Shijith V.P.’s documentary Nakusa: Unwanted is My Name has been grabbing attention nationwide in the last few months. The documentary, focusing on violent discriminatory practices against girl children in rural Maharashtra, is an extension in filmic form of the documentary maker’s MPhil thesis. A full-time doctoral student in the Department of Design, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Hyderabad, Shijith was drawn towards still photography and videography as a way of expression and wanted to study this further. During his MPhil, he took up a photography project titled “Doors and Windows.” It is from this project that he noticed the power of colours and patterns to communicate ideas, and this helped him think about visual media’s potential as a research tool. Recently, he has also worked in the film industry as assistant director, associate director and cinematographer. Shijith’s doctoral research project is on the use of colours in Bollywood cinema, and he has published various research articles in reputed journals as well.
Dayal Paleri, a PhD student in Humanities and Social Sciences from IIT Madras, catches up with Shijith for a brief chat:
DP: Your documentary “Nakusa: Unwanted is My Name” has already availed wide attention and triggered public discussions. It has brought certain explicit practices of gender discrimination that prevail in our society once again into the public domain. So as the director, could you please tell us about “Nakusa” and the issues that you dealt with through the film?
SJ: The documentary deals with the practices of gender discrimination in the Satara region of Maharashtra. In those regions, particularly in the villages, the girl children, especially if they are the second or third girl child in the family are being named as “Nakusha” or “Nakoshi” which in Marathi means “Nako asleli mulgi” which translates as “unwanted child”. The guiding belief is that if they name the girl child as “Nakusha” the next child to be born will be a boy. The rationale behind these discriminatory practices can be assumed even without a research and they are multiple. The reasons include several cultural, familial, socio-economic factors. So my focus was primarily on the consequences of these practices. Any girl who is named Nakusha lives with immense humiliation that is embedded in her name itself.
All of us have been deeply disturbed when someone else calls us by our nicknames at some point, then imagine the humiliation and deprived self-respect that Nakusha girls possess when they are regularly called and named as “unwanted” by their own parents and family. The damage it causes to their everyday life is unimaginable. Many of the girls who are named so, were not even ready to open up and share their experiences with others. The consequences of this practice have forced them either to relinquish their self respect completely or accept the societal myth that they are “unwanted”. Only a few of them who are relatively well educated have been able to openly articulate the humiliation that they undergo through this practice and have realized the need to speak up against it.
The making of the documentary wasn’t easy at all. Several factors came as limitations to us in the making process. I have visited 77 houses. I could interview about 44 girl children who are named as “Nakusha” and 77 of their parents. Though there were about several more girls bearing the same name, they were unwilling to talk to us about their experience. I have spent many days in Satara in the time span of four years and paid regular visits when I wasn’t residing there. There were several ethical issues involved in shooting the conversations with the girl children. Many a times, they would break down weeping when asked about the names. I chose not to include several such instances due to the moral issues involved. Other than this, the major limitation I faced as a filmmaker as well as a researcher was that of language. Since I couldn’t speak Marathi, I had to depend on a translator and that hindered effective communication with the people. Also transport facilities to the interior locations of Satara are very limited, which also made the making of the film quite difficult.
DP: As you said, these specific practices of nomenclature are the consequences of the interplay of several socio-economic factors. Did you attempt to place these practices in those larger background frames through your documentary?
SJ: The nomenclature practice is a reflection as well as an expression of the already existing gender discrimination in our society. There are different manifestations of discrimination against women. Among the lower caste and economically backward villagers, if it was being expressed in terms of these nomenclature practices, among the so called “educated” upper class/caste families, girl children were not even allowed to be born! So the practices of gender discriminations have to be understood in a larger context, considering several socio-economic factors. But several documentaries as well as academic researchers have already come to light in the public domain, explaining the reasons and conditions that give rise to such discriminatory practices. My focus in the documentary was to capture and narrate the experiences of trauma and the loss of self-respect that the “Nakusa” girls undergo. To be precise, I attempted to capture the injection of “unwantedness” among the Nakusa girls. But as I was also doing my MPhil on the same topic, I tried to link these practices to the larger issue of gender disparity and son preference in my academic research.
DP: You are presently a PhD scholar in the department of Design, IIT Hyderabad. You seem to be researching a topic related to cinema as well. So how has your interest and training in filmmaking evolved?
SJ: I was always fascinated with visual media. I could see visual media as a potential research tool from my earlier days of engagement itself. Though I was unaware about the technological aspects due to lack of access and training, I was always drawn to it. I bought a camera in 2011, and then I started taking a lot of photographs. Initially I was capturing marginalized people’s lives, but they questioned the very fact I was taking their images was because they were poor. That made me think and then I started looking at people’s worlds through a different approach. I started clicking a series of images of doors and windows and capturing people through that theme. Later in 2015, I could conduct a photo-exhibition with those series of images. During the process of editing them for the exhibition, I realized the significance of colour variations in images, and that lead me to later research about colour variations used in cinema itself. I am presently still working in that direction.
I heard about the “Nakusha” issue, while I was working in IIPS, Mumbai. I was interested in that issue and wanted to make a documentary on the same. Later I joined IIPS as an MPhil Research student and then my guide suggested that I could conduct my research on the same subject since I also wanted to make a film on that. That was a turning point. I never had any academic training in filmmaking, but I was deeply passionate and confident mainly because of the seriousness of the subject that I want to convey through my film. So I started shooting while I was doing my fieldwork and continued to shoot even after submitting my research thesis. The camera for my documentary was handled by Mr. Prathap Joseph, who was already an acclaimed cinematographer and filmmaker. It is through working with him, that I learned a lot about direction. I was deeply influenced by him and his approach towards film. Initially we wanted to the documentary purely based in the narration of “Nakusa” girls, but various practical difficulties forced us to change our approach. So the final outcome was completely different from what I imagined in the beginning, from which I took back several valuable lessons. On the whole, my only major training in filmmaking was my experience of filmmaking itself.
DP: What do you see yourself pursuing in the future? Do you see yourself as an academic researcher or as a filmmaker?
SJ: I don’t see both areas as different sphere. Both research and filmmaking are expressions of creativity. Academic research gives you a deep understanding of the subject matter and very valuable insights. It always leads you to a clear and valid understanding of the subject, but at the same time the reach that the academic research has in itself is very limited. However relevant and interesting the results might be, it may not appeal to or reach the larger sections of our society. It is to complement the limits of academic research that I began using visual media as an effective means of communication with the larger audiences. As an example, my research papers on “Nakusa” was published in reputed journals, but had a very limited reach and provoked very minimal discussions on the subject, whereas the documentary has reached a very large section of society and culminated in vibrant discussions and changes. However, it’s my engagement with academia that has made me aware about the extent of various social discriminations. It is my engagement with filmmaking that enables me to reach out to a larger audience with the things that I wanted to convey. So both research and film for me are means to understanding and communicating things – not separate, but continuous and complementary spheres of engagement.
About the Writer
Dayal P is a Doctoral Research Scholar at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras. His research interests include Religion and Modernity, political violence, social inequality etc.. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org