Vaishnavi Sundar’s documentary But What Was She Wearing could not have been more timely.

At a time when scores of women in India have come out to name and shame the men who have sexually harassed them at their workplaces, Sundar’s documentary takes a deep dive into the only legal recourse available to many of them: the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.

The Act, which gets its foundation from the Vishakha guidelines of 1997, delineates the measures that employers are legally obligated to put into place towards the creation of safe working spaces. These include creating awareness about what constitutes sexual harassment, setting up an unbiased internal complaints committee, and sensitive and timely investigation of complaints.

Sundar, a Chennai-based filmmaker, activist and writer, looks into the provisions of this Act, examines how they have been implemented and debates whether they have been effective at all. By dividing the 110-minute film into 17 segments, Sundar tackles a range of questions related to the Act: are all kinds of working women covered under it, what are the challenges of being a working woman in India, what can be done in the case of harassment (in theory, followed by what actually happens in practice) and what is the extent of the impact of sexual harassment on a woman’s health.

Sundar has interviewed 32 people for the documentary, most of whom are women from different socioeconomic categories and professions. Each of them, either having been harassed themselves or having closely interacted with a survivor of sexual harassment, reveal the chasm between the written word of the law and its application. In some cases, there are faults in the functioning of the internal complaints committee. In others, the problem starts with how employers and colleagues perceive sexual harassment in the first place.

What then has the law really achieved, the film asks. One segment is titled, “There is an Act now, but is there a solution?” But What Was She Wearing will be premiered on November 3 at Max Mueller Bhavan in Chennai at 6pm.

But What Was She Wearing (2018).

This is Sundar’s fifth film and her first feature-length documentary. “The idea was to address the loopholes and the shortcomings of such a law and how despite there being this law, things are pretty messed up – whether it is with our criminal justice system, the patriarchal structure of our society or the familial system,” the 32-year-old filmmaker told “But when I decided to make the film, there was no particular agenda. In retrospect, I can say that this is where I would have eventually gotten because I’m pretty investigative in my approach.”

When Sundar began her research in 2016, she did not anticipate that its completion would coincide with the MeToo movement in India.

“Now that it is out, people say it is timely, but according to me, sexual harassment at the workplace is a topic that was timely ten years ago too and is likely to be timely even ten years later,” Sundar said. “That’s the unfortunate situation.”

‘You look right into the camera and speak’

As she began work on her film, Sundar hit several roadblocks – whether it was in terms of funding or finding potential interview subjects, especially those who were willing to speak on camera. “I was very clear that I wasn’t going to have anyone anonymous,” Sundar said. “If you’re speaking, you look right into the camera and speak.”

Sundar quit her job at a private company five years ago to pursue filmmaking, and has, over the years, participated in campaigns and protests related to women’s issues in Chennai. Her experience acquainted her with women’s organisations and activists, and helped her locate the people she needed to interview.

“Finding the people I wanted to interview was a continuous process,” Sundar said. “I wanted the film to be as holistic as possible. I wanted to make sure I had women from every single demographic. I wanted to address caste, religion, the type of industry, class and region. When I say working women, who do I mean? And what is the definition of a workplace? There’s this akka working in my house, and that’s her workplace. Does she, for instance, know about this law?”

When Sundar finally had her list of subjects, she prepared separate questionnaires for each of them. “There was no one single question that I was asking everybody,” Sundar said. “It came down to who I am talking to, what their history is and what it is that he or she can bring into the film that is unique. I had the edit and the skeleton of my film even before the film was made.”

Funding was among the biggest challenges faced by Sundar. “I have crowdfunded my films in the past and have had successful campaigns but this film somehow saw a ridiculous amount of resistance,” she said. “I couldn’t reach out to people like I could in the past because there was something about sexual harassment as a subject that made people a little uneasy. I also have begun to feel that for anything concerning women, there will be resistance.”

The support she got was heartwarming, Sundar said. “People who understood the need for such a film gathered ten other people,” she recalled. “I’ve received Rs 100, Rs 50, even Rs 10. I’ve taken it and credited all of them in the film. You may get a one-off Rs 10,000 or a Rs 5,000, but it is a string of Rs 10 that eventually makes a film.”

Vaishnavi Sundar.
Vaishnavi Sundar.

In But What Was She Wearing, Sundar seats each of her interview subjects against black backgrounds, and they are filmed in tight frames. “It’s psychological,” she said. “You’ll feel compelled to listen to them because it is like listening to them talk to you in person.”

The black backgrounds are also intended to bring all the women on the same level. “I decided that when a woman CEO is talking, I’m not going to show her working in her office,” Sundar said. “That wasn’t important for me. It was distracting and was taking the focus away from the powerful things that these women were saying. I wanted to look them in their eye and hear their stories. The black background also creates an equal space. You might belong to any caste, you might be a millionaire, but ultimately, you are talking as a woman.”

Sundar cut down nearly 18 hours of footage to under two hours. She has punctuated the interviews with scenes from a contemporary dance or theatre performance, which she describes as an “abstract take” on the Hindu text Manusmriti. “I find the Manusmriti highly misogynistic and anti-women,” Sundar said. “I had been toying with this idea of taking portions of it, especially those that talk derogatorily about women, and somehow flip them over their heads. So, I decided that we’ll do this in an abstract manner such that it also adds value to whatever the interviewees are saying in the film.”

The other aspect that stands out in Sundar’s documentary is its all-female crew. Three years ago, Sundar founded a cinema collective called Women Making Films. “It is through this collective that comprises women technicians and filmmakers from across the world that I put together a crew,” she said. “All the heads of the department are women. It is also through this collective that I do screenings all over the world.”