Interview by Shewonda Leger
Why is it important for a documentary like But What Was She Wearing? that centers around Indian women and sexual harassment in the workplace be produced and circulated globally?
Vaishnavi: Even though workplace sexual harassment is universal, the specific experiences of women in India (and other developing countries) are a lot more layered and complicated. The term ‘workplace’ is quite convoluted, and works in the favor of a judicial system that conveniently lurks in its ambiguity. The reason that a strong legal binding is practically impossible in India is because of the endless sub-categories of oppression that women are subject to. Take manual scavenging for example. It is the most horrific human experience that is forcefully thrust upon a certain section of the society alone, owing to the marginalized nature of their caste. This is obviously not new, as it has been going on for years, but on paper, manual scavenging has been abolished by law as a dehumanizing practice. Sure, that would be true if there weren’t these uniform-clad women sweeping the roads past midnight while the rest of us watch the news on how unsafe the Indian outdoors are for women. When these women tidy up the city at night or early in the morning, they are subjected to constant harassment. Is that workplace harassment? Yes. Can they hope to find redressal for their experience? It is extremely difficult with the way our judicial system works. The side of India that the world is largely familiar with is consumed wholly by the glitters of Bollywood—and a limited amount of independent films that manage to find distributors internationally—so that such traumatic stories simply remain within the country, subject to censors and bans. Therefore, I am interested in portraying this other side to the world—bare and devoid of any disguise.
There are two reasons why a film like this must be circulated all over the world. Firstly, as a country, we must join forces with the women around the world to condemn sexual harassment, and secondly, we must dig deeper into the web of sub-oppressions within workplace harassment that has been largely invisible, and bring that to light for the world to see.
Hannah: Sometimes I feel that when people hear the world sexual harassment, they think of physical abuse or actions. In the United States especially, they envision an eastern impoverished country that is too backwards to make progress. It is not true. I recognize that physical abuse and visual actions are destructive and need to be stopped, and at the same time invisible and emotional harassment can be just as damaging and dangerous. Workplace sexual harassment not only happens everywhere, but it comes in many different forms. I think that in order for positive progress to happen in any country, people need to understand what exactly workplace sexual harassment is. Then they can not participate or promote it, and can say something when they see something. Harassment is harassment no matter how big or small, and it is important that people all over the world recognize that it is not something subject to one region of the world versus another. It is an injustice that is carried out and supported all across the world. That is why we must have a conversation that leaves space for people from all over the world to join and participate.
In what ways have your personal experiences inspired and influenced this film?
Vaishnavi: I could pretend to have had a wonderful life devoid of any of the nightmares that are exclusive to women, but on the contrary, my life is filled with such experiences and I have been very vocal about it lately. Childhood was traumatic with violence at home practically every day; school was not great because I looked very different (short hair and unconventional mannerisms and outfits for a girl), and I was subject to endless bullying. Graduation is a blur because of long bus journeys with men flashing or jerking off in broad daylight, so I only remember being very afraid, very often, and just wanting for it all to be over with. Endless sniggers, inappropriate remarks, and a general assumption of my character being ‘loose’ based on my lifestyle choices were made by colleagues once I began working.
I am not sure if my personal experiences with harassment and violence have vehemently made me pursue this topic, but it is this experience that has made me aware of the shortcomings in our system—the all-pervasive patriarchy. My experiences made me approach this topic with ease, and also to ‘fall in line’ with the global outcry against sexism and misogyny, so much so that my very approach to life has been about sisterhood, community building, and some much-needed patriarchy smashing.
Hannah: My whole life, in one way or another, has been geared towards women’s empowerment and gender equality. I grew up in a LGBTQ household with two moms, and many other women, family friends, and aunties who were always around to support and care for me. Women have always been in my circle of love and support—whether they are strong or gentle, dominant or passive, married or single. The women in my life have shaped who I am today. It is infuriating to see a world that refuses to acknowledge the strength and courage that these women have had to hold in order to survive and raise me and their children. At least in the United States, after many years of fighting to have an equal voice, women still lack equal pay and respect, and are constantly subjected to sexist comments and actions. These injustices have given me vigor to continue the fight for gender equality.
I don’t want to live in a world that refuses to pay women the same as men, accepts workplace and street harassment as just part of the everyday grind, limits education based on gender, or ignores physical and emotional abuse from a spouse due to the fact that the victim is a wife. Women, for me, have been the stable and strong forces of power and progress throughout my entire life. They are the humans who have given me the courage to follow my dreams and acknowledge the beauty of difference in the world.
Your in-production feature documentary will consist of a diverse group of Indian women in respected fields such as media, sports, film, NGOs, unorganized sectors, and judiciary and corporate professions. How do you plan to tell their stories considering the risk that may come with exposing the unfair policies and rights towards women facing sexual harassment?
Vaishnavi: Truth be told, it doesn’t take this film to expose the unfair practices and the shortcomings of the system, but it will essentially stir up some grassroots conversations and controversies. India is at the cusp of an extreme dichotomy of the left and the right. Through social media’s wider reach, expressing dissent and calling out the government’s failure to keep their promises has become a lot more unabashed and effective. While on the right, there is a saffron army of fear mongers who are making the country uninhabitable for religious, gender, and caste minorities.
Unlike its antecedent, the Vishaka Guidelines, the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, is very elaborate in terms of its definition of what constitutes a workplace and the long list of what could be called harassment. But the problem is that for any policy to be called successful, there are two parts to it: first, the chalking of a detailed, all-encompassing governing policy, and second, the effective and thorough implementation of the same. Without step two, we might as well still be in the Stone Age.
The idea of speaking to people across industries and different types of workplaces is to essentially make the film intersectional. Being privileged myself, I can’t be deluded into thinking if my house is clean, the whole world is clean.
You’re currently running an Indiegogo campaign to complete But What Was She Wearing? What will the funding cover, and how can people contribute?
Vaishnavi: Of the four films that I have made, two of them have been crowdfunded. I have immense faith in the power of the crowd and the fruits that we can enjoy together when an entire community works towards a common goal. In my experience, both as a filmmaker and an activist, it has always been formidable to have so many people backing your dream, whether or not they get a direct, tangible benefit from it. It is a validation for filmmakers too, to strive on despite (and especially during) difficult circumstances. Every single contribution will help us get one step closer to making corporate and government decision makers take workplace harassment seriously, and to ensure that a fundamental redressal forum is set up. We hope that through our film we will also give voice to the women who have been systematically shushed, and whose trauma has been trivialized. The link to contribute can be found here.
Hannah: The funds raised through crowdfunding will go towards funding pre-production, production, and post. The initial funds raised on the GoFundMe went towards completing our trailer and securing our team. Now we have the responsibility to raise around $11,480 to help fund the film and create a completed project. We sincerely hope that people will help by contributing on our crowdfunding page.
What sorts of research have both of you done to prepare yourselves towards producing a film on the policies and rights of women dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace?
Vaishnavi: Two fascinating things happened when I started research for this project. First, I realized that we can’t afford to make even the tiniest of mistakes with numbers, the law, and the persons concerned, especially when it is going to create an unrest within the parties involved. Second, the amount of information that I managed to dig up scared me so much that I was very close to giving up many times in the past month.
The problem, if you think about it, is manifold. Those involved are not limited to the harasser and the harassed. It starts with an incident, and the process of redressal can take practically forever, and also involves many people who simply don’t care.
Don’t just take my word for it, the case of KPS Gill is proof enough. KPS Gill was known as India’s “super cop” for his role in tackling the insurgency in Punjab (India) during his stints as director general of police in the state. He was also convicted in one of India’s first sexual harassment cases that was fought in the courts. He was accused of groping Rupan Deol Bajaj, an IAS officer, at an official party in 1988. Bajaj’s senior officers ignored her complaints, so she was forced to take the matter to court. It only took 17 years for Rupal Deol Bajaj (fifth-highest ranking female civil servant in the state of Punjab) to have the court convict Gill for his shameful act. This is just one of many high profile cases, but most of them don’t end in favor of the harassed.
Hannah: At the start, my main responsibility was researching the country of India as a whole. We started this project in the beginning of November, so we both had time to dive into the history and reality of workplace harassment in India. For me personally, I have spent many hours learning about social systems, rules, caste, class, religion, and gender in India. I have been working under my professor as her research assistant while she writes a book about radio in the Himalayas, and have completed multiple papers that use firsthand interviews with Indian nationals as the main source and focus of the paper. At the start of this process, I felt that I had the responsibility to build my own narrative of India based on fact and research instead of on the opinion and experiences of others. Once I arrive, I’m sure my own experiences will shape my view of the ancient country, but until then, it is my job to stay as open-minded and curious as possible.
Many of the crew members in this film are women. Why is it important to work with women crew members for this film?
Hannah: I think it is important to have an almost entirely female crew because we are discussing a female injustice. Firstly, whether or not every member of the crew has experienced workplace sexual harassment, they have experienced, in one way or another, some form of injustice due to the fact that they are women. Because of that, we all have a personal connection to the success and completion of this film. Secondly, the film industries in both India and the United States are both very male-dominated. Few women get the chance to play significant decision-making roles in films, and yet here we are creating a film about the injustices carried out against women with a crew that is almost entirely made up of women. It shows how relevant women in the film industry are and can be, and is also an opportunity to show the industries and the audiences that we, as women, do deserve to be producers, directors, and editors, and we deserve to be acknowledged for a job well done.
Vaishnavi: I am in full agreement to every word Hannah has said, and would just like to add one tiny thing: In a world where asking for equal rights can be termed as “reverse sexism,” (cue: eyeroll) I think it is fitting to have an all-women crew not just to disrupt the status quo, but to do it ironically over a subject matter like this.
Do you consider yourselves feminist filmmakers? If so, what sorts of responsibilities come with producing a film from a feminist perspective?
Vaishnavi: I am a feminist, and being a woman, it makes no sense to not be one. Feminism is the only way we can hope the future will be better for generations to come. The only responsibility that I have consciously kept myself aware of is to make my feminism intersectional. There is no use in fighting many fights for one goal, but it makes 100% sense to fight an intersectional fight and get to the goal together, sooner. All of my films have a feminist perspective to them. In fact, I do not know any other perspective. Even during days when I have been pretty broke and I could make a quick buck by making a mindless (mostly sexist) corporate film, I have steered very clear.
Hannah: First of all, yes, I am a feminist, and I do see myself as a feminist filmmaker. But that doesn’t mean that I refuse to create films that include men in the dialogue or tackle issues that are not gender-related. For one reason or another, the word ‘feminist’ has always been very triggering for many people, and I think it is important to note that identifying as a feminist simply means that you believe that men and women deserve equal rights. It doesn’t mean that you hate men. It just means that in a world where one gender continues to hold superiority over another, as feminists, we stand against the belief that one is greater than the other, and fight for equality of all genders.
Second, I feel that you don’t have to create a film that tackles gender rights or inequality in order to make a film from a feminist perspective. Producing a film from a feminist perspective just means that you are creating a film that refuses to use gender stereotypes in order to achieve a hidden agenda. However, that is in an ideal world. In reality, films that hold a feminist perspective are activist films and documentaries that explore the gender injustices of the world—not Hollywood and Bollywood films. Those films might have elements of gender equality, but there are still elements of machismo and gender superiority present in the dialogue, actions, and storyboards of the films. With all that said, I think we have the responsibility to stay peaceful in the way we create feminist films.
Our films are created to teach, not to lecture, and in order to make a significant impact, we have to create cinema that will teach gender equality through experience and personal connection. People are more likely to change their views when they have a personal attachment to the issue. Finding ways to speak with anti-feminists on their terms and showing them how gender equality, or lack thereof, affects them are the first steps in making a positive and successful impact.
Hannah, as student traveling to India to do an internship with Vaishnavi towards completing the documentary, what advice can you offer to other students who are interested in embarking on projects similar to yours?
Hannah: Be fearless! There are so many wonderful people and cultures in the world that the opportunities are out there. It is up to you to go out, find them, and make sure they know why you are worth their time. I think sometimes as students we can feel intimidated by the work force and the “real world of being an adult,” but it doesn’t have to be that way. Whatever you want to do, choose it because you want to, and not because someone else is telling you it is a smart option. This dedication and ability to take a risk will show through to others and will help you master your own fear in order to create positive, global change.
You both are experienced producers and have worked on various films, how will you transfer some of those past experiences and learning moments towards But What Was She Wearing?
Vaishnavi: The four films (and many non-profit films) that I have shot so far are all under 30 minutes. However, I have assisted on longer independent films. This is my debut feature project as a producer and director and I am really looking forward to it. Not having a formal film school education has made me seek inspiration from the work of some of my favorite female filmmakers, and that’s my only source of education and industry best-practice. With every film, I have learnt that it is always best to prepare yourself for the worst case scenario. I should know. With the fiction film that we shot last year, at the end of the first day of a five-day schedule, we realized that we lost all the footage we’d shot, and had to somehow fit the reshoot within the remaining four days. It was scary, but I thrive under film-set stress. I am hoping I don’t have such panic attacks with But What Was She Wearing? but one can’t be prepared enough.
Hannah: Actually, this is my first professional film. I have always been interested in film and its ability to capture a culture or family and tell their stories. I like the journalist aspect of documentary film because I crave the chance to give others an equal playing field to share their views and paradigms of the world. Up until this moment, I knew I wanted to make documentaries. However, I’ve spent my academic career studying about and immersing myself in cultures and traditions from international communities. I figured I would study what I wanted to make films about ,and then learn the art of filmmaking from people like Vaishnavi and hands-on experiences. As a constantly curious traveler and student, my past experiences have taught me how to check my privilege as a white, cis-gendered westerner, and to actively leave space for others to share their voices and ideas. Collaboration and commitment are key to any successful project, and I think we have a pretty good team set up who all embody these characteristics towards each other, and to the interviewees that we will be working with.
Vaishnavi, besides being a filmmaker, you are the founder of Women Making Films— what an amazing accomplishment. Can you talk about Women Making Films and how it has made way for women directors and producers in India?
Vaishnavi: I founded Women Making Films (WMF) in July 2015, and my simple idea was that of generating alliances among women all over the world through cinema and a shared passion for filmmaking. It is an online community with an offline collaboration model. I intend to bring together women under one virtual roof. Sitting here in India, I hear so much about how women in Hollywood and Europe strive to achieve equal opportunities. And though it is solacing, it begs the question of whether a focused endeavor in every country could do better in closing the gap. WMF is, I think you could call it, a result of a lot of angst, disappointment, and frustration over not having such a support group when I started out making films in 2014.
Now, I have successfully brought together more than 130 members from 15 countries who have the opportunity to work with each other. Ever since WMF came to be and got popular on social media, people have been coming to me for recommendations for technicians, and I myself have collaborated with so many members. WMF also serves as a feminist space that fearlessly questions and condemns sexism and gender inequality, features amazing filmmakers with interviews, and showcases female filmmakers from around the world. Apart from this, I have screened some brilliant films made by women all over India and abroad. In short, WMF is a one-of-a-kind portal that does all these things, and to think that I have managed to do it all by myself, (sometimes without sleep) is pretty humbling and exciting. WMF has become synonymous with films and feminism—isn’t that awesome?
After you have completed But What Was She Wearing? how do you plan to continue to raise awareness around women and sexual harassment in the workplace?
Vaishnavi: Apart from the worldwide screenings that I would do through WMF and the amazing partners who have offered to come on board, I also intend to screen the film in corporate settings, where, in essence, the effect needs to truly materialize. I have also partnered with NGOs to screen it in their respective training programs for various organized and unorganized sectors. Considering how the world is connected via social media, I hope to keep the conversation going through my writing as a contributing writer to many online journals. My minimum expectation for the film is that it creates awareness among women about their workplace sexual harassment rights, but I also hope that they never have to experience harassment or exercise them.
Hannah: Once the film is completed, my plan is to take it back to the United States and start screening it to an American audience. The main goal is to get as many people to see it as possible; that’s how we get people talking about the issue. Our film, while directly focusing on India, tackles a global issue, and it is our intention to make sure that audience members understand that after watching the film. Whether it is comparing the United States and India and the way the two countries treat women in the workforce, or simply acknowledging the lack of gender equality in the workforce all around the world, our hope is to spark a conversation about what workplace sexual harassment is and how people can stop contributing to it.