Award-winning documentary maker Vibha Bakshi talks about gender justice, film-making, and the struggle to change things
Documentary filmmaker Vibha Bakshi became well known in India after her film Daughters of Mother India won the National Film Award for best film on social issues and was shortlisted for the Cannes Glass Lions award for media advocacy. Her earlier docus, Terror at Home and Too Hot to Handle, were on domestic violence and global warming, the first being part of an Emmy-winning campaign by the US government against violence against women. Bakshi’s latest film, Son Rise, is set in Haryana, where patriarchy rules and the sex ratio is highly skewed. In this milieu, Bakshi uncovers stories of men who have stood strong and stood up for women. She spoke to Governance Now on her life and her work.
Tell us about your transition from journalism to film-making.
While doing business reporting at CNBC, I started deviating towards stories dealing with social issues. I found my passion here and wanted to do lasting stories. While in New York, I met my partner Maryann Deleo, an Academy award winner, and we started making films together, landing some of the best projects.
What would be your definition of feminism and gender equality?
Fundamentally, it’s an issue of human rights, not women’s rights. It’s about men and women standing in solidarity. It can’t be achieved in isolation. It’s time to change the narrative and have men become part of the struggle.
Daughters of Mother India has been screened for police personnel to sensitise them to gender issues. In Maharashtra, it’s part of the curriculum in 200 schools. How has the way women are perceived changed in recent years?
The fact that we were able to screen the film for 1,50,000 police officers, the frontline of the safety system, means that people want change. Police commissioners embraced the film, having realised that unless the force is sensitised, justice will not only be delayed but also denied. Every police commissioner I met stepped up to say that this was the first time the police have not been perceived and portrayed as villains. They said they, too, wanted change. The film empowered them to do the right thing.
Your greatest inspiration?
All the men featuring in Son Rise are real-life heroes and inspire me tremendously. I am fortunate to be seeing incredible people doing even more incredible things. Every day is an inspiration, whether it is the people I’m interacting with or people who are part of the good fight. Change begins at home, and it’s a long way to go.
What can the government do to promote documentary films in India?
Right from funding to distribution and publicity, documentary film-making is a struggle and people are making docus only out of sheer passion and commitment. Despite the availability of abundant talent, there are many compelling issues. A broadcasting platform is most needed. Along with mandatory screenings and correct time slots, documentary films must become part of the curriculum. Not only the government, but we all, in our own way, are unstoppable and have much power to get the word out. We need to work as an ecosystem and break the conspiracy of silence and have the courage to speak about issues that have not been spoken about. We hope the voice of the people will compel the government to support more issues.
Your views on the #MeToo movement?
I am glad the silence has been broken. That is very brave. A lot of people have created power. I hope it continues with the momentum it started with. A lot of men feel alienated. It would be amazing if men also became part of it as there are many good men.
The governance issues that matter most to you?
When we speak of governance, we speak of justice, right from the police to the judiciary. If these systems don’t function properly, it breaks people. While filming Daughters of Mother India, I realised that the police force is a mirror of our society. After all, they come from the very same society. That was a huge turning point. We realised there are no villains and heroes – only human beings. There’s a woman who comes home at two in the morning...her neighbour is judging her, and so is the cop who is taking down her report. We are in this together. If we want change, let us start with ourselves.
How does the social and political climate in the country affect your creative expression?
We shot Son Rise in Haryana, the land of khap panchayats, with the most disturbing gender statistics. But we decided to concentrate on the positives. The film bears out very disturbing facts, but it’s from these darkest corners that our heroes have emerged. They are doing extraordinary work to change the narrative. There is no fairy tale ending.
What are the major challenges facing the country?
Not just the country, the world is struggling with issues like racism. While India has many issues to address, people are working on the ground. We have a long way to go. Change takes time. Sometimes it is wise to cling on to hope even when grip is fragile because it is a fight we cannot afford to lose. The day you give up hope, you have lost the fight.
Achieving gender balance requires systematic reforms. How do you see that happening?
It requires women to become aware of their rights and men to support them. Together they have to work in sync with each other. Before we get into reforms, it is important to recognise the mentality of society, because the people who are making reforms come from the same society. While working on my film Terror at Home for the US government, I realised it’s the same story everywhere. It’s always the survivor who is shamed. In India, the difference is that we are still getting there and at this stage we can at least say the conspiracy of silence is broken. It’s important to keep the conversation going to move ahead.
Your future plans?
We are extremely humbled at the support we are receiving from the UN and hope that Son Rise does not remain just a film but becomes a movement. By the year-end, we hope to have one million pledges from men to do the right thing. We will soon start mass screenings with a target of 1,000 villages. We will also screen at schools and colleges, for it’s important to catch young people. Later, along with the UN, we plan to screen the film across the world, for gender bias is not an Indian story but a global reality.
An adage you live by...
It’s a quote from the Bible. Knock, and the door will be opened to you. In this field, there’s a lot of struggle and you’ve got to be at it. So many doors were closed on us. But we just kept knocking till the door opened.
(This interview appears in the April 15, 2019 edition)