The Radical Power of Feminist Friendships: YUGANTAR COLLECTIVE at the 2021 Essay Film Festival

By Jenna Dobinson

Curating Yugantar at the Essay Film Festival continues its focus on the work of women film collectives from around the world. The initiative developed from a mutual aspiration to challenge the idea of what is an Essay Film and seek to better understand films made collaboratively adopting this performative documentary practice.   

          Our curatorial project is interested in identifying forms of shared female participation, of collaboration and alliances, of partnerships and co-creations, which challenge conventional notions of authorship, but also of the film object itself.       

          This project, led by Janet McCabe, asks how does understanding women’s collective enterprise not only reorient and recast film histories to locate the impact of women on that history; but also, in that reframing to include female collective filmmaking practice, how we can understand the influence of films by women and about women on film histories, but also film’s role in social history.    

          This is about changing the story–changing what counts in film history, what counts as film practice. 

          These are questions of feminism, of politics, of aesthetics; and where we see the essayistic used for the purpose of socio-political critique.  

Idhi Katha Matramena 1 ©Yugantar

Screening the Yugantar Collective at the Essay Film Festival was a project nearly 5 years in the making. After a turbulent year for all, three recently restored films finally made their UK debut in March under the title Is This Just a Story? Celebrating the Yugantar Collective. Throughout the week, I followed the conversation around Yugantar at the festival, reading, listening and sharing resources on India’s first feminist film collective. Alongside the films, the festival hosted a number of discussions which explored wider themes such as feminist activism, archive politics and the essay film as a form. A few weeks later, the festival’s blog seems a suitable home to record my experience.

Is This Just a Story? Celebrating the Yugantar Collective began with a pre-recorded conversation (2021.1) between academic and curator, Dr Nicole Wolf (Goldsmith’s) and Yugantar Collective members Navroze Contractor, Abha Bhaiya and Deepa Dhanraj. Each provided exceptional insight into the world of Yugantar: their origin story, collaborative filmmaking and how their practice even challenged their own political thinking. From the outset, I was struck by the sheer clarity with which they recalled 40-year-old anecdotes as if only yesterday. Bhaiya offered a rich contextualisation of Yugantar’s beginnings, situating their practice in the global feminist uprisings of the early 1980s. The Collective sought to challenge the under-representation of Indian women’s histories, posing questions such as Why are they not visible? Why are they not documented? They challenged this marginalisation through the use of film as a new means of exposure, said Bhaiya: “we were bringing out feminist solidarity together, creating a totally different medium for expression and learning how to fight for a struggle by articulating what we were never allowed to articulate”.

Idhi Katha Matramena 2 ©Yugantar

The conversation later shifted onto the films, specifically their ‘hit’ docu-fiction Idhi Katha Matramena/Is This Just a Story (1983) made in collaboration with grassroots feminist group Stree Shakti Sanghatana. Bhaiya, once again, eloquently declared their original intention as “expressing our discomfort with what was being said about family as a very precious, very happy, very cohesive and harmonious kind of institution which it wasn’t”. Behind each story lay the importance of collaboration which remained at the heart of Contractor’s approach to his cinematography. He reflected on his dissatisfaction with the cinéma verité style of documentary filmmaking pioneered in France in the 60s and 70s, which championed the observational objective camera:

“…I always said that if you have so much equipment on you … you’re never really a fly on the wall. So, it is better that they know who you are, what you are. So we started to name it ‘living camera’ … there were no sneaking pictures, they knew exactly what we were shooting … I would be one of them, not talking, just watching.”

A striking example of this remains one of my favourite moments in Yugantar’s filmography. In the final moments of Tambaku Chaakilo Oob Ali/Tobacco Embers (1982), this ‘living camera’ is nestled amongst the Nipani factory workers, as they meticulously debate the practicalities of their next protest. Continuing to reflect on their practice, Bhaiya concluded with a rather moving reflection, which has stayed with me:

“…We started looking at our own families more critically … that is a political shift, that it’s not only one family, or another family, but it’s a collective sense of patriarchal oppression and patriarchal denial that constructs the sense inside and the internal architecture whereby silence becomes the language for expression.”

Idhi Katha Matramena 4 ©Yugantar

Throughout the festival, I became increasingly fascinated with the restoration of these films. Dr Nicole Wolf initiated the film’s restoration with Dhanraj at the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art for their ‘Living Archive’ programme. The project connects research and preservation with contemporary artistic and curatorial practice, thinking through the archive to generate new ideas. Central to the project is the notion that “The archive is alive – but only if it is used”, an assertion in which I, as an aspiring curatorial archivist, firmly believe. I have never been satisfied with the idea that once a film is rescued from dusty basement storage, it suddenly finds a new life in the archive. Films must be exhibited to survive. These thoughts were re-activated when reading Wolf’s text ‘Projecting Tambaku Chaakilo Oob Ali: Reflections Towards a Versatile Archive of Political Cinemas’ (2013), where she considers the effects of screening Yugantar’s films today. She asks: “How does one re-project in order to throw forward?” and “Are there specific constellations in the present – urgencies, stagnations, a search for radicality – that are conducive to the surfacing of past moments?” Watching these films as women’s safety dominates our headlines, I felt a strong connection to the feminist solidarities exhibited by the Collective. I once again found myself nodding in agreement with Wolf, as she concluded: “Linking to the archives of feminist film seems particularly pertinent now, if not always.”(ibid)

After the films had been available for a week, the festival hosted a live Q&A with Dhanraj and Wolf. (2021.2) As they reflected on their 20-year working relationship, the audience were given a first-hand account of the Yugantar story. Wolf began by acknowledging the connection between the Collective and the university context: “the political movements within which and to which Yugantar contributed also started on university campuses in the late 1970s” (2021.2), a fitting parallel given Birkbeck’s role in exhibiting the films. Dhanraj continued with acute lucidity, describing that moment as a “political baptism”, whereby students were already forming radical left groups, out of which Yugantar developed. The conversation shifted toward the Collective’s successes and challenges, eventually finding pace as they moved through a discussion of each film.

Idhi Katha Matramena 4 ©Yugantar

Beginning with Molkarin/Maidservant (1981), the conversation once again returned to Yugantar’s art of collaborative practice. Dhanraj described how “there wasn’t a roadmap” for the Collective within the Indian documentary scene, so they had to develop their own method of collective filmmaking, inspired by the very women they sought to represent. Dhanraj explained how they “had to do an awful lot of listening” and “put aside every assumption we had as to how women’s trade unions worked”. They observed the domestic workers of Pune, listening to their ‘speaking groups’ in which women debated, argued and quarrelled, organically forming collective testimony. Molkarin “was one film where it was key to keep these kinds of conversations”. These ‘speaking groups’ form the film’s narrative, as we witness women decipher their next move and organise captivating protest. This collaborative dynamic helped inform the Collective’s own practice, listening to each other and sharing expertise.

For their second film, Tambaku Chaakilo Oob Ali, Dhanraj emphasised Yugantar’s desire to spend more time with the women prior to shooting. They spent three months living in the workers’ communities and their rented room became an ‘open house’ for women to drop by and tell stories. The Collective weren’t allowed to visit the factory: “there was a lot of suspicion … who are these two middle-class women and what were they doing here?”. So they spent time with the workers in their homes, where shared experiences were ‘heard through ear, not through eye’. They asked the women what they felt was important to tell and, unbound by formal restrictions, the Collective embraced the idea to recreate the factory workers’ biggest strike, which prompted a rise in women’s daily wage. Such performative scenes foreshadow Yugantar’s subsequent forage into the world of fiction filmmaking with their next production, Idhi Katha Matramena. Wolf described how this move “pushed political vocabularies”, as the Collective turned attention from the workplace to the home. Returning once more to collaborative practice and female friendships, Dhanraj celebrated the sheer passion and strength of women who joined the Collective in writing the film’s script. Women had to “negotiate with their husbands” to even attend these meetings. The stakes were high, and the collaborative film remains a truly emotional story of vulnerability and the remarkable power of female alliances.

Idhi Katha Matramena 3 ©Yugantar

As the event drew to a close, attention turned to the future of Yugantar. I was thrilled to hear that Arsenal is currently restoring Dhanraj’s film, Sudesha (1983) as part of ‘Archive außer sich’ (loosely translated, Archive Beyond Itself). Born out of the ‘Living Archive’ programme, this project continues Arsenal’s research into the archive as a site of production ( Dealing with cultural heritage and materiality, the project asks: What is a film archive today? What claims does the public make on archives and what present and future can be proposed, even speculatively, from archival constellations and new forms of navigation? These projects remain engaged with the Essay Film Festival’s investigation into what counts as film histories and how such histories highlighting marginalised voices – can we rewrite and reimagine what we might mean by such an endeavour? Each part of the Yugantar session provided rich discussion on female alliances and co-creations, reaffirming my passion for the Collective itself and furthering the Festival’s research into the essay film as a form.

Jenna Dobinson

Jenna’s bio-blurb

In 2019 Jenna graduated from the University of Kent with a First in Film Studies. She has now completed an MA in Film Curation and Programming at Birkbeck University of London with a particular interest in feminist film history and Artists’ Moving Images. She undertook an internship at the BFI, working on the latter. In February 2020 she presented a film programme at the BFI’s Future Film Festival, and in March 2021 assisted in the programming of the Yugantar Collective at the Essay Film Festival. Jenna also works as a stylist and visual merchandiser.