The issue of rape within India evidently gained global traction with the tragic case of Jyoti Singh Pandey. It was the brutality and animalistic details of the case (even in the context of rape) which touched a collective nerve across the globe. But the fact that the story became ‘worthy’ of the West’s gaze did not diminish the fact that this case and the level of brutality was (and is) unfortunately not unusual.
It is within this context (in part) of ‘rape’ becoming ‘normalised’ within India where Circle and the main protagonist Kushbu help us to collectively delve. It bravely takes us (in some ways) beyond the revulsion and deep into the different factors which have contributed to this normalisation of rape within India. These factors are (as one would imagine) multifaceted, complicated and blurred. As we explore this world and discover that Kushbu was raped due to the machinations of her grandmother it’s clear that patriarchy, matriachy, tradition and normalisation are just some of the forces at play.
Significantly Jayisha Patel takes (‘us’ or the West) on a further journey and forces those in the West to confront rape and female empowerment from a different non-Western view. Far away from delusions of superiority and far from those rather irritating (and loaded with colonialist ideology) terms ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ the film can (when you think of it) lead us back to the #metoo movement and the West’s own levels of brutality. Indeed, within the world of Harvey Weinstein et al sexual predatory behaviour was normalised within the context of perceived and actual power in-balances.
Can you talk firstly about your journey into film making?
I’m British Indian with parents from East Africa and have lived extensively in Latin America. I think that I come from so many cultures and I have lived in so many places with different languages that images are for me the universal visual language that speaks to all of those parts of me.
Latin America and film-elaborate?
I spent a few formative months living deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon when I left school. It was remote and the community I ended up living in had killed a logger three weeks before I had arrived. I wasn’t interested in photography at the time – only in getting to know people but I did take a cheap digital camera with me. I was worried that if I ever lost my memory, I would still have photos to remember the people who I had come to know there. I ended up forming close bonds with the people I was living with and took over a thousand photos. When I returned home a year later, a lot of people commented on the photos – they were not technically perfect, but they captured a certain emotion and intimacy. I realized that perhaps I had a skill to get close and access stories that people wanted to see but couldn’t get access to by themselves.
You were sexually abused. Can you talk about that in terms of solidifying your path into film?
It happened during my college years. A privilege I thought I had was suddenly taken away from me. Feminism became the lens with which I looked at the world and later, my filmmaking practise. I think trauma of any kind can perhaps enable one to see certain nuances and emotions in other people that they previously had not recognised. At the time, this gave me a strong inner belief that I could use such skills to create deep bonds with people so as to make films about them, exploring nuances and layers of their humanity.
Finding the story for Circle involved you re-visiting parts of your own history.
I first met Kushbu in 2014 through a film I was commissioned to make about a vigilante group fighting the prevalent gang rape culture in Utter Pradesh, India. Whilst the other girls in the group were confident and loud, Kushbu seemed lost and far removed from her surroundings. I recognized this emotion as something I myself experienced in the aftermath of my own rape. Despite us not speaking the same language, Kushbu and I connected through our shared experience. Although our individual circumstances are vastly different, our conversations, as women, came from a place of empathy and beyond that, one of solidarity. It led to an emotional and experiential filmmaking process with her, one which very much embodied the female gaze.
Talk about the cinematography in the film and how it helped to elucidate the themes you cover in this rather powerful short?
Circle is shot primarily on a tripod. For me, there is something about the arresting power of a fixed camera which enables a viewer to really confront what is on screen. The shots are also almost always wide to allow the film to breathe and to prevent the film from taking on a sensationalist tone. It also helps allow the viewer to see small details within the frame so that they can work out things for themselves.
There’s an amazing and agitated dichotomy between the tranquillity and beauty of the village and the themes presented in the film. How important was it to show that dichotomy?
Very important-I wanted to take viewers into Kushbu’s internal world. This is a world that is not seen, but rather felt. Fires, heavy fog, and dark forests, color the vast expanses of pristine land, serving as an outward manifestation of Kushbu’s inner pain. The intention was to juxtapose the stunning rural landscapes of Utter Pradesh, with the dark reality of her internal life, challenging the viewer in a visceral way. I hope by doing so, viewers can tap into the unspoken within themselves. Understandably, many may not be able to relate to such an extreme tragedy. The impressionistic shots of the landscape therefore enable them to interpret the story on their own terms and to build an emotional connection with Kushbu.
Let’s talk the ‘female gaze’ in Circle. While the gaze is a position of power in some respects there seems a dis-empowerment as despite Kushbu’s life ‘the gaze’ cannot it seems help her?
I think for me personally, the female gaze is not solely defined by its ability to show a concrete solution to gender violence. That excludes so many women’s stories/experiences and that in itself can be disempowering.
That’s interesting-can you explain that idea more?
If we look at this film from a Western perspective, it can be easy to see her as disempowered and a victim rather than a survivor. In the West, feminism takes on a particular form according to it needs. But, feminism looks like different things in different places because women are oppressed in different ways. Looking at Kushbu’s world from such a perspective can be problematic. It fails to contextualise the story or indeed validate her experience as a woman living in rural India. If we see the film through Kushbu’s lens, we see her sense of empowerment on screen. We also start to see that a lack of a concrete solution to her situation does not take away from her strength.
Is it strength or merely a situation that she has learnt to deal with?
Well, Kushbu has been abused since she was very young. Just being able to survive such abuse takes immense power and resilience. There is one scene in the film where she shares with her mother that it was her grandmother who orchestrated the rape. For her to be able to say that is a sign of her strength. She knows there could be repercussions, but she doesn’t care. In that moment, she needs to express herself in defiance and so she shares it with her mother without expecting a response.
So even when she eventually marries this unknown person (so to speak) you see it more as strength?
During her wedding to a man she does not know Kushbu looks directly at the camera. This for me is the ‘gazed’ gaze – which in effect is the ultimate sign of the female gaze. She is effectively saying to us, ‘I see that you see me and what is happening to me.’ In that moment, a young woman who has been objectified her whole life, turns the tables and becomes the subject and makes the viewer, and all those around her, the object. These details may seem small but in the context of what she has been through and in the rural society she comes from, they are remarkable. I think the female gaze is also represented by the way in which a film is created. So, in this film, it involved putting emotions above technical equipment. Ultimately, I would like to think that the female gaze is about creating the film with Kushbu rather than about her, from a place of solidarity between two women who have a shared experience of sexual abuse.
I could understand how women in Kushbu’s region had internalized misogyny in order to survive the patriarchal society.
Issues or rape in India-Jyoti Singh Pandey a globally well-known case. In the film rape seems to be ‘the way it is’ (obviously it is outlawed) did that fuel your wish to highlight it?
Yes. At the time, there was a lot in the international media about the gender violence taking place in India and it was from a Western perspective. It was painful to see and read as I felt it failed to explore the complexities of the situation at hand. It felt as if the Western media were speaking on behalf of Indian women and this problematic on so many levels. I think it can be easy to assume that part of female empowerment is about overt resistance such as speaking out and protesting on the streets. Whilst this is absolutely what should and can be done at times, this is a form of resistance that can take place if one is from a relatively privileged position. But how can women from a rural village in India show their resilience? What form of strength is organic to them and their community? This film was about exploring the latter through Kushbu’s story. I wanted to create a space where Kushbu could speak for herself rather than me or someone else speaking for her.
In some senses while the men exude an ongoing presence of fear and power in the film they are in many ways on the peripheries.
The men are on the peripheries because such overt oppression from men can come from a deeply patriarchal society. For me, seeing how patriarchy can also lead women to turn on women, as was the case with the grandmother was the most interesting. Circle was therefore created to see the effects of such patriarchy in a new light and to see how its consequences can lead women to internalising misogyny. This is why magic realism is used as a visual tool within the film-it helps see the everyday situations in a new light.
That internalisation of the misogyny is as you state seen perfectly in the grandmother.
I think given oppression was so normalised in the community; the grandmother was unconscious of the fact that, what she did was horrific. Her lack of emotion is therefore connected to this. Her hardened nature gives us an insight into what she has gone through in her own past. Imagine that you are a women that has been told or treated as if you are worthless your whole life and there is no one to challenge that. You could start to believe that, not only are you worthless, but so are other women around you. In this way, the grandmother did not feel she was doing anything wrong. From her point of view, women deserve to be treated in that way. After all, she had been treated in such a way in her past. I am saying this in no way to justify her actions but rather to try and understand them.
Were you able to understand and explore the grandmother’s history-had she also been affected by rape and forced marriage-did it help you sympathise with her?
Initially, I came to understand that her grandmother had orchestrated Kushbu’s rape for money. However, I was no closer to really understanding what this revealed in terms of a wider context. I knew I had to confront my own unconscious biases to fully understand it. I think rather than sympathise, it was important for me to empathise with her to understand the layers of the story. That lay behind the shots where the camera is always at eye level with her. Despite the horrific things she has done, she is still a human and it was important to see her that way. It helped gain a deeper understanding of her motives and the wider context in terms of what that meant about the society Kushbu lives in.
Despite the grandmother’s own history, it is a powerful yet almost demoralising moment when Kushbu reveals that her grandmother was behind her rape. How did it affect your own thought processes being from the ‘West’? Did your opinion change through the course of the film?
Yes, absolutely. I think the changing nature of my own identity through the course of the three years it took to finish the film, also framed the way in which I came to see the situation. Ironically, it was the political climate in the West with Brexit that forced me to see Kushbu’s circumstances and her grandmother’s role within them, in a new light. As a British woman of colour, the political climate proved to be emotionally challenging. I was confronted by the fact that the racism that I had feared was out in the open. In doing so, I also came to see that I had in the past internalized prejudice of my own self as a reaction to the indictment of Western racism. In the same way I had internalized racism in order to survive it. I could understand how women in Kushbu’s region had internalized misogyny in order to survive the patriarchal society.
In the scene where the women are in the field the issues of men (patriarchy) and violence are discussed-again acceptance of it seems the way to survive-elaborate?
Yes. I think what that scene shows that violence is so normalised that women can internalise it. They internalised the misogamy in order to survive power structures that are not in their favour. Challenging them could prove to be even more dangerous in such a deeply patriarchal society. I feel that there is a theme there that is not only specific to that community either. If we look at why so many women voted for Trump, one can make similar conclusions perhaps.
I think the film can make a Western viewer confront their own community
Did you ever get a sense that rather than resignation that there was a female solidarity to fight against the system/traditions, male violence?
I would say that the internalised misogyny shown within the society is not so much resignation as it is acceptance. Despite this, I did feel there was female solidarity. Kushbu sharing her story at the start with her cousin sister whilst they were shelling peas was a release for them both. They spoke openly and were validated by each other. Although the women in the fields accept the violence against them, they still talk about its awful affects. They all do so in intimate moments with each other, far away from men. That is their release. To challenge the existing power structures in a more overt way, could prove dangerous to them. Perhaps it shows that female empowerment should never just be seen as a woman’s issue but rather as a human right. The community need to take responsibility too in fighting the structures which benefit them.
How does the spectre of the current #metoo revelations make you look at your film and the issues? Perceived ideas of ‘advanced’ has nothing to do with male attitudes to women?
I think the film can make a Western viewer confront their own community rather than seeing this as a situation which happens elsewhere. I think having the film out in such a climate can help show that #metoo is not monolithic. Such conversations happen and need to happen in different ways according to the community one is from.
I think history is relevant here, particularly in terms of the British colonial rule where such structures were imprinted heavily into society. For instance, in Pre-Colonial India, many of the customs governing rural regions, such as the place Kushbu derive from more liberal attitudes towards women mainly because women engaged actively in productive labor. In order to divide and rule however the British created the 1877 Warren Hastings plan where Indian women suddenly became the property of men by law. It created infighting and power struggles between them and the repercussions can still evidently be felt today.
The end of the film evidently does bring things full Circle. How can and will things change?
Yes. In the context of the place where Kushbu comes from, such abuse is so normalised that protesting on the streets for instance would not necessarily work in the same ways it does in other places. A deeper, more organic look at behaviour in the society that is defined by the community themselves rather than outsiders would be needed. As someone from outside that community, it is not my position to speak on behalf of such Indian women and say what that solution should look like. Such women like Kushbu are capable of speaking for themselves and should be allowed to do so.
*Please note due to fears for the safety of the main victim in the film we have been asked to remove the video to protect her identity.