Artisans to widows: Filmmakers document lives of women fighting discrimination

A year-long training programme for TN women, Kanavu Fellowship was started by Studio A in association with Chennai Photo Biennale in 2021 with the aim to bridge the gender gap in fields such as photography and filmmaking.
Kanavu Fellowship for filmmaking, photography and videography
Kanavu Fellowship for filmmaking, photography and videography
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An intimate screening session on an eventful Saturday evening, giant tubs of Sathyam Cinema’s popcorn, and thunderous applause that only grew louder with every passing documentary and short film; the works of five women filmmakers who were selected for a fellowship programme in photography, videography and filmmaking, left audiences impressed. The screening was followed by insightful one-to-one interactions the debutante filmmakers had with audience members. Backed by SPI Edge, three screening sessions were held at Chennai’s Studio A on March 18 and 19 this year to showcase the documentaries and short films directed by the filmmakers who were part of the first edition of the fellowship.

‘Kanavu Meipadda Vendum’ or ‘Kanavu’ (dream) fellowship was started last year by Chennai-based photography firm, Studio A, and Chennai Photo Biennale (CPB), a collective which celebrates and promotes the art of photography. It was the urge to contribute towards bridging the gender gap behind-the-scenes in fields such as photography and filmmaking, that inspired Studio A and CPB to come up with Kanavu fellowship. The training included sessions in photography, lighting, storytelling, editing, communication skills, social media, videography, marketing and sales, and content writing, among others. ”If one participant wanted to open a photography studio, another wanted to become a documentary filmmaker. The programme was tailored in a way to train them in different arenas that fall under the umbrella of photography and filmmaking,” says photographer Amar Ramesh, the founder of Studio A, who also mentored the five candidates selected for the fellowship.

“We received close to 40 applications for the year-long fellowship. We selected five applicants who are from different parts of Tamil Nadu such as Namakkal, Theni, Salem, Krishnagiri, and Chennai. We are hoping programmes like Kanavu fellowship would break the financial, social, psychological and other forms of barriers women face, that stops them from venturing into fields like photography and filmmaking. The fellowship will also help them with networking once the training after a year when they are looking for job opportunities,” says Gayatri, one of the co-founders of CPB.

Kanavu Fellowship training session. Credit: Studio A

Short films showcased at the screening

Speaking about the fellowship, Namakkal based filmmaker Dhana Sakthi tells TNM, “As a poet, I’ve always been affiliated with all forms of communication such as filmmaking, writing and photography. Learning photography was difficult since I am not well-versed in English but the fellowship’s zoom sessions helped me in learning the basics,” she says, while adding that she is interested in directing a film in future and is currently writing the script for a new short film.

Filmmaker Dhana Sakthi’s documentary Vellai Malligai opens with a folk singer rendering his voice to sing a melancholic oppari song that is traditionally sung by the wife at the time of her husband’s demise. It is followed by first hand accounts of discrimination faced by widowed women with hitherto untold stories of being caught in an interlinked chain of stigma, superstition and abuse that is associated with widowhood.

Sharing her thoughts about Vellai Malligai, 41-year-old Dhana Sakthi says, “Women have made bold strides in education and employment but it is unfortunate that they are expected to adhere to regressive practices when their partners die.”

Watch Vellai Malligai here:

Stunning visuals of women artisans from different parts of Tamil Nadu, and poetic lines describing their work, are delicately woven into the fabric of Rekha Vijayashankar’s short film Women and Nature. The shot of a woman carefully shaping a pot, is accompanied by the lines, “She shapes the earth to make pots holding food and forms the earth into bricks to build homes.” The clip of a weaver bringing patterns to life, is placed in the context of life being an integrated whole with myriad aspects, and women, with their various identities and roles, acting as anchor points that hold lives together.

The idea, Rekha explains, was to bring out the connection between the five elements of nature, and how it is manifested in the work, character and lifestyle of women. Following the screening, Rekha recounts that she requested viewers to present their perspective on the subject through sketches and doodles. “I wanted to interact with the audience and I felt understanding their ideas on the links between women and nature would be interesting for me to explore,” says 40-year-old filmmaker Rekha Vijayashankar who works as a photographer and assistant librarian at heritage museum DakshinaChitra, located in Chennai.

Watch Women and Nature here: 

In Bhuvaneshwari’s documentary Work Women, the filmmaker speaks to women from diverse fields of work such as a crematorium worker, civil servant, makeup artist, and a homemaker, among others. The video traces the journeys of these women, their aspirations, dreams, and details about the kind of changes they would like to see in their respective fields. “I love photography and I was only using my phone to take photos. I don’t own a camera, so I learnt how to handle the camera only during the sessions,” says 22-year-old Bhuvaneshwari who is a native of Salem. She goes on to speak about her future plans. “I work at a private firm but I am currently accepting freelance photography assignments. I want to run a photography studio down the line,” she shares.

31-year-old Chandini who hails from Theni directed the documentary Yaathumagi which chronicles the inspirational stories of singer Jyothi Kalai, who is visually impaired, and Dr. KS Deepsuriya, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. “I grew very interested in baby photography after I gave birth to my child. Through the documentary, I wanted to focus more on mothers of specially abled children who have reached successful points in their lives with flying colours.The idea was to capture the selflessness and dedication of mothers,” says Chandini. As for her next course of action in the field, Chandini shares that she wants to teach photography at Theni.

Filmmaker Chandini. Credit: Studio A 

Filmmaker Madhu Priya, 41, a resident of Krishnagiri, paints a grim picture of the state of affairs of residents of Oragadam village (Chengalpattu district) in her documentary Those Four Walls- 7’ X 5’. Predominantly inhabited by members of the Irula tribe, the locality is inhabited by over 150 people. As per the documentary, over half of the houses do not have access to electricity, no doors and are constructed with mud. Madhu Priya speaks to women and children in the neighbourhood to understand how they are forced to practice open defecation due to lack of resources. The lack of patta, safety concerns, and apprehensions about the future of their children are topics that the documentary sheds light on.

Speaking about the fellowship,  Madhu Priya says, “I have always been interested in photography. I was following photographer Amar Ramesh’s work and that is how I came to know about the training. We visited places like Mahabalipuram and DakshinaChitra museum for hands-on photography sessions which were very intriguing.”

She goes on to share her experience of working on the documentary. “I attended a workshop called ‘ways of seeing’ conducted by my mentor, photographer Jaisingh Nageswaran at filmmaker Pa Ranjith’s Koogai library. That was an eye-opener since I was able to understand how there are many takers for nature photography, but artists seldom explore the more serious and hard-hitting subjects like the one in hand. I came across this neighbourhood when I was shooting photographs for an exhibition titled ‘My City, My Muse’. Shooting a documentary about Oragadam was driven by my passion towards documentary photography,” says Madhu. She also adds that she would like to work on photo and video documentaries in future.

Watch Those Four Walls here:

Commenting on the progress the filmmakers made over the course of the year, Studio A’s Amar Ramesh says, “I believe the fellowship made them self-reliant. Our only aim was to help them accomplish their goals and ensure that they are feeling confident about their work. Everyone who watched the films had takeaways and reflections. We are glad that the five of them were able to achieve that.”

Following the success of the first edition, CPB and Studio A are gearing up for this year’s fellowship programme, the applications for which are available in CPB’s website and are open till April 8. “We want to have women from diverse backgrounds and underserved communities for this edition and hence, we are hoping to receive as many applications as possible. We have also tweaked the training programme a bit to equip them better to work in the film industry,” says Gayatri.

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