Aesthetics in feminism


Director Sharada Ramanathan’s debut feature film Sringaram – Dance of Love makes its world premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival. She says the film is an exploration of feminism as a fun, romantic and aesthetic experience. Rajeev Nair has the details

Sharada Ramanathan recalls that Sringaram — Dance of Love was seeded while returning from a seminar on feminism. As a socio-cultural activist who has worked with Spic-Macay, CRY and the Ford Foundation, and steered the founding of the Indian Foundation for Arts, Sharada was disturbed by the notion of feminism as an intellectual import from the West.
To her, feminism also could be a “fun, romantic and aesthetic experience.” That brand of feminism propounded by the singers, dancers and writers of yore seemed jettisoned with modernity. It was largely replaced by an essentially alien “concept” — as against an organic human response — of affirmative action and conflict resolution.
Moving away from the clichés of “cross-over cinema” and the brow-beaten formula of Bollywood, she realised that in film-making “ethnic audio-visuals hold greater promise in capturing the imagination of local and international markets, festivals and audiences.”
Sringaram, thus, found its core in south India, in the lives of devadasis or temple dancers. Akin to the geishas of Japan, devadasis were the repositories of traditional arts. They even presided over temple rituals and the local governance. When the Devadasi system was abolished, the traditional arts they patronised too were disenfranchised.
The devadasis faced a peculiar dilemma: In art they were regarded as auspicious and in the social space they were degraded to the lower caste. They addressed this dichotomy of living through her instrument of expression — sringaram (poetic love).
The film, which makes its world premiere at Dubai International Film Festival, has a dream crew. Accomplished classicist Lalgudi Jayaraman composes the music for the film; Madhu Ambat, who has worked with directors from Mani Ratnam to Manoj Night Shyamalan, wields the camera and is also the film’s executive producer; Sreekar Prasad, one of the most sought after technicians in India is the editor; art director Thotta Tharani recreates the days of yore; and Saroj Khan, associated with many Bollywood productions including Devdas, is the choreographer.
Sringaram, ultimately, meets the core message of Diff — Bridging Cultures. Meeting Minds — by looking within, and exploring an “aesthetic and history that has universal resonance.”
“Sringaram has a connection with global audiences since the story could have happened anywhere, anytime — only the context would change,” says Sharada Ramanathan.
Here, she gives an insight into the making of the film:

Why did you choose the subject of devadasis for the film? Considering the period flavour of the theme, do you feel your film can connect to contemporary audiences? And have you built the theme to reflect contemporary realities?
The Devadasi embodies three wonderful dimensions of life — womanhood, art and social challenge. In Sringaram, the Devadasi is a woman, an artist and is from a “lower” social strata of society. A combination of these three realities in her life make her a very interesting narrative.
Also, I think there is a general movement in world cinema towards historical scripts. This maybe because, on the one hand, we want to reflect on those aspects of history that still influence us today. But on the other hand also because I think we actually see the aesthetics of the past as superior to the environment which we make for ourselves today.
I am a contemporary woman looking back on an exciting time of history, so if I can connect with Sringaram, then so can contemporary audiences. Sringaram also has a connection with global audiences since the story could have happened anywhere, anytime — only the context would change. It is like the Geishas of Japan. Looking back also tells what our progressions and regressions are, in a universal sort of way. I also think that India is most noticed for its cultural life, more than anything else. International audiences are enthusiastic about a genuine Indian cultural experience.
As a modern woman making a period film, it is natural for me to only take those elements which are relevant to me today. What I don’t have from the past, what I don’t want to have, what I am missing and yearning for — all of that.

What was the toughest part in executing-conceptualising the film?
The toughest part was determining a body language, style for the film. There are innumerable research and textual materials of this period but very little audio-visual. And I had only been exposed to Indian cinema which was either distinctly commercial with theatrical dramatics or reality-based art cinema. I was cautious not to adopt a modern here-and-now style or a 1940s and 1950s style, when Indian cinema was still somewhat virginal. The only way out was to help each actor to internalise their characters, get to the soul of their characters and then emerge with natural performances. In fact, the music is completely unplugged. No synthesizer, no electronics.

You have an A-list of technicians working on the film. From Madhu Ambat to Lalgudi Jayaraman, the crew list reads like the best in the field. Wasn’t it tough pooling them together? Do you recall how you went approaching them, and why them?
Frankly, I think this shows that if you put your idea above yourself, people rally around it. I first approached Lalgudi mama who had already refused scores of offers including the likes of Sivaji Ganesan. We had three sittings and several months of waiting before he yielded. After that, I knew that only Madhu Ambat could shoot a film like this. He loved the idea, he said yes, but of course there was Lalgudi’s involvement to bait him with! Then I called up Saroj Khan, Thota Tharani and Rukmini Krishnan and even the lyricist Swati VAR who was willing to work in harmony with Lalgudi. I told them that I had no choice but to work with them if this film had to be made. Take Saroj Khan for example. She is the only choreographer in Indian cinema who has worked across three-and-a-half generations and even choreographed for Kamala when she was “Baby” Kamala. Who else could replace her in a film like Sringaram? It was the same with the others too.

You have a mix of known and unknown names in the cast; what did you look for in your performers, say Manoj K Jayan, Aditi and Hamsa?
I was obviously looking for the right “fit.” I knew that all of them, seasoned actors or otherwise would be alien to the subject and its treatment, since we still make historical and mythological films with the synthesiser groove. But I was looking for potential that I could work with. Aditi has that fresh, beautiful personality and Hamsa has the mysterious, slightly seductive persona. Both of them are trained dancers. So that was a criterion. Manoj has a Malayalam cinema orientation and can be a brash princely landlord without hamming it. Even a world famous comedian like Y Gee Mahendra fitted perfectly into the mystical mood of the film.

Why did you choose Dubai to premiere your film? Does your film reflect the tagline of the festival, Building Cultures, Meeting Minds?
Well, of course, the tag line did fit, so that was easy. But Diff has gained a presence in the map of world festivals in just a year, so I think that whatever the middle east does, it does with élan. Also, Diff has struck an instant chord with filmmakers, critics, professionals and cinema-goers too. It has the right touch of everything a festival should have, an of course, its close enough home.

Do you think films like Sringaram is India’s true answer to cross-over cinema — especially in a scenario where Bollywood is regarded as Indian cinema overseas?
I think that true crossing over through cinema has always happened only through culturally honest cinema and not culturally dishonest or confused cinema. If this was not true, international film festivals would not be such sought after spaces for legitimacy even by the so-called Bollywood cinema. I think this trend is now only gaining strength. Audiences are tiring of formula films made in a cultural vacuum. I don’t think Bollywood has made any serious cross. Raj Kapoor is more the exception than the rule. Bollywood caters to a large non-resident Indian audience abroad, which is looking for nostalgic light entertainment. But even Indian audiences are looking for different cinema now, perhaps a whole new genre — they want to be surprised in an intelligent sort of way!

Most directors try to make a statement with their first films. And they choose a period theme for it. Do you think you have been sticking to that dictum? What next for you?
Are you kidding me? Most first time feature directors are making movies that will get them a second commercial film. Now I don’t know if that succeeds all the time or not. In my case, I go with the idea. I have been feeling this urge for a long time to explore a time where there was great art, great social challenge, great audio-visuals, and great feminine feminism. The idea has to dictate everything else including its medium. Perhaps with another idea I would have written a book…

Are you bothered about the commercial success of your film? Do you feel Indian audiences, the masses, are ready for films like Sringaram?
The response so far has been extremely positive. I am a so-called commercial audience myself, and I must be honest enough to make what I would look for, don’t you think? And yes, this is a great time to make great changes when the audiences are thirsting for change. I hope the distributors are listening.

Box:

Sringaram — Dance of Love
Cast: Aditi Rao Hyderi, Hamsa Moily, Manju Bhargavi, Manoj K. Jayan, Shashikumar, Chandrasekhar, Aishwarya, YG Mahendran
Script and screenplay: Indira Sounderrajan
Cinematography: Madhu Ambat
Art direction: Thotta Tharani
Choreography: Saroj Khan
Costumes: Rukmini Krishnan
Editing: Sreekar Prasad
Lyrics: Swati VAR
Music: Lalgudi G Jayaraman
Director: Sharada Ramanathan

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