`I can never stop making film,’ says Akanksha Sood Singh
Akanksha Sood Singh can never stop making films. Film making is her Plan A to Plan Z in life.
Having worked on 86 films in the past 15 years in various capacities and directed 7 films, including 3 feature films, Akanksha’s works have won her national and international accolades.
The films you make are more on subjects which film makers would not normally touch– social issues such as sanitary napkins and social evils — how difficult is it to make films on these subjects?
It is not easy. Not at all! While the issues were drastically different, the problems I faced were common: lack of awareness, no historical research data, blind faith in superstition and lack of empathy.
In the case of the `Pad Piper’ – on sanitary napkins—the story was of Arunachalam Muruganandam. He had no qualms about talking and his sanitary napkins manufacturing machine since the work spoke for itself, but for the women, it was a taboo – the subject and even talking on camera!
The biggest challenge was to make women talk – not just in India, even in the United States. Interestingly, I had originally wanted to inter-cut his story with vox pops and also with the phenomenon of the ‘menstruating’ Goddess in Kerala. I was told only a man could film there.
I worked with a group of women in Coimbatore to reach out to rural women. These ladies roamed the streets and went from house to house trying to educate women about basic hygiene and amenities. Not that they were welcomed with open arms, but at least it was not the camera straight in their face. I spent a lot of time first making ground for a conversation in person.
`Mrityubhoj—The Death Feast’— started out with a newspaper article on Dr Viresh Raj Sharma and his crusade against this social evil. On reading, it was in the first draft a straight forward film. After Public TV Service commissioned the idea, I traveled through the Chambal belt, filming death feasts thrown by the rich. It was a waste of time – they were like lavish marriages. These feasts are given by the so called ‘upper castes’.
I was at the 8th feast when I put my foot down – I told Dr Sharma’s volunteer’s I was not here to make wedding videos! It had come down to that. This is not my story. This does not show the reality.
I remember that evening – they went helter-skelter looking for a not-so-well-to-do family where a death may have happened a few days before. And what came out from their ground-work in just 4 hours was a family that had just lost the patriarch.
This film is a simple story with the canvas limited to what unfolds with Virender Khushwa over 13 days as he goes about making preparations for his father’s death feast. The landscape is unchanging and there are no dramatic events. What plays out in many rural villages across the Indian heartland, plays out here too. Through the 13 days, as Virender seemingly follows tradition, little does he realize the socio-economic trap he is walking into. Perhaps, for life.
There is a parallel narrative of Dr. Viresh Raj Sharma, the man battling to curb this social evil. Educated and in the police service, he has been able to put his conditioning and prejudices aside to look at death feasts from an outside perspective. Virender and Dr. Sharma’s path cross in the end of the film – for the former it brought hope, but for the latter, it was a struggle gone in vain.
This is a purely an observational film, with no voice-over. It plays to Virender’s thoughts and sometimes to Dr. Sharma’s. And this came to me as a mark of respect to Virender for allowing me to be a fly on his walls from the day his father died and to his family for the delicate intimacy with which they swept me into their lives. We never spoke. I was as clueless about what will happen next as he was. But we bonded – our presence brought comfort to each other him at the end of every day, a distraction from the conflicts both of us faced.
As I filmed Mrityubhoj, each day, I realized the sensitive issues I was touching upon –class, caste, tradition, gender- –a complex matrix. It was easy to get carried away, take a stance, confront but I chose not to. Instead, I chose to bring out reality as it is without prejudicing the audience.
I did another film recently, Urmi’s Cat, which was co-directed by my partner, Soumadeep Sen. A bit of an experimental film. We wanted to bring up incest. And challenge the way films have shown the perpetrator – always an ‘uncle’. No, sometimes, it could be the father. We put it out on social media – free for everyone to watch and think about. It worked.
What do you think is the immediate impact of your films– other than instant appreciation– is there any change in the mindset?
I believe in using films as a tool for spreading awareness, influencing mindsets and thus bringing about a change.
The Pad Piper is used by the women featured in the as a tool to entertain and start a conversation. And it is working brilliantly.
Manas – Return of the Giants brought back Manas into the limelight, a position it had lost to, living in the shadow of Kaziranga. It is also giving conservation agencies a medium to engage local communities, show them the world they live in and take for granted, from an outside perspective and thus build bridges at the grassroot level for long term conservation measures of landscape, resources, flora and fauna.
For Mrityubhoj – we are about to roll out the campaign. The film is picking up in the festival circuit and as is the press around it. We are now going to take the film and the press it has got so far to villages and hold screenings. We plan to propose to influencers in these communities to curtail the opulence, and propagate alternatives. This is not something that will happen overnight, but at least plant the seeds now.
What are some ideas which you have in mind for making films in the future?
I am working on developing a wildlife series, co-producing and fund raising for an investigate documentary on illegal wildlife trade, exploring some unconventional customs / rituals prevalent in India and also trying to write a feature film story.
What is your primary objective behind making these films — your passion of course is there?
Wildlife films has become a way of living for us. We get so restless- my husband and I- if we don’t get out to a forest and film regularly. City life chokes us. And the stories that exist in the wild – every person needs to see, know and feel a crucial element of their natural world. I could make a power point presentation, too, and give you the same information, but only a good story will make you sit up and make you empathize.
I have done only two social / human interest documentaries and the response to both has been tremendous. It is a new genre of sorts for me, but I can already see that there is so much to explore, to tell, to change with such films.
What made you go into making films?
I must have been 6 or 7 years old when we got a coloured television. My father was posted in Wellington then. I was glued to it. Television gave way to cinema – especially the wave of parallel films. It had a huge impact on me.
And, with the coming of cable television, came wildlife programming. It gave me a different perspective altogether. Till then I wanted to ‘make films’, but after cable television, I wanted to be a ‘wildlife filmmaker’. Through graduation and post graduation and early years of working, I did everything else other than making films. It was in 2002, when I met my husband, that I finally got a chance to be a part of a film, and that too one on the human – leopard conflict in India. It was his student film that was commissioned by National Geographic. It won the Student Emmy.
Which are some of your award-winning films?
Mrityubhoj – The Death Feast is the winner of Best Indian Documentary at the 23rd Kolkata International Film Festival 2017, was official screened at the 5th Woodpecker International Film Festival 2017 and was nominated for Best Documentary at the 4th Asia Rainbow Television Awards, 2017
Urmi’s Cat (Fiction) was nominated for Best Film at the 12th Calcutta International Cult Film Festival, 2017 and is the winner of the Best Short Film Award at Virgin Spring Cine Fest, 2017.
The Parlour Boys is nominated for the Scroll India People’s Choice Award, 2017
Manas – Return of the Giants is the winner of Best Film on Wildlife at the 9th CMS Vatavaran Film Festival 2017, Woodpecker International Film Festival, 2016; Winner of Best Film on Asian Elephants at the International Elephant Film Festival, held at the UN Headquarters on the UN World Wildlife Day, 2016
The Pad Piper is the winner of the Best Film on Science and Technology at the 61st National Film Awards given by the President of India
India’s Wandering Lions and Tigress Blood have also won several awards and hugely acclaimed.