Filmmaker Pankaj Rishi Kumar’s Janani’s Juliet is one among the entries to the 92nd Academy Awards from India, having won the Best Long Documentary Award at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival, Kerala. It was recently announced that the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT) had submitted Pankaj’s documentary along with Nirmal Chander’s film titled Moti Bagh to the prestigious awards this year.
Janani's Juliet follows the journey of Pondicherry-based theatre group, Indianostrum, as they navigate through caste and class obstacles, and understand how these impact women’s freedom and love. They then conceptualise a contemporary version of the classical Romeo-Juliet love story which becomes their new play titled Chandala, Impure, commissioned by the Festival des Francophonies en Limousin.
Koumarane Valavane, the play's director, also met with Gowsalya, a survivor of caste killings. In 2016, Gowsalya lost her husband Shankar, a Dalit man, to a brutal murder orchestrated by her father and family members. The brave young woman chose to fight against the deep-rooted system, inspiring many with her activism. Koumarane’s idea to meet with Gowsalya stemmed from his interest in re-imagining the classical love story in today’s context, from the eyes of the woman.
Filming the trajectory of the group, Pankaj Rishi Kumar used the opportunity to explore his own understandings of caste, gender and love. The journey of the Juliets (three actors audition for the role) forms the soul of this documentary, justifying the title Janani’s Juliet.
Speaking to TNM from New York, Pankaj says that the documentary is more of his interpretation of the play and has very little to do with its making.
“I asked the girls how they look at the concept of love, caste and caste killings. How do they negotiate what is love? What is a woman’s honour and her place in the society? What happens when she chooses the person she loves? There are so many questions arising and you don’t know where these questions are coming from," he says.
Gowsalya’s interview holds an important place in Janani’s Juliet as she narrates her first understanding of caste, how her family treated women - do not walk too fast so as to make loud noise, do not dance - what made her fall in love with Shankar, and when was it that she truly expressed her feelings. Of the documentaries made with Gowsalya, Janani’s Juliet ventures deeper into her feelings and her understanding of the events that have shaped her life.
"I felt Gowsalya’s interview, the actor’s phone conversations with her and their own thoughts on love and caste are the most important layers in Janani’s Juliet," Pankaj adds.
In the film, the actors go through a fresh wave of thoughts at every juncture, raising questions to shape Juliet, a woman they’re so familiar with, and yet a character under-explored.
“In the play we hardly see Juliet. It’s all about Romeo. I’m willing to make changes. We need not follow the original text,” Koumarane says to a small group of actors. One of them responds: “Our Romeo (Jack) realises he’s from lower caste. When will Janani realise the dilemmas of belonging to upper caste?”
“You tell me, you are Juliet’s messenger! Bring me messages from Juliet,” Koumarane urges.
Pankaj spent a period of three months between June and August 2018, filming the actors’ metamorphoses as they get into the skin of Juliet. Pankaj has known Koumarane since 2012, when the former began work for another documentary titled Two Flags, and this helped him establish an excellent connection with the team as well.
“I started participating in their discussions and the whole documentary evolved as a participatory project,” he says. The camera therefore feels less intrusive and the troupe appears to be entirely comfortable with its gaze.
Pankaj, too, asserts this observation and adds that the comfort level helped him structure his documentary.
“Almost 10 weeks into filming, we met Gowsalya since Koumarane wanted to interact with her, to help his actors polish their characters and give the Juliets a direction. I, however, felt that she was the soul of the story. As soon as I met her, my convictions were reaffirmed. Soon after, the structure of my documentary fell into place. She brought in a whole new understanding to the play and to my documentary,” he explains.
Gowsalya thus became the pivotal point in Janani’s Juliet. As for the play, she helped the actors improvise and evolve.
“Gowsalya’s experiences helped the team to elevate the play. There are many elements that are not there in the original text. Upon hearing her experiences at the police station, when her mother demanded that she return everything she was wearing that belonged to them, the actors decided to include the scene in the play,” says Pankaj.
The play Chandala premiered at the Festival des Francophonies en Limousin festival, France, in September last year and has since been performed throughout India.
Meanwhile, the documentary will next be screened at the Signs Film Festival, Thrissur, between September 26 and 30, Indian Film Festival of Bhubaneswar on 28th September and Film South Asia, Kathmandu between November 14 and 17.