Documentary channel

What happens when a woman stands alone by an arterial road in Delhi

Sameera Jain's documentary explores the experience of being a woman in public spaces in the capital.

A woman stands by the side of Outer Ring Road in Paschim Vihar in west Delhi. She is alone and seems to be going nowhere. A car pulls up alongside her, its lights blinking first hopefully and then insistently. She moves a few steps backwards, clearly signalling her disinterest. The car reverses. She takes several steps backwards again. The car reverses again.

The seemingly working-class woman, actually Lady Irwin College professor Komita Dhanda, was participating in an experiment being conducted by filmmaker Sameera Jain for her documentary Mera Apna Sheher, which was produced by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust. Dhanda agreed to hang around for a few hours at various public places in the capital to test the reactions of people, especially the men, around her. The results are eye-popping even though we know that Rita Banerjee’s camera crew is at a safe, discreet distance from Dhanda, ready to emerge out of hiding if things got hairy (as they almost did in Paschim Vihar).

The immediate conclusion to be drawn from Dhanda’s act of loitering is that women do not loiter. They do not hang around public places, unlike men. They cannot stand next to cigarette sellers for as long as they please or stretch out in a park if they feel like. They must finish their chores and vacate the public space that they have occupied at the soonest.

Women and public space

It is three years old and was made before Delhi came to be known as India’s “rape capital”, but Mera Apna Sheher assumes renewed relevance every time a woman is sexually assaulted in public. The latest high-profile case in Delhi involves a multinational company executive who was raped allegedly by her call taxi driver. The incident is a reminder of the fragile peace between the city’s female residents and the streets. The media has screamed itself hoarse discussing the hows and the whys over the years, so Jain takes a different tack in Mera Apna Sheher. She focuses on the experience of women in public places – how they are watched, and how they see the ones who are watching them.

“There is a sense of not belonging, of not having a right over public spaces," said Jain, who edits and directs documentaries apart from conducting courses about the filmmaking form. “One realised that the problem is not personal any more. The problem has become invisible by being normalised. You can talk about incidents of molestation or rape and people will respond, but when you speak of being uncomfortable, you will sometimes get an askance response.”

Jain has lived in Delhi all her life and continues to use public transport. (“I don’t like driving,” she said.) She worked around the challenge of presenting a far too common problem by playing with the documentary form. Mera Apna Sheher goes beyond Dhanda’s experiment. Jain also follows working-class women learning to be drivers and throws in a self-defence class, where schoolgirls are taught to use their hands and feet against assaulters.

“Problems related to women have been addressed ad nauseam in cinema and documentary, so the challenge was to do it in a way that you would feel that there was something to be observed and addressed,” Jain said. “I started to look at work that was not predictable, that deliberately did not satisfy any of the expectations that audiences might have from the film.”

The road not taken

Mera Apna Sheher presents no direct reading or solutions into the challenges faced by women in navigating Delhi. Instead, the 70-minute film brings us close to the experience of being out in the open in Delhi. Cameras fitted inside the cars and on the dashboards reveal how the trainees are perceived by other drivers, for instance. “The idea was to represent the experience, so that this experience, and not the stance or the position, filters through,” Jain said. “Therefore, it also became important to look at women who are in semi-public spaces. The drivers are in a cocoon inside the car, but it is fragile and illusory. They are also highly spirited and are able to negotiate the problem.”

One of the most stirring images in the documentary is a dashboard view of one of the young women staring at the road ahead of her, unmindful of the attention and fully focused on her future.

Finding the right person to stage the public spaces experiment proved more challenging than following the trainee drivers, who were being supported by a non-governmental organisation. Jain needed somebody who did not just have the “ability and the spunk” to stand around and be stared at, but could also “straddle class ambiguity”. Sudhanva Deshpande, an actor and director with the theatre group Jana Natya Manch, suggested Dhanda to Jain. “I was thrilled to meet her,” Jain said. “She had the attitude, and many of the ideas in the film are hers in terms of the locations. For instance, she suggested the Outer Ring Road in Paschim Vihar. She said, ‘Let’s go there for five minutes and it [the attempted pick-up] will happen.’”

Not just a Delhi documentary

Mera Apna Sheher will ring painfully true for Delhi residents, but the experiences of its female subjects are by no means particular to that city. “Although the film is set in Delhi, it connects with people all over,” Jain observed. “I have shown it in several places, including at a film festival in Yamagata in Japan, and nobody has once said to me, how terrible your city is. Everybody can identify with the issue since it is a symptom of a larger problem.”

The documentary does not present pat solutions about why Delhi treats its women in a manner that routinely invites censure and horror, but Jain does have a theory. “Delhi being the seat of political power, it has drawn a certain kind of migrant over the decades,” she said. “I say this very carefully, since Bombay too is a city of migrants, as are other cities. But migration to Delhi brings with it anonymity, a certain pervasive lack of a community sense. Bombay has a better sense of being a metropolitan hub. In Delhi, you still get the semi-rural experience. It is not quite a metropolis in its spirit and yet it is the cutthroat seat of power. This alienation results in a lot of hostility.”

Video clip courtesy Public Service Broadcasting Trust.

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