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Film sets are patriarchal: Nidhi Saxena

In a conversation with Showtime, Nidhi talks about ‘Sad Letters of an Imaginary Woman’, what inspired her and about winning the Asian Film Fund.
Last Updated : 05 July 2024, 21:05 IST

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Nidhi Saxena, born and raised in a middle class family in Jaipur, was trained in painting and sculpting at Rajasthan School of Art. However, while reading a short story by Manto, she found herself struggling to translate the pictures she imagined into paintings. That’s when she realised filmmaking could be a better medium. Although she did a writing course from FTII, Pune, she believes her unique perspectives in filmmaking are heavily influenced by her training in painting and sculpting. Collaborating with marginalised women through filmmaking workshops by UNFPA has further shaped her perspective, she says. Cinema, for Nidhi, transcends logic and reason, inspiring spiritual experiences. In her films, she captures abstract and magical elements that express the self beyond mere scenes. Her work is inspired by filmmakers like Tsai Ming-Liang and Apichatpong Weerasetakhul.

Nidhi’s debut feature film Sad Letters of an Imaginary Woman, produced by acclaimed Srilankan filmmaker Vimukthi Jayasundara, won the Asian Film Fund 2024, a supporting program of the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), for post production. The film will also premiere at BIFF in October this year. 

Nidhi is also a published Hindi author. Her first book ‘Chidiya Ud’ is a fictional tale about a boy who struggles to express himself. Her next book ‘Bulbul-e-Paristan’ will be released in August  in five languages. It looks at the life of Fatima Begum, the first female film director of Indian cinema. Also expected to release soon is ‘Ek Udaas Swed’, a book about the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman and his films. 

She is currently working on her next film, ‘Secrets of a Mountain Serpent’ which will deal with themes like female desire, sexual awakening, personal freedom and intergenerational trauma. 

In a conversation with Showtime, Nidhi talks about ‘Sad Letters of an Imaginary Woman’, what inspired her and about winning the Asian Film Fund. Excerpts:

What is ‘Sad Letters of an Imaginary Woman’ about?

The whole film is connected through a phone call between the present and the past. My protagonist is called Nidhi. She is a 40-year old woman who is calling her younger self. She feels very lonely and doesn’t have anyone else to talk to. She is aware of the loneliness of her childhood as well. Similar to Frida Kalho’s 1939 painting, ‘The Two Fridas’, a double self portrait of two Fridas sitting together, hand in hand. She tries to support herself through the loneliness that haunts her. 

Why did you choose to write this?

The idea dawned on me when I was reading R D Laing’s ‘The Politics of a Family’, which is about the hypocrisy, secrets and truths within families. While families appear perfect from the outside, when we go deeper, we realise there’s more to them. That way, it’s a very personal film. It’s definitely not a biography but I’ve faced a certain kind of loneliness too. The film is a feeling. It’s about memories, anxiety, depression and loneliness. It’s like a diary, a notebook, a letter. 

Can you tell us more about your protagonist?

My character carries the baggage and trauma from her childhood. She grew up in a dysfunctional household – her parents are separated and her mother is involved in an affair with another man. She grew up with feelings of abandonment and loneliness. She’s also like the other women who I grew up with in small towns of India, where even as children, we weren’t allowed to play outside. I’ve mostly seen women inside the house and they cope with a different kind of depression. And nobody talks about it. So my protagonist, although 40, is emotionally still a child coping with the trauma she faced in her younger days. 

The film is also surrealistic and has a tinge of magical realism. 

How do you bring magical realism on screen?

In a way, the cinema medium itself is magical realism. How do we see 10 years or 100 years in one or two hours? That’s why I think film is the best medium to depict magical realism. And for this, no special technique is needed. Like, you open your bedroom door and step into the ocean — it’s just a matter of a cut. Or in Apichatpong’s film, a beast joins in for dinner; if you look at it, there’s no special or different technique involved, just the idea.The rest is just poetry; if we try to understand it too much, it can
get ruined.

What were some challenges you faced while making the film?

It’s an indie project and the first challenge was naturally money. The film is experimental and my cinematographer couldn’t understand the narrative. I just told him to trust me and stick to the shot design. See, for them, it’s hard to take orders from a woman. All the light men, the sound boys… the set was very patriarchal that way. When a woman orders a light man to do something, they can be easily offended. Men expect women to say things very lovingly with an extra layer of politeness. This was one of my biggest challenges irrespective of having some of the best technicians in the industry. 

By the end of the film, I decided to consciously include more women on the set for my next film. 

How does it feel to be the first woman filmmaker from India to win the fund?

Archana Phadke, Rima Das, Rima Bora and many other female filmmakers from India are all doing amazing work but women filmmakers still seem countable. So I was like, why am I the first? Why are there not many female indie filmmakers? These were some of the questions in my mind. 

But it feels good to be the first woman. When the first girl from a village goes to school, a question one ponders is why didn’t her mother, her older sister or her grandmother go to school? It’s something like that. 

Also, in India girls are not encouraged to pursue art. Looking at it from the Indian class and caste system, the women who generally get recognised first are either from the upper caste or come from the upper classes.

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Published 05 July 2024, 21:05 IST

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