As one half of the directing duo Aruna-Vikas, Arunaraje Patil and her ex-husband Vikas Desai directed the films Shaque (1976), Gehrayee (1980) and Sitam (1982). Her first solo project after a personal and professional split from Desai was the sexual liberation drama Rihaee. The 1988 drama explores migration, sexual desire and women’s rights in a village in Gujarat and stars Vinod Khanna, Naseeruddin Shah, Hema Malini, Neena Gupta, Mohan Agashe and Reema Lagoo. Patil leapt over several hurdles before, during and after the shoot. Some were financial and logistical in nature, while others seemed to have uncannily been inspired by the subject matter, reveal these edited excerpts from her autobiography Freedom My Story.

Normally when a film unit is on an outdoor shoot, the men in the unit scout around to figure out what is available where – for example, cigarettes, liquor and sex. As far as liquor was concerned, I had made sure that everyone was informed that Gujarat was a ‘dry’ state.

But trouble came from unexpected quarters. About eight to ten days into the shoot, a female actor came to me. She began to complain that there were no interesting men available. Most of the actors in the film on location were women and sure, there was a dearth of male actors in the village simply because the script demanded that. I did not know how to respond to that. She continued, ‘Your cameraman is benign – he doesn’t look at us women except through the camera.’ I knew my cameraman well. S.R. Krishnamurthy was one of those decent individuals who would not make a pass at a woman or take advantage of them. ‘And your assistants – you keep them so busy – they are working all the time … There’s no time for a chit-chat even.’

This was not a joke, she was very serious and I did not have a solution. Over the next few days, others too expressed how lonesome they were in that godforsaken village, as they called it, and how they were missing male company. I thought – what did they want me to do? Surely, it was their own lookout. I could not help them out except listen to their rants. I questioned myself, is it so difficult for them to be without a man for ten days? If that is so, how would we last a month? How would they last the whole schedule without men? And it only served to make my conviction that what the women suffered in the film could not be more true, strong. It made me think – being creative artists they could express their feelings and needs but what about the average women who were denied their sexuality altogether by the male-dominated patriarchal society.

Arunaraje Patil and Vikas Desai with Padmini Kolhapure on the sets of Gehrayee. Courtesy HarperCollins India.

I don’t know what arrangements the men had made for their sexual gratification during the shoot, but we had another incident involving one of my male actors. He had apparently been hitting on the village girls. One night a whole bunch of villagers armed with sticks came to beat up the actor. They stood outside the house and demanded that he be brought out. The actor in question was a regular drinker and had fallen asleep somewhere and thankfully could not be found. After a whole lot of threats and a heated exchange of words, the villagers had to go away from the scene, disappointed.

A huge problem we had to face during that month was the public. Almost every day we would have a crowd of 50,000 or more people coming to Vadnagar or Visnagar to catch a glimpse of Hema Malini, the dream girl. They came in droves – hanging from overfilled trucks, tempos, riding on top of buses, taxi-cabs and so on. It turned out to be a ‘jatra’ or mela. We had a hard time managing the crowds. I would be hoarse, begging them with folded hands to let us shoot.

Both my artists and technicians were very cooperative during the shoot in spite of such hiccups. Hema Malini used to worry for me as I would be very demanding on myself and not stopping to rest. When shooting in the hot scorching sun, every so often, she would send me a glass of juice with her maid or send her ‘boy’ with an umbrella to shield me from the sun. Harish Patel, on the other hand, would forcibly sit me down and give me a head massage by rubbing coconut oil on my scalp once in ten days.

Rihaee (1988).

Towards the end of the film, I ran out of money. I had managed to borrow money, get an advance from an overseas distributor, and put in some of my own besides the ten-lakh loan from NFDC. I had also got a lot of credit and goodwill from people but I did not have money for the first print. It was during the dubbing of Rihaee, that Vinod, finding me preoccupied, literally cornered me into telling him what the problem was. When he found out what was bothering me, he stepped out of the studio, went to his car and got me thirty thousand rupees. This was exactly what I needed for the first print. When I made a fuss about taking it, he thrust it in my hands and said, ‘Don’t worry, payable when able.’

He had been extremely cooperative even during the shoot. Since I could not afford a special make-up man or attendant for him and knowing I worked on a small budget, he came to Vadnagar alone. He got off the flight at Ahmedabad, carrying his own bag, and lived with us in the same house where my cameraman, my assistant and I were staying. Even when he was not required, he would be with us on location, every so often lying on a ‘khatiya’ in what was supposed to be his house in the film.

I completed the film but my ordeal was not yet over. The film I was making did not obviously fit into the typical Hindi film mould. Vinod Khanna, the hero of my film, who was playing a Rajasthani carpenter, wore a dhoti and sported a moustache. My overseas distributor literally hounded me to show Vinod Khanna wearing trousers at least in one scene. In fact, he wanted me to shoot a dream sequence where Vinod and Hema wore urban modern clothes and sang a song. I was stubborn and did not give in. Such a compromise was beyond comprehension. After the film was released, there were so many women who loved the way Vinod looked – they found him sexy in that get-up and drooled over him.

Arunaraje Patil. Photo by Hrishikesh Joshi.

The problem with the film was that people did not know how to categorize it. For the commercial industry it was an art film and for the art film crowd it was a commercial film…So here I was with a film that did not belong. Around that time a new word was coined and Rihaee fitted perfectly into something called ‘Middle’ cinema.

The next challenge for me was the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) or what was called the censor board. Everyone had scared me saying the censors would have a field day, chopping off parts of my film, given the theme. The content was repressed sexuality of women and there were love scenes but there was nothing in the film that men and women did not normally do together. In any case, just to be on the safe side, I had kept the love scenes extra long in my edit so that when the censors were done with the chopping, there would still be something left. As we waited with bated breath for the axe to fall and mutilate my film, I got a call from the CBFC officer that they wanted to meet me. Having had literally harmless, non-controversial bits of my earlier films hacked off, I expected the worst and walked into the office with great trepidation, ready to argue my case.

The officer was a lady but that didn’t mean anything because I had dealt with righteous, holier-than-thou ladies who were highly moralistic. As I sat down ready for battle, the officer looked at me and said, ‘Congratulations – I loved your film. It is so rare that we get to see a film like this.’ As she showered me with compliments I was dumbstruck, not believing anything I was hearing. She said that they didn’t want to cut anything – not even a frame but would I take an ‘A’ certificate, which meant adult viewing only. Relief washed over me that there were to be no cuts but an ‘A’ would restrict the business, I had been told. I asked her if we could make it ‘UA’ but she said the content would be too controversial and it would be safer for me to go with the ‘A’ certificate.

I had thought making a film and getting it censored was the hard part. But in those days the most frustrating part was selling the film. We had a lot of trial shows – private screenings of my film for distributors. Everyone said they enjoyed it but would not buy it.

My press conference was yet another battle, given the content of my film. Though my husband and I had been well written about for our earlier films and were quite the darlings of the press, I had not forgotten my first encounter with them before the release of Shaque, my first film. A journalist had asked me then, ‘Do you expect us to believe that Vinod Khanna, the star, listened to a chit of a girl like you?’ I had been quick to retort, ‘Ask Vinod Khanna!’

Sure enough, as expected, a journalist stood up during the press conference of Rihaee and asked me, ‘What do you want? Are you asking for sleeping rights?’ I smiled wryly and replied, ‘Who can give anyone sleeping rights? People sleep with who they want when they want!’ Another shot up and said, ‘You are spoiling our women. Our women are not like that.’ I looked at him, thought for a moment, and replied, ‘Tell me something, when you have an affair or want to sleep with someone, do you go to the red-light area or find someone in your own social circle?’ In response, he looked a bit shamefaced. I looked at them and said, ‘People are always having affairs, in every class of society, so what’s new?’

With my honesty, my straight speak and the film itself, I got good reviews. The first week grossed 98 to 100 per cent all over India. Thankfully, no morchas or sloganeering happened in front of my house as I was led to believe.

Excerpted with permission from Freedom My Story, Arunaraje Patil, HarperCollins India.