On New Year’s eve, Anant Mahadevan received a gift-wrapped uterus in formaldehyde. “Initially, I thought, what the hell – is this guy trying to bribe me because I gave him a job,” the actor and filmmaker recalled.

Presented by a crew member on his latest film Bittersweet, the gift was the best Mahadevan could have received. Only one sequence remained to be shot, that of a hysterectomy. “We actually rented an entire surgery theatre out of a hospital and staged it at a medical college that allowed us permission to shoot,” Mahadevan told Scroll.in. “We set it up entirely, even a real doctor. We had to shoot it very secretly, but that was the only graphic part of the film.”

The Marathi-language feature, starring Akshaya Gurav along with Suresh Vishwakarma, Anil Nagarkar, Guru Thakur, Asit Redij, and Vinayak Divekarsmita Tambe, is scheduled to be released in the first half of December. The film depicts the plight of female sugarcane cutters in Beed in Maharashtra. Thousands of labourers congregate every year in this region to seek jobs in its sugar manufacturing industry. In order to maintain strict control over the output for the six-month harvesting period, contractors and gynaecologists coerce women into undergoing hysterectomies.

Bittersweet (2020).

Mahadevan learnt about Beed’s female sugarcane cutters through a newspaper article. Couples are usually paid anything between Rs 80,000 and Rs 1.2 lakh as advance wages. Women who miss even a day of work must return the money in addition to a penalty. The menstruation period essentially takes away a month’s wages out of six.

While the labourers can never rival the pace of machines, their efficiency allows them cover a one-kilometre radius in a single day. Each worker must harvest two tonnes, failing which they are penalised again or must work however long to make up for the deficit.

“Why will sugar barons invest in cutting machines that cost Rs 2.5 crore when India is full of cheap labour,” Mahadevan pointed out. He highlights the issue through Saguna, a young woman whose life is crimped by financial constraints. “It shook me that this is happening in a country which is trying to achieve superpower status and it’s happening so surreptitiously,” Mahadevan said.

“The bigger picture is human-centric,” added the filmmaker, whose recent social dramas include Gour Hari Dastaan (2015) and Mee Sindhutai Sapkal (2016). “[The sugar barons] are stopping a generation from being born. The ruthlessness with which we are dealing with human lives is the main crux here. Everything that you see in the film is not production design. It is all real. We threw our four actors into the fire. It was as if someone has come to pay tribute to these [sugarcane cutting] ladies and take up their cause.”

Bittersweet was premiered at the Busan International Film Festival in October. The movie has been submitted to the committee that will select India’s entry in the Best International Feature Film category at the Oscars. Movies that have been released before December 31 qualify, as do direct-to-streamer films.

“But my film is shot on 70mm, and the canvas is huge,” Mahadevan said. He prefers a limited pan-India theatrical release, and is confident that audiences will eventually trickle back into cinemas despite seating restrictions necessitated by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“I’ve seen movies with three and four people in the audience, that’s one per cent attendance,” Mahadevan said. “Fifty per cent is good enough for me. It’s time for both cinema and cinema-goers to grow.”

Ananth Narayan Mahadevan.

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