INTERVIEW

How Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukthankar have kept their directorial partnership going for 30 years

The award-winning filmmakers have worked on more than 20 feature and short films together.

Creating a piece of art, such as a painting or a novel, can be an isolating process. But cinema is a rare creative medium that requires many minds to work towards a common goal. And some of the best cinema emerges when the team works in symphony. Take Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukthankar, who have been working together for more than 25 years now and on over 20 feature and short films.

The widely acclaimed directors have carved a niche with their Marathi films that tackle social issues, such as HIV/AIDS, mental health and gender discrimination. They have also collaborated on short films and television serials. Together, they have won more than 25 awards, most recently for their 2016 film Kaasav, which combined the themes of depression and environment conservation. The movie won both the Maharashtra State Film Award and the National Award for best film.

Bhave, who has also worked on several award-winning solo projects, said she was lucky to have been approached by producers with such topics, around which she then wove her stories. “With the aptitude that I have, I immediately think of a story. Like a child I get excited about it,” Bhave told Scroll.in during a retrospective of her films at the Entertainment Society of Goa at Panaji. The screenings, from March 8 to March 11, were held to mark International Women’s Day.

“Also, no subject is taboo for me as I am curious about life,” added Bhave, who also writes all her films.

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Kaasav (2016).

For Sukthankar, the filmmaking process starts when Bhave narrates the script to him. “Her scripts are full of instruction, art direction details, camera angles, etc,” he said. “So it’s an interesting process as right from the first you start visualising. I keep responding and together it grows.”

Sukthankar started assisting Bhave when he was a 17-year-old commerce student. After he graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, he continued working with her.

The two divide their work according to expertise. Apart from script and dialogue, Bhave also looks after costumes, location and casting. Sukthankar writes the lyrics and plans the music and the technical aspects, such as camerawork and sound.

But aren’t disagreements inevitable when you work as a team? Not for them, said Sukthankar. According to him, because the story is Bhave’s, the last word should be hers. “It’s a basically her child. But, it’s a democratic process. Not only two of us but the whole team of actors, cameraman, sound recordist, etc, everybody contributes and their points are taken into consideration.

Bhave added, “In a career of more than 30 years we rarely had serious issue. It was not much of a problem.”

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Chakori (1992).

Bhave, who has a background in social work, never dream of being a filmmaker. But she realised the power of the medium when she was working on a project with women living in slums in the 1980s. “We had a street play group of illiterate Dalit women who were slum dwellers,” she said. “But, soon I realised that it had limitations, because the group couldn’t move to other places. Then I thought of doing a [audio-visual] story on one of the respondents and show how she changed her life, so that other women look at it and then start looking at their own lives. So, it acted like a mirror for them.” This culminated in Bhave’s first short film, Bai (1985), about a slum dweller who stays resilient through adversity. The debut won Bhave her first national award.

A few years and short films later, Bhave and Sukthankar collaborated on Chakori (1992), about a village girl whose life changes when she learns to ride a bicycle. The film was screened at 12 international film festivals and won two international awards. It also caught the attention of National Film Development Corporation of India chairperson Ravi Gupta, who approached Bhave to make her first feature film. The result was Doghi (1995), which launched Bhave and Sukthankar’s feature filmmaking career. The film traces the story of two sisters (Renuka Daftadar and Sonali Kulkarni) with vastly different fates.

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Doghi (1995).

Like in Doghi, the duo’s movies are marked by strong female characters, even if they are not the protagonists. Bhave said this was not conscious. “Perhaps inherently I am a strong person,” she said.

Sukthankar said this was a natural outcome of the fact that a woman was writing the script. “Most of the men, when they write the script, they presume that the active character is of a male and females automatically becomes passive,” he said. “And they think that’s how the world is. That’s the perception of them as the world is not like that. But, when she writes, automatically it becomes different. It is not deliberate, as it comes naturally.”

Their films are also marked by their nuanced handling of complex themes. For instance, their 2004 film Devrai (The Sacred Grove,) which tackles schizophrenia, was born when they were approached by the Schizophrenia Society. Bhave wove environmental issues into the story in the form of the titular grove, protecting which preoccupies the central character.

Sukthankar said that often, themes such as schizophrenia are exploited by filmmakers. This can be misleading to viewers and send the wrong message. Their style of filmmaking focuses on giving you the right information and tackling the issue with sensibility and sensitivity, he said.

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Devrai (2004).

Some of their films have been criticised for their neat resolutions and happy endings. But the duo begs to differ.

Bhave said these happy endings are an extension of how she sees life. “Any wise [person’s] life ends not in tragedy but in acceptance of whatever comes one’s way. That’s sarthak (bliss). It is what you have lived honestly for yourself. So, there are no tragedies.”

Sukthankar explained that a happy ending was not escapism, but optimism. “This blissful ending comes after lot of conflict, and fighting with negativities,” he said. “It is not a goody-goody ending and is not escapist. It faces all the truth and then it comes to positivity. That’s the main difference.”

But the critical acclaim is yet to translate into wide visibility. The pair still finds it hard to get their movies released commercially. They are now focussed on organising community and private screenings of their films. Some of these are organised by non-profit organisations attached to a cause that the movie addresses, or at film festivals.

Sukthankar said that the current film distribution system is no less than a feudal system – a sentiment also expressed by their friend, collaborator and actor Mohan Agashe – that is rigged against independent filmmakers. “They believe that the film should be entertaining or you should be in good books of channel authorities. So they have to promote you. It’s a different kind of politics,” he said.

Still, the community screenings ensure that their films reach the right audience and help recover costs. “These films are screened and then discussed, giving them a [shelf] life unlike other films that are released in 1,000 theatres but within one week, nobody is talking about them,” Sukthankar said. “And also, we need to understand that in any art form you will have a limited audience. You have to accept it.”

In the pipeline is Welcome Home, the story of a woman who leaves her husband’s home to stay with her parents.

What has kept them going for three decades and counting? “Audience response,” Sukthankar said. “The impact it makes on people is the greatest motivation for me. Slowly the audience is created and is increasing.”

For Bhave, the reward is in the filmmaking process. “When the story that is in your mind is actually taking place in front of you, with live human beings becoming those persons, it fascinates me,” she said. “For example to see Appa [Agashe’s role in the 2013 film Astu] sitting on an elephant in front of the Pune central market, which I visualised and when we actually did that it was so fascinating. I become Brahmadev (god of creation).”

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Astu (2013).
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.