“Banned, Censored & Offensive: The Not-So-Freedom of Speech”
Indian Film-maker, Babita Modgil produced and directed the controversial film ‘Belly of The Tantra’ which examined the often shocking lifestyles and practices of members of the Aghori sect of Shaivite Hinduism in India. The film ‘ruffled a few feathers’ and ended up being banned for a while by the Indian Government. It has since been released for public viewing and has been doing the rounds of the film festivals. Many of the scenes in the film are quite disturbing.
You can read my review of ‘Belly of The Tantra’ here, and also subsequent interviews with the Director, Pankaj Purohit, and Producer, Jeremy Weaver.
Babita Modgil’s current project is the documentary film ‘Sudden Cry’, a look into the sinister world of child trafficking, to be released in 2016.
In the following candid interview, Babita Modgil talks about the struggles and difficulties she encounters as a female documentary film-maker in India:
Question The Documentaries ‘Belly of The Tantra’, ‘Tathagata’ and now ‘Sudden Cry’ are all unconventional films to come out of India. What intrigued you to the hard-hitting topics featured throughout these films?
Answer ‘Belly’ was an attempt to fearlessly touch my belief system. It significantly compromised my identity as a dedicated follower of Hinduism. It was extremely challenging for me to comprehend the fact that being a Hindu could reach extreme levels far greater than simply chanting mantras.
These followers who sacrifice animals, consume human flesh, indulge in sex with virgin girls in order to attain power to appease their Gods & Goddesses were also Hindus. God, to me, has always been very peculiar and I am unsure of his or her existence. If God does exist, I am uncertain of the form God inhabits. It is scary, thinking of a scenario, where one talks to God and then suddenly God starts talking back. For instance, if God comes into someone’s dream and says kill and they then set out to kill. This is the kind of one-dimensional mindset many so-called religious people can have.
I needed to have the courage to break my conditioning through the process of ‘Belly’ and as the film progressed, it became very difficult for me to understand my own religion and their version of that same religion.
Q. What intrigued you about the taboo nature of religion touched on in ‘Belly’?
A. Today, religion has become the most successful business throughout the world because you can simply sell fear in the name of God and nobody is going to question you. Unfortunately, this is especially true in a country like India. And even worse, if a woman questions God and the ways of worship, it becomes a greater blasphemy and her voice will be undeniably crushed.
I wonder how far we have really evolved as a humanity when we sacrifice reality in the name of fiction and when we live our lives based on some books that were written thousands of years ago. When Pankaj Purohit, the director of ‘Belly of the Tantra’, pitched me the film, I was very intrigued because I was about to tap into something that was totally unfamiliar to me. Questions like – Why most religions are fear based; why does an individual need a religion in the first place; why do we worship some unknown entity called God; if God is one then why do we all have different religions; and why do we all want to prove that our God is superior to another’s God?
Q. As a female filmmaker, did any of your discoveries about Hinduism from ‘Belly’, carry over to your process when filming ‘Sudden Cry’?
A. In ‘Sudden Cry’, I’m challenging our hypocritical society. On one hand, based on the scriptures, India worships many Goddesses in female form and worships holy rivers named after those Goddesses, but on the other hand, many of those same people buy and sell little girls and forcefully push them to be sex slaves and prostitutes.
I want to know what kind of culture we’re living in and I look for those answers in my work as a filmmaker. Where have we reached as a society? Child trafficking and sex slavery has turned out to be the second most profitable and criminal industry in the world. Disturbingly, India is rated in the top 5 of unsafe nations for women and young girls in the world. We have crossed all the limits of greed as human beings here. India says we have evolved and I am not sure about that. It is a great concern for me as a woman and as an artist.
I remember a man once told me publicly that he can rape me, murder me and get away with it. In India, a man thinks he can do whatever he wants with a woman’s body. He thinks it only becomes rape when the woman objects and at that point, it is the woman that has made the act a “problem” and therefore, if a woman simply keeps her mouth shut and does not oppose, there would be no “rape”. To further distort and make the scenario even more of an already perverse violation, the man will then let the woman know that he is able to buy anyone and everyone in the corrupt system.
A woman in India has no choice when it comes to rape. Rather than an issue to address and abolish, rape has become a joke. As a humanity, we have become numb to issues like these. We believe in turning our backs and saying, “Thank God it did not happen to me.” It’s unfortunate that our society is slowly and gradually becoming regressive and that is not a good sign for any kind of progressive spirit for any nation. Disappointingly, as a female or an artist, there is no place in India for a woman like me.
Q. Very few women venture into such out of the box filmmaking. Did you feel apprehensive stepping into the field?
A. I believe in doing films that can stretch the humanity & morality of the self and the collective. Whether or not a film changes the world is not the point, but making an attempt to further our awareness is what I find most compelling and motivating. When I did ‘Belly’, it became very clear that I am ultimately on a path where I will face a lot of opposition and hurdles in creating something significant. It was absolutely frightening because we were exposed to the extreme fundamentalism of Hinduism and the opposition can go to extreme lengths to damage us. I was very fortunate to have had a team who stood with me and continues to be very passionate about the work I do.
During the filming of ‘Belly’, a group of tantriks tried to rape me while I was shooting in a shmashan ghat, where women are forbidden. It was a narrow escape. I did a lot of thinking about the kind of projects I pursued and realized that I could have died in the process. With ‘Belly’, I was threatened by fanatic Hindu groups many times and with ‘Sudden Cry’, I faced opposition, threats from the authorities and told not to film or ask important questions about the illegal prostitution of children. It’s clearly not something they want seen. I was attacked by a mob in Mandsaur while filming ‘Sudden Cry’ and they demanded that I give them my camera. I retreated to prevent the footage I had already filmed from being destroyed. Even groups such as Shiv Sena and VHP contacted me in person and over the phone and told me not to screen ‘Belly’ when complete. The Indian government went on to ban ‘Belly of the Tantra.’
I believe in showing a mirror to the society through my work. My relentless passion keeps me going, but it can be extremely challenging. At times, it feels futile. I make projects that I strongly believe in. I am glad that people across the world have watched ‘Belly’ and it has received tremendous respect across the globe. My hope is that ‘Sudden Cry’ finds an audience as well so the children affected get help. My film is for them above all else so how can I not pursue it?
Q. The banning trend in India is rampant. Do you feel that the audiences are turning a blind eye to a number of social issues not because of what they will learn about the issue, but rather what the issue will teach them about themselves?
A. The hypocrisy of Indian society and it’s system is so deep-rooted and corrupt, that it does not want to see it’s own face in the mirror. The reality jumps
and bites your ass. It stings. Intelligentsia in India wants to keep on projecting it’s so-called modern and progressive global image of the ‘ever-so growing’ India that they have completely ignored to fix the very basics of human rights. Women are violated every possible way. They’d rather sweep it under the rug. We helplessly can’t speak up as women. If you do muster up the courage, you will be punished. How can a country progress when their women and children feel unsafe because they are constantly in fear of getting raped, abused and killed? Is that progress? Is that evolution?
Instead of working on the issues of sex slavery and child trafficking, our government has started to ban projects that shed light on those ‘hush hush’ and important humanitarian problems. This is outrageous. I ask, what kind of democracy is there when a Nirbhaya rapist is roaming freely? This is why there are constant cases of rape and sexual abuse happening throughout India. Because of the corrupt system and rotten bureaucracy, no change has even been attempted. It is simple and tragic. The Indian justice system is so docile that they do not want to punish the rapist. It has become an ugly, dark and brutal comedy with horrific themes. One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I know that parents teach their girls to behave, but I have not yet seen boys being told to do the same. Of course they’ll ban me because I don’t say things they want to hear. Currently, it’s regressive vs. progressive battling in India. It’s possibly the worst scenario ever.
Q. Financial funding for projects such as yours can be hard to acquire. Have you faced major financial difficulties in any of your ventures?
A. Financially, it’s been extremely difficult. All the time. Money is difficult to come by for the kind of projects we make. In India, because the vast majority of films are Bollywood Masala, any film that attempts to provoke social and political acknowledgment and change is not considered at all. In our current culture, we’d rather feast on lollipops than anything with substance. Filmmakers in India neither attempt nor receive funding for projects that really affect social change. Because I am compelled to those kinds of projects, money is extremely elusive and financing becomes impossible. Bollywood is full of fluff paid for by businessmen claiming to be artists. Name one really substantial Indian film to affect any social change or global awareness in the past 10 years?
Q. What about artistically and humanely?
A. Artistically, I cry. I can certainly understand the notion of selling out to a business in order to make money, but if I solely follow that path, I will not contribute to anything essential and will perpetuate the lack of awareness, effort and meaning. I cannot do that. It feels unnatural to me. Overall, it’s very unfortunate to be stifled in this way because of the industry’s priorities to produce inconsequential and mediocre entertainment. I have done everything possible to make my films happen. I’ve sold my land, I’ve sold my jewellery. Humanely, you fight. I get up everyday and assert that I am not going to get bogged down by all the meaningless bullshit.
Q. As a woman and artist, you have faced innumerable setbacks while unraveling the hidden truths of the world. What are some incidents that will live on in your conscience? Has there ever been an incident that caused you to re-evaluate your line of work?
A. Well, injustice is happening right under our noses and we are willing to murder at any cost. Look what happened in New Delhi. Akhlaq was stone pelted and killed by hundreds of Hindu men. That wasn’t the society and tradition I grew up with. We were taught India “is all peace and love.” These harsher realities I had to discover through my art. And now I question – where is the democracy? Where is secularism? What kind of a nation are we becoming?
My work has made me think a lot about our society on an individual level and on the collective level as to where we came from and where we are headed. As far as setbacks, women have been setback ever since our scriptures were written. Sita had to go through fire to prove her character. In Mahabharata, Draupadi’s husband wagered her in a gamble and lost her. She was then stripped naked in front of the public and presented so everyone knew she was under new ownership. In our society, women are enslaved and a woman is only property to a man. Nothing more. For me, it’s extremely difficult to play that role. Sometimes I fear for my life because the gruesome reality is that I can be traded, beaten or killed anytime like a piece of meat. Recently in Delhi, a two-year old little girl was abducted and raped. She’s still in the hospital because she bled profusely. How long will we allow this to continually go on? It’s well past the time for women to stand up and demand change. It’s about our dignity and respect.
Q. How important is social media to documentary filmmakers like you? Do you feel that it helps or harms the cause?
A. What I like most about social media is that it is a two-way communication. You can express anything and you will inevitably get a response. There is an immediate possibility of a dialogue. Social media is a great instrument for independent filmmakers like us. You can reach your audience not just locally, but also globally. It gives you a platform. When the system tries to cage your voice, the internet gives you freedom to communicate, a tremendous opportunity and a significant outlet. With ‘Belly’, the system was against us, but social media loved us. We became popular, not only because of what we were doing, but also because of the extent at which we could share our work. The industry knows of us now. They’ve acknowledged what we’re making and how we’re communicating. They know we’re here to stay.
Q. After ‘India’s Daughter’ and A.R.’s (Music Producer A.R.Rahman)fatwa how do you feel you are affected as an artist and human being?
A. Leslee Udwin was threatened, pushed and challenged. A.R. Rahman was given fatwa. I was almost raped by a mob in Central India. I was asking for help and the cops simply stood there and then turned their backs on me. We somehow managed to flee from there. There was a moment when I realized that this could be my last day alive. In those thirty seconds, I realized how circumstances are much larger than an individual. They had almost unclothed me.
India has become unsafe and uncivilized for any progressive woman. There is neither freedom of speech nor freedom of choice. Sadly, it has become a threat not just for me, but for any artist that aspires to create informative, journalistic, edgy and compelling work that has the ability to reach a global audience and affect change. It’s an ongoing challenge fighting that psychology everyday.
Q. How does a woman in India create stories that will inform the world?
A. They can’t. I don’t feel safe in India and neither do many other women. There is constant fear of getting attacked all the time. Acid attacks have been rampant. Rapes and murders are common with the assailants walking free. They say, “Well, just gotta be behind bars for 6 months and that’s it.” The government and authorities play mute and dumb, thereby encouraging more crime. I believe that they just don’t want strict punishments.
The Indian laws are old and obsolete and criminals have long known how to navigate the law. Basically, they don’t fear the law. Also, many of our politicians have been criminals themselves. Shockingly, goons become politicians here. The whole system is corrupt. This is the kind of government we have which is protecting the culprits by not giving them punishment.
Look what happened with Nirbhaya. She did not get security when she was alive and there was no justice after her death. Delayed justice is denied justice. Why wasn’t her case fast-tracked? A six-year old girl was raped with an iron rod. Who does that to a little child? The government does nothing. Of course I feel insecure. The silence has become the conspiracy and I feel we have become numb to this. These crimes have become routine, the news has become routine and the police inquiry has become routine. In the rare scenario if and when justified inquiry does happen, the system will then give lame half-truths until no more questions can be asked. These half-truths are as bad as lies. We absolutely need much more than that for any significant change to begin. The whole psychology has to be altered.
Q. How did these issues affect the process of filming ‘Sudden Cry’?
A. It made it impossible. It was not just difficult, it became absolutely impossible. I have been working on this documentary for three years. We are dealing with grotesque criminals here and selling innocent girls is their business. Cops are substantially bribed and are involved in it and then the government gets their cut and everybody is kept happy. The entire system is part of the business and is an active enabler.
Just because India now has some high-rise buildings and we’ve starting driving fancy cars and wearing Gucci and Armani, our minds haven’t changed. It is suffocating to live in that kind of environment. Our youth has the potential to fight this corruption, but they are kept in the dark. As hopeless as this may sound, they are forced to believe and accept the old, corrupt mindset and ways of life and as unaware as they are conditioned to be, they do nothing to challenge or evolve out of the defunct system. I don’t see any revolution happening here. We have succumbed to degeneracy. When a society accepts dysfunction in this way, the whole humanity is in danger. It is a threatening and fatal circumstance.
Q. Will you continue to make these controversial projects?
A. I don’t know that I’ll be able to. That’s a two-fold question. I don’t believe that the things I am saying should be categorized as ‘controversial’ in the first place. Facts are facts. I am showing truth in my projects and truth alone is not controversial. It can be hard hitting. My projects raise questions that are necessary. Through good journalism and documentaries, questions can be raised to alter things politically, socially and judiciously. Indian society wears a thick veil of hypocrisy and it can’t seem to stomach the truth.
I make projects that shine a spotlight on how we perversely live as human beings – not because I want to indulge in slanderous accusations and ruffle feathers – but because I deeply care about my fundamental rights and the well-being of those that also occupy a place in this world. I want to see the conditions improved.
It’s difficult to find your unique, authentic voice in this culture. We as a society are recklessly going backward. Tell me, where is the morality here? It has become lost underneath the piles of meaningless cash and everything we work for goes to simply making a quick buck.
Q. Please tell us a bit about your future projects.
A. ‘Sudden Cry’ will come out in March 2016 and we are also in development for a feature length thriller, ‘The Rope in the Darkness’, about a woman’s self-discovery during a horrific cult experience.
You can follow Babita Modgil on Twitter here