Documentary channel

Let’s talk: A set of Indian documentaries stresses need for open discussions on gender and sexuality

‘Engaging with Sexualities’, comprising five shorts, will be screened at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala.

What do we talk about when we talk about gender and sexuality? A range of answers is available from Engaging with Sexualities, an absorbing package of five short films produced by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust. The films will be screened at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala (July 20-24) in Thiruvananthapuram.

Each of the films is driven by the power of speech. Subjects speak to the camera or are present in the form of voiceovers. By baring their impassioned thoughts and feelings about prevailing codes on gender and sexuality, the characters drive home the point that sometimes, the very act of talking about delicate or difficult subjects can be revolutionary. This is possibly the starting point of acceptance, understanding and tolerance.

In A Safe Person to Talk To, director Navdeep Sharma interviews a 16-year-old student from a school in South Delhi. The trans character, identified only by the initials YV, is present only as a voiceover that is laid over general visuals of the school students. YV was never felt comfortable identifying with either male or female students (“Gender is like a name – it’s what you associate yourself with”). Social networking sites provide YV with a safe zone for identity exploration, but it is the firm support of a counsellor at the school and later, the principal, that dispels some of the loneliness and confusion.

In Anindya Shankar Das’s Zara Nazar Utha Ke Dekho, too, anonymous male respondents open up a world that is not apparent to the eye. The film explores the furtive nature of cruising for sex, records varied experiences, and emphasises the importance of parks, cinemas, trains, bus stands and public grounds to the act of finding sexual partners. “A public place cuts down a lot of borders that we otherwise have in society,” one of the characters observes. Filmed in Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi, Zara Nazar Utha Ke Dekho also compares online and offline experiences. Cruising is about “connecting with someone’s vibe”, one man observes. “If I saw them again on Grindr, I might not want to connect with them.”

Zara Nazar Utha Ke Dekho. Courtesy Public Service Broadcasting Trust.
Zara Nazar Utha Ke Dekho. Courtesy Public Service Broadcasting Trust.

Breathe, by Anushka Shivdasani Rovshen and Madhuri Mohindar, similarly underlines the need to honestly discuss problems and concerns that are sought to be brushed under the carpet. Rachna Iyer, from Mumbai, and Swati Agrawal, fro Delhi, talk about handling their mental health conditions, navigating relationships with both women and men, and explaining themselves to the world.

Ajita Banerjie’s I’m Not There puts an interesting spin on migration. Banerjie interviews Sunil Mohan, a trans man who has moved from his home in Kerala to Bangalore to work as a human rights activist. Migration has helped Mohan better understand gender and sexuality, he tells the filmmaker, apart from giving him a community that he didn’t have back home. “We have lost something but built something beyond that,” Mohan says.

I’m Not There. Courtesy Public Service Broadcasting Trust.
I’m Not There. Courtesy Public Service Broadcasting Trust.

The most engaging film in the package features Anshuman, birth name Raksha, nickname Swetanjali Don. Anshuman narrates his experience as a trans man using the Delhi Metro to filmmakers Mitali Trivedi and Gagandeep Singh with candour and humour. Anshuman boldly squeezes himself between other male passengers on the railway network, but is careful to avoid body frisking during the mandatory security drill (he hasn’t fully made the transition yet). Although Anshuman’s narrative is mostly positive, there are dangers too. He struck up a friendship with another trans man during a random encounter on a journey, but had to stay clear from two homophobic men who loudly suggested hitting him on the chest to ascertain his gender. Hence the film’s title: Mind the Gap.

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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?”


“Like what?”


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!”




“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:


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