What initially drew you to the idea of Connected Hum Tum?
A lot of my work has been around women’s lives. I’m interested in the way people negotiate their personal lives through a maze of their own desires and what the world expects of them. So in some way, Connected was up my alley in terms of things that I was already interested in, both formally and in terms of content. But other than that, it was also a chance to put a documentary-based show on television. And I think that Indians haven’t really gotten a taste for what documentary — real documentary — can do; how enjoyable and how connected to their lives it can be.
And what do you think drew the women to this concept of documenting their own lives?
I think, in short, that these are people (like many others, I’m sure), who have a deep desire to mark their presence in the world. They want to say to the world, “I’m here. And what I feel matters.” Because routinely people believe — and this is true of both men and women, but more often women — that what they feel is not important. So in a way, what does this project offer you if you are a participant? It says: what you feel is important; we are actually interested in the story of what you feel. And I think that can be compelling for many people.
In what ways is the use of self-documentation — the women shooting themselves — integral to the final outcome?
It’s an autobiographical form where women are telling their own stories. The moment you enter the picture by rigging up cameras in their houses, it becomes an external gaze. Here, the women are shooting themselves, their lives, their families, and deciding what is important. They put the camera on at times when it is impossible for you or me to be there. The same instances that take on a very sensationalist aspect when you shoot them (because people [act] for impact), take on a kind of emotional truth. So it’s the same type of material, but it has a very different kind of resonance.
With Connected now into its fourth week, there are tangible changes in the women. How does this transformation come about?
I think people start off telling you about themselves. And after some time, the process becomes a lot more confessional, then it becomes addictive, and finally, a habit of speaking about yourself and looking at your life starts to form. When you meet someone and they say, “This is the story I want to tell,” that may not actually be the story they want to tell. Something quite different may emerge from the footage. Then I think a process of reassessment starts happening, where they start to look at themselves with some distance. I can honestly say that none of those women are the exact same person they were when they started out.
Watching the show, one thing you notice immediately is the candidness with which the women expose themselves and their lives. Did you expect this?
A lot of the strength of the show is in the casting. Every single one of these women has an inherent charisma, and there is something about the way they communicate that is very honest. Also, the camera becomes your confidante. I asked them once, “Who do you think you are talking to when you talk to the camera?” And one woman said, “To you.” Another said, “To my mother.” All of us have imaginary conversations, and in them, we are incredibly smart and candid. And in a way, they are having those imaginary conversations out loud, and maybe that’s what creates that candour. But I have to say, they are exceptional people; they are exceptional women.
Some feel that Abhay Deol’s hosting of the show punctures and disrupts the women’s narratives. What was the thought behind using a male host?
This is a completely new form for people watching mainstream TV. Not just documentary, but also the idea of parallel narratives that are connected only by an abstract theme. So this kind of abstraction, having to make connections between stories on your own, is really not something people are used to. And that was the reason for having an anchor person — to help them. And why is it a man? I think it brings a kind of interesting dynamic and tension to the story-telling. It’s very strongly told from women’s points of view, and Deol brings another energy, which then invites a mixed audience into the show.
What is the importance of such a project to wider movements for gender equality?
There are so many ways in which we can talk about society. And one of the ways is an empirical or sociological way. But I think that what’s very important is to tell a number of stories from a number of different perspectives. Always telling stories in the same way creates stagnation in the way we think about the world. I’m not interested in things that tell you, ‘Women are like this.’ But I’m very interested in the experience of being a woman and what that’s like — that kind of emotional texture of gender. I think the importance of projects like these is that they break the mould of how you are used to hearing about something. And in that way, I think it’s both a very romantic and a very important thing to do.
This piece was originally published under the title ‘Fusing self-documentation and women’s empowerment’ in The Sunday Guardian on 29 June 2013