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.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.