recreate that with my leap of imagination. I am sure that some things turned totally different from what she remembered. But she is very good in going with a new idea. When a finished product is its own thing, a complete work of art, then you don’t have to connect it so much with whatever inspiration it drew from. You just see it, in itself, for what it is.

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Published: 14 Aug 2021, 7:44 PM