'Expressions in Freedom', a three-day documentary film festival that screened 28 films on feminism, sexuality, religion, nationality, love, and other themes was held in New Delhi recently. The festival, which included talks by filmmakers and academics, was organised by the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT). Although women directed all the films screened, the idea, says Jai Chandiram, IAWRT President, was to screen work that "anchored us to ideas wide enough to cover all kinds of social and political freedoms".
Some of the filmmakers took the idea further, by experimenting with various forms of the documentary. They also freed themselves from the traditions - of 'truth' or 'reportage' for example - that have, according to filmmaker Shohini Ghosh, inspired little more than "tedium and boredom" among audiences. And other films spoke both of freedom and the fear of freedom, which is perhaps more debilitating in the long term.
Paromita Vohra's 'Unlimited Girls' (94 min, 2002) uses a faceless character called Fearless who - wandering through chat rooms and the streets of Delhi and Mumbai searching for ideas and practices of feminism - asks the question "Is there a word for the fear of freedom?" The response is - "Patriarchy".
Such ambivalent humour runs through the film as Fearless, not sure if she would call herself a 'feminist', searches for examples of feminism in everyday life. In the home of a newly-wed couple, she watches the young bride declare her independence and then calmly allow her husband to "rephrase" her thoughts.
On the fringes of Bollywood, she meets a heart-broken sub-inspector, whose first love left him for a richer man, and thus prompted him to write a film script. In the script, the sub-inspector admonishes young women everywhere and tells them not to betray faithful suitors. And the suitors, in turn, are told that if betrayed, they should not disfigure their lover's face with acid. Fearless also meets college girls in Delhi who are scared to walk alone on campus. And women activists who chose to fight for male factory workers because when they began their careers, women's rights were considered less serious and important.
Eventually, Fearless meets 'feminists', some of whom mourn the current disavowal of the movement by both men and women, who seem to have arrived at a comfortable balance between the politics of rights and the economics of consumption. And, as the ideas begin to pile up, she distils them through constructed chat-room discussions, in which half a dozen women argue about what it means to be a feminist; and parody 'advertisements' in which salesmen peddle products like "MisoGene", which detects (or identifies) a feminist.
Predictably, 'Unlimited Girls' has been criticised for having "too much" content, for being difficult to understand, a fact that Vohra blames on our "discomfort with seriousness".
A similar density of content characterises 'Guhya' (55 min, 2000), directed by Bangalore-based Kirtana Kumar. The film documents goddess-worship in Karnataka, Kerala and the North-East; and the rituals surrounding the Devadasi tradition, menstruation and the worship of the 'yoni'.
Although Kumar does not argue for prostitution, she does, through a conversation with three Devadasis, suggest that this is a tradition that has taken female sexuality outside its prescribed limits. And then she asks if a repression of this tradition (by the state government, for example) results in "femaleness being prescribed rather than experienced".
'Guhya' has many such controversial moments. At one point in the film, the writer, Kamla Das, argues that men be treated as "pets", relieved of the responsibilities of bread-winning, so that they become "better men, better lovers".
Overall, the film tries to depict what Kumar calls the "anarchy of the soul". This, she says, was suppressed by the homogenisation that characterised post-Independence nation-building in India. Over time, this suppression has led to a society that sees itself increasingly in black and white, ignoring and ignorant of the grey areas or the "nebulous something" Kumar indicates in her work.
Nation-building, in a more horrific form, is the subject of Deepa Dhanraj's 'Something Like a War' (53 min, 1991), which traces the history of India's family planning programme, which became notorious during Indira Gandhi's imposition of Emergency in 1975.
Much has been said about the forcible vasectomies that lost Indira Gandhi the post-Emergency elections; Dhanraj documents what happened when the programme shifted its focus to women. With village headmen, government officials and even ration shop owners were compelled to bring in a quota of 'cases', women were herded into hospitals, where doctors performed painful and potentially fatal operations on them. One scene shows a woman held down on a bed, a hand clamped on her mouth, while doctors operate on her. Her face is contorted with pain and anger, as she tries to shout.
In separate sequences, women in the film talk about how they are caught between the family demand that they produce more and more sons, and the state injunction against having more than two children.
The state, says Dhanraj's film, creates a simplistic link between population growth and poverty. And, as one of the women in the film argues - instead of eradicating poverty, the family planning programme is simply eradicating the poor.
"Art," says Vohra, "can make you feel something that opens you up to the world." Perhaps many would rather close out the world depicted by 'Unlimited Girls', 'Guhya' and 'Something Like a War'. But these films challenge our suspicion of intellectual debate, our self- consciousness about religion, and our indifference to anything that isn't entirely personal.