Free Press Journal

Smiling Woman of Banda celebrates India’s very own brand of feisty feminism


Film-maker Anjali Bhushan may have had a dark, bitter experience with Leslee Udwin, the British producer of the controversial documentary “India’s Daughter” about the Nirbhaya gang-rape case, whom she has accused in a Delhi court of criminal breach of trust and fraud.

But now all is sweetness and light for Bhushan whose new documentary ‘Smiling Woman of Banda’ has been aired across Japan after being selected for Colours of Asia 2016, an exciting initiative of Tokyo Docs, Japan’s premier international documentary film pitching forum.

The project which promotes co-productions between Japanese and other Asian documentary filmmakers focuses on common themes, which highlight the diversity and richness of Asia.

Bhushan was part of the Indian contingent that participated in Tokyo Docs, Japan’s premier international documentary film pitching forum. “Tokyo Docs was especially important to me because there were voices celebrating the good in Asia, voicing concerns too but amplifying Asian points of view,” Bhushan said.

For 2016, the theme was “Women – Paving the way for Asia” with the aim of shedding light on progressive women who are breaking new ground in contemporary Asia, in the face of conventions and taboos that narrow their choices in society. “One of the ideas we discussed was Smiling Woman Of Banda, a story that I wanted to make for over 15 years. HotDocs was a very enriching experience and I had a great response. They offered 100% funding,” recalls Bhushan, adding, “They felt it fit the theme as they were looking for success stories of women from the Indian subcontinent.” The Hindi language doc was subtitled in Japanese and aired on NHK (which, by the way, is also beamed in India).

“What is special about the experience is that it gives film-makers a chance to tell positive stories from India instead of the usual negative deprived imagery that gets exported and also gave a chance to celebrate the true blue Indian brand of feminism that is the staple of a village woman,” Bhushan said. And so it is.

“Smiling Woman of Banda” revolves around Raj Kumari, an uneducated Dalit woman from the Bundelkhand (Chitrakoot) region of Madhya Pradesh who has changed her life and of those around her by learning how to repair hand pumps and by taking charge of one key resource in the region: water.

 Beautifully shot, the film follows the titular heroine and a group of women who are slowly but surely and steadily challenging gender politics and changing the marriageable age of a rural girl from 14 to 18 and, best of all, ensuring that they daughters are getting educated. The women, especially Raj Kumari, are outspoken in their critique of men whom we see lolling around playing cards in their spare time.

“Men can do anything, but women do everything,” says Raj Kumari whose oldest daughter is not married yet (at age 21) is BA pass and a school teacher. Raj Kumari is now her student in an open school that runs voluntary classes for illiterate villagers under a tree. Today, Raj Kumari’s band of women receives orders from the local government for repairs of hand pumps in the region. They get paid Rs 300 for every hand pump repaired.

For Bhushan, work on other projects was interspersed with the Raj Kumari documentary. She was shooting in Bulgaria (as Creative Producer) on Ajay Devgn’s Shivaay, an important project she couldn’t leave mid-way and HotDocs assigned her a “very experienced and wonderful” Japanese co-producer called Mayama San. Speaking about the two different forms of filmmaking, Bhushan says, “I was coming straight out of a Bollywood fiction film so for me the value was also in seeing the similarities and the dissimilarities of the two forms of telling stories. When I look back on it, I wonder how I managed…I guess I knew how to do it, because of the great team back home notably Associate Director & Research Consultant Amit Khullar, Editor Abhishek Seth, with music by Sandesh Shandilya.”

Post the Japan telecast, ‘Smiling Woman of Banda’ is in its cycle of international distribution. “It’s a great feeling to be telling a positive story about what happens in the hinterland of India and our very own brand of feisty feminism,” says Bhushan who is seeking funds for a 52 minute version, “which will be deeper, more incisive than the 25 minuter made for Japan.”

Bhushan is now writing her first fiction film and developing a few scripts with other writers. Along with Malgorzata Czausow and Krzysztof Solek of Film Polska as co-producers, Bhushan is now working on finishing her doc about the World War 2 Polish Catholic refugees from Siberian labour camps who were brought to the erstwhile princely state of Kolhapur and Kira Banasinska (the wife of the Polish consul general in Bombay now Mumbai) who campaigned for awareness to liberate the Poles who had been deported by the Soviets to the Gulag.