Chennai-based independent director and filmmaker Priyadharsini is a qualified aeronautical engineer and an alumnus of the Asian College of Journalism. After working with various media outlets like India Today, Priyadharsini decided that she would get into filmmaking full-time. It’s this journey that led her towards setting up ‘The Blue Club’, an initiative to amplify the voices of women from marginalised caste and gender locations.
Priyadharsini has multiple short films and documentaries to her credit, including Go, Get Education, a short film based on the life of Savitribai Phule, a revolutionary 19th century feminist social reformer, and #dalitwomenfight which is on the rape atrocities committed on Dalit women in Haryana. For the latter film, Priyadharsini worked along with the All India Dalit Manila Adhikar Manch and the film was screened at the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Through The Blue Club, Priyadharsini organises filmmaking workshops and mentors women. She’s also a Guest Lecturer at the Quaide-Milleth International Academy of Media studies (QIAMS). The dynamic filmmaker spoke to TNM about her journey with The Blue Club, feminism in India, and where she wants to go with her initiative.
Tell us about why you came up with The Blue Club. Do you feel Dalit women’s voices are not heard loudly enough?
Women in India are conditioned not to speak. They are taught that they are always wrong. And if women talk, a lot of men have to go into hiding! Even simple conversations with best friends come with so many censors and blank spaces. So a lot of issues remain within the closed walls of a family – like domestic violence, sexual harassment, child abuse, etc. Women don’t talk (and are not allowed to talk) about their lives for the larger good of the “family”. But if this is the case, then what is the definition of a family? Isn’t a family supposed to be a support system of people looking out for the welfare of its members?
The Indian family setup is the most dangerous environment for women and children. Every hour a woman in India is killed for not bringing dowry. 97% of the child sexual abuse here is committed by the family members of the affected children! Who is going to talk about these issues?
In a similar manner, women working in various sectors are asked to shut up in order to save a religious head, an important organisation, a news company or a government agency and so on. What is worse is the fact that even movements for equality and justice are wrought with male predators! Here, there is even more pressure on women to not talk as the movement may be diluted.
Having been affected by domestic violence since childhood in my own home, I realised it’s only when the women decide to talk that there can be possible changes in our society. The first step towards this is actually trusting each other and offering solidarity to fellow women wherever possible. It so happens that in an urge to project ourselves as a “good woman” according to society’s standards, we often try to be dishonest with ourselves and the women around us. This becomes a huge hindrance when women come together to share their stories. When I started sharing my life stories with all the honesty that I could muster, I found that the women who listened, opened up too. And once they started talking, they became fearless!
Patriarchy works in such a way that women are constantly put up against one another. Half our lives are spent fighting each other. Along with this patriarchy, comes the baggage of caste in our country. Caste and gender cannot be separated from one another. A Dalit woman undergoes three to four times the oppression that an average caste-privileged woman undergoes. So any form of anti-patriarchy movement could only (and should only) start from the Dalit woman.
Dalit women have crazy energy and life stories to share with the world. They are such powerful women with amazing experiences. Their stories are not just of victimhood but one of love and strength and resistance and songs and art and beauty and birth and death and most of all – life. I realised that I grew up lacking such inspiring life accounts. I have constantly watched women being demeaned and vulgarly placed in Indian cinema. I realised the importance of an archival of such beautiful her-stories to constantly inspire generations of women to come. The best way was to capture them on camera so that they can cross borders and benefit oppressed women wherever they are. That is how The Blue Club came about.
The Facebook page of The Blue Club, which was launched a month ago, features insightful interviews with Dalit women. Could you tell us about your team? And the logistics involved in doing these interviews?
The Blue Club, apart from collecting stories of women, also organises free filmmaking workshops for girls and women in various regions of Tamil Nadu (and we’re planning to cover south India in the next few months). We realised that it is important to get the women behind the camera, too. We often don’t relate to the female characters in our films because they are designed by men. The female characters are a work of patriarchy – they are largely stupid with no mind of their own, and if at all they have a mind, it’s only to aid the male hero in achieving whatever dumb goal he needs to achieve. This changes when the woman is the one behind the camera and she is the chief architect of her film. We will be able to see more real female characters on screen. So women trained by us are now making short films and documentaries which will soon be out, too.
Most of the interviews are done on the sidelines of these workshops. So my team is generally the women who have attended my workshop. I also have help from a long-time friend, Vasanth, to edit the videos. My home doubles up as a studio where we invite the women for the interview.
Apart from this, there are a lot of women who are behind The Blue Club. Once I conceptualised this idea, many senior women activists offered a lot of support – like Dr. Aiswarya Rao, public health expert from Chennai, Asha Kowtal of the All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (AIDMAM) and Vedhanayagi of Thendral Movement in Vellore, Chennai. TBC functions with a lot of sisterhood and support wherever we go.
How many such interviews have you done so far, and can you share some of their stories with us?
The idea is to document the stories of Dalit women working in various fields such as social activism, politics, corporate, film industry, government offices, etc. So far, we have done about 20 interviews, some in Tamil Nadu and some in Hyderabad.
We interviewed Gauthama Meena, who is the President of the All India Intellectual Property Rights SC/ST Union. She is the first woman president of an employees’ union in the Indian government sector. She did an important task of ensuring that reservation guidelines are being followed in her office. This is a huge achievement. Similarly, Bhavani Ilavenil has republished a book about Satyavani Muthu, a great politician whose history was buried by the DMK leadership. Bhavani was hugely criticised by the DMK party members for this move. But she is in the least moved by such opposition. In fact, she is working on her second book now!
We interviewed Olga Aaron, a trans woman activist who has been relentlessly working to integrate trans women into their own families. Christina Thomas Dhanraj spoke about the mental health of people from oppressed communities. Even great doctors have not made this connection between caste and mental health! Such daring women whose thought processes are very practical because of their grass-root upbringing. All of them are such rich experiences that are totally unknown (and will remain so) in the mainstream media. The Blue Club wants to change this situation. We plan to cover at least 100 other stories in the next one-year period.
When doing these interviews, do you ask the women specific questions or do they decide what they want to share?
We NEVER ask the women to talk about a particular topic. I feel that the whole point of The Blue Club is for the women to speak their minds. Usually, I make sure the women are comfortable before the camera and then ask them to talk about themselves, their childhood, their job, their dreams, their aspirations, etc.
I believe that women are natural storytellers. They are reservoirs of so much pain and so much passion. Also a lot of times, women are expected to talk a lot about their gender. Gender, of course, is the greatest factor here but they are also living, breathing human beings who are more than their bodies. They are political people. Women have sound knowledge of science, politics, economics, history, geography, etc. They are achieving in every field of work. They are well-learned and have in-depth knowledge of various subjects. So it’s generally the women themselves who come out through my camera. They do all the magic! I just record and edit, that is all.
Personally, what sort of insights have you gained from doing these interviews and listening to these women speak about their life experiences?
I think I’m the first woman who has hugely benefited by The Blue Club. I listen to our women in real time and I realise that I’m witnessing a great moment in tomorrow’s history. There is a huge emotional connection that I immediately make with my interviewees. A lot of our stories are so similar and yet so different.
All my life I have been searching for myself – who am I? Why do the women I see every day in the media look so different? They are all fair-skinned and look as thin as a stick with abnormally made up eyebrows. Also the women who are supposed to be me are wrongly represented. I think wrong representation is worse than no representation at all. For example, in the recent Vetrimaaran film Vada Chennai, the women in the slums are shown to use vulgar language throughout the film! It is so very weird from my point of view. My mom grew up in a slum and I haven’t seen her use a lowly word all my life! And never did my grandmom, my aunts, my neighbours’ moms or aunts. Never did they engage in violence or ask their children to commit illegal activities like in the film. All they ever did was to toil in their workplaces, come back home to feed their children and get them educated.
So when I listen to Gauthama Meena talk about herself and her mom and the wonderful relationship they shared, I feel that these are the women who represent me. These are the women I want to be like when I am 40 or 50.
A lot of my interviewees are my role models or become one after their interview. Their openness about the casteist, patriarchal structures that they grew up with helps me understand my exact position in this society. The women who broke these structures inspire me to do the same.
So the interviews give me what I am looking for in myself. Even while editing, when I have to go through each clip for at least 50 times, I never get bored. Every time I’m awestruck by the beauty of our women. I see them for the revolutionaries that they are just by their mere existence. When I listen to my sisters talk, I understand the kind of leadership I’m hoping for. Women make great leaders. It’s high time our society understands this.
Do you feel the feminist movement in India has been inclusive of Dalit voices?
We need to look at the history of the feminist movement in India to understand it in the current context. In America, the feminist movement began when women started fighting for the right to vote. In Europe, it began with women protesting for equal wages. In India, we had adult franchise since the Constitution was adopted. Besides, when Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister, women in Switzerland were still fighting for voting rights.
When Dr BR Ambedkar introduced The Hindu Code Bill in the Parliament, it was the caste Hindu women who went against their own liberation and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the caste-Hindu parliamentarians. This shows that Indira Gandhi’s term as Prime Minister had nothing to do with feminism but rather to do with her position as a privileged woman from a powerful family. It was NOT as a result of gender equality in India. It’s often seen that women prefer to side up with their caste members rather than with the oppressed women even though they know that they are slaves within their own castes and families.
If women are going against one form of oppression but are also perpetrators of another form of oppression, then the fight is not for equality, right? So the feminist movement in India can take off only when women go against the entire structure of Indian culture and tradition that is built by the Hindu religion. This can be done only by the oppressed women who are at the lowest rungs of this system.
Do you feel the Internet offers a more democratic space for oppressed people to speak freely?
The advent of social media platforms has given the mainstream media a run for its credibility. It’s common knowledge now that almost all news channels are controlled by Hindutva forces. So people are not trusting of the mainstream media these days. But, the internet era has changed this. Numerous identities and inter-sectionalities are gaining their due space in these platforms, that is, many sides of a story are being continuously told and heard by many people. The uncensored and unsupervised cyberspace has allowed reporting of any news of radical nature without the state’s intervention. This has opened up tremendous space for social movement stories.
In the growing fascism phase, marginalised communities are constantly searching for their own leaders and ways to identify themselves with their communities. The internet has made this possible. The internet does not ask for one’s caste or gender. It is blind to authority and power. All you need is a WiFi router and you are connected with the rest of the world. I feel that any social justice movement should use this to the best of its efforts.
Before us, Dalit Camera founded by Ravichandran is one fine example of social movement media. TBC wants to grab its fair share for women in this space. Like I said earlier, mainstream films depict women in wrong light. But for a woman like me, who has been trying to venture into the male-dominated film industry for a very long time and failed, the internet has offered an alternative to tell my story and the stories of women like me.
Why the name ‘The Blue Club’?
So we began our workshop in the year 2016 in a slum called Thideernagar on Greams Road, Chennai. There was a small space called the Boy’s Club within the slum’s locality. It was a dilapidated building which was under the control of the area’s police station. We acquired permission to use the space, painted it blue and named it The Blue Club. It became a centre of activity for the women and children from that region. We organised photography and art workshops which the youngsters took up immediately.
When the slum was being evicted, we were able to get so much of video footage because of our team’s involvement in that area. The media purposefully ignored the eviction but a lot of material got out on social media. We were even able to organise a press meet with those materials when all the pillars of democracy were ignoring it. Even though the slum was evicted, there was a lot of documented evidence that could be used in case of another eviction.
That is when we decided to take this as a full-scale movement throughout Tamil Nadu. If people are given the tools to tell their own stories, it’s possible to bring a change in the way the world sees them. If voices combine on a single visible platform, it will be easier to attain justice. Visual evidence is very powerful in the process of justice. If it wasn’t for CCTV cameras, Shankar and Pranay’s murders would have been silently ignored by the mainstream media.