In the films of Deepa Dhanraj, politics is entangled with pleasure, and labor with love. Take Maid Servant (1981), in which the camera plants itself amid a meeting of a domestic workers’ union, following the tilt of the discussion between tragedy and raucous comedy, as the women go from complaining about their abusive, alcoholic husbands to gleefully mimicking the men’s drunken drawls. Or Something Like a War (1991), where Dhanraj’s gaze flits between the faces of women at a sexual-health workshop, whose tearful stories about infertility and forced pregnancy give way to brazen confessions of erotic preferences. Then there’s Invoking Justice (2011), where Dhanraj’s frame takes in both the theatrical, even comical rage with which a Muslim women’s council responds to testimony about domestic violence—“Brand his penis with hot tongs till he screams!”—and the calm debate about the victim’s legal options that follows. In these works, the filmmaker all but proclaims the (possibly apocryphal yet tenacious) feminist credo attributed to Emma Goldman: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” Dhanraj’s films seek the rhythms of revolutions, those moments when the din of an oppressive present euphonizes into a song of hope and joy.
Dhanraj has been one of India’s leading documentarians for the last four decades, ever since she cofounded the Yugantar Film Collective in 1980 with activist Abha Bhaiya, writer Meera Rao, and cinematographer Navroze Contractor (Dhanraj’s husband). The group pioneered a polemical, participatory mode of documentary with four 16 mm shorts made in the ’80s. Each emerged from close collaborations with grassroots campaigns involving working-class women: Maid Servant chronicles the unionization of domestic workers in Pune; Tobacco Embers (1982) reenacts a strike by factory workers in Karnataka; Is It Just a Story? (1983) coalesces experiences shared in consciousness-raising sessions into a moving narrative about domestic abuse; and Sudesha captures the stories behind the Chipko Movement, which was led by rural women against deforestation in the Himalayas. If the Yugantar films offer a snapshot of the women’s and workers’ struggles roiling India in the ’80s, Dhanraj’s subsequent filmography as a solo filmmaker is a people’s history of the nation, spanning Hindu-Muslim riots, reproductive violence, HIV/AIDS activism, Muslim women’s movements for self-determination, caste oppression, and more. Like X-rays of a nation, Dhanraj’s films capture the cancerous effects of capitalism, imperialism, and the patriarchy, though her subject is never the disease; it’s always the people fighting for the cure.
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