Pa Ranjith's Neelam Productions has come out with their second short film in the #VoteOutHate campaign, launched in time for the Lok Sabha elections. Share Auto is directed by Jeny Dolly, who joined Ranjith right after Madras and has assisted him in Kabali and Kaala. She is now working on his Hindi film on Birsa Munda.
Jeny's short film is on the popular urban legend – caste is dead. A fair skinned, middle class, upper caste woman (Jaya Swaminathan) gets into a share auto, her face wrinkling as she looks at the co-passengers. Within that small, confined space, she maintains as much distance as she can from the woman next to her, a dark skinned person (Sheeba Rampal), dressed in the blue saree commonly worn by sanitation workers.
Though the latter adjusts and gives her space to sit, the woman does not wipe off her unpleasant expression. Despite the auto driver's advice to sit properly, the upper caste woman does not do so and ends up banging her head when the auto jerks. Her fellow passenger, who had noticed all along the antics of the upper caste woman to avoid physical contact with her, smiles and slips on her earphones. The former ends up rubbing shoulders with her, in spite of her best efforts. The tongue-in-cheek moral of the story appears - 'Discrimination is injurious to health. Practise discrimination at your own risk', followed by #VoteOutHate.
Jeny, who hails from Madurai and has been in Chennai for the past 10 years, tells TNM that such experiences are routine.
"It has happened in buses and also share autos. If you get into a share auto in ECR, it is so common! Even if I have to get off first, they will ask me to sit inside. They don't mind having to get down unnecessarily. So you obviously start wondering why they're doing this. It is because they judge the person they see – they look 'dirty', they are not wearing clothes that they would wear. They can't take it for even that 10 minute ride," she says.
Jeny shares that when they were discussing ideas, this experience was recounted by many right off the top of their heads because it had happened so often.
Sheeba Rampal, who plays the woman in the blue saree, is an assistant director and Jeny says she'd always wanted to cast her in a film because of her expressive eyes. But while Sheeba agreed immediately, finding an actor to play the upper caste woman's role proved to be harder.
"I sent out the script to 3-4 other actors before I arrived at Jaya Swaminathan who has now done the role. All those actors very humbly refused. They didn't want to be the face to represent something which is actually happening. I thought it was very interesting that people who are actors don't want to be associated with something like this. Jaya finally agreed though she told me she's nothing like this in real life – I told her that's fine, just do the role!" recalls Jeny with a laugh.
Jeny says that Neelam, as a cultural organisation, wanted to take a stance about the Lok Sabha elections and that's how the two short films happened. They were executed at a breakneck speed of just a week.
"It was last minute but we wanted to do something to remind people about what the last five years have been," she says.
However, Jeny acknowledges that while beef and the furore over its consumption (which is what the first short film directed by Rajesh Rajamani took on) may change with the political regime, the story she has told will not. No political party is serious about dismantling caste in the country, she notes.
"We wanted people to think. We want it to be a series which makes people discuss subjects like this. We can't change things overnight with a film. But, the responses were great for the beef film – people wanted somebody to say these things. When we released Share Auto also, the response has been tremendous," she says.
Some people, however, are bothered that the woman in the blue saree smiles in the end. Should she have been concerned about her co-passenger?
"People are calling and asking me why I ended it like that. They somehow want the blue saree character to feel apologetic though the other woman suffered for something she did herself! The auto driver asks her to move and sit but she still chooses to discriminate, then that's her problem. In fact, I think Sheeba being a non-actor helped – her smile was so natural and innocent, not manipulative," says the director.
Jeny adds that going forward, Neelam would like to follow the 'Amul model' – making art in response to current topics that are being hotly discussed. And now that the idea seems to have clicked, they will keep at it.