This article first appeared in Scroll.in on Tuesday, October 4th 2016
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‘Anatomy of Violence’ uses footage from a preparatory workshop to revisits the lives of the six rapists and their families.
|Image credit: Anatomy of Violence courtesy Hamilton/Mehta Films|
Deepa Mehta’s most recent film, based on the gang rape in Delhi in 2012, is nothing like her previous features, including the elements trilogy and Midnight’s Children. Anatomy of Violence is also nothing like documentaries about the crime, notably Leslee Udwin’s India’s Daughter. The 93-minute experiment attempts to understand the social and sexual milieu that lead to sex crimes through an unusual approach that is part acting workshop and part dramatisation. Drawing on improvisational sessions conducted by Mehta and Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry in Chandigarh and Delhi, Anatomy of Violence re-imagines the lives of the victim and the six rapists and their families. Mehta’s anger at the brutality of the crime does not blind her to the circumstances that produced the rapists – and many others like them. The male actors act out the brutalisation and dehumanisation that follow years of poverty, sexual abuse, familial violence, gender segregation, and the absence of male role models. Shot mostly with a hand-held camera, and featuring fearless performances from the actors, which include Vansh Bharadwaj and Seema Biswas, Anatomy of Violence makes for often harrowing but also unexpectedly moving viewing. Mehta reveals the process behind the making of one of the more unusual titles to be programmed by the Mumbai Film Festival (October 20-27).
Three years ago I got a call from Celine Rattray and Trudie Styler of Maven Pictures asking me to direct a film about the gang rape incident in Delhi. A film focused on the victim. Known for films that exhibited a strong social conscience, they wanted to produce it.
We talked about it for hours and they were intrigued by my idea about shifting the focus of the film from the victim to that of the rapists. I was in Delhi when this horrific incident took place and since then, I have been curious about what made or turned these men into brutal animals. Long and short, Hamilton/Mehta and Maven Pictures decided to get together informally on this project.
Back in Toronto, we hired Molly McGlynn to do research focused primarily on the six rapists and their families. The screenplay I decided (emulating Mike Leigh and Michael Winterbottom) would evolve out of an organic collaboration with a group of actors enacting the lives of the rapists up to the point where they lure the young girl into the bus. The context would be given to the actors and what would evolve from the improvised scenes would be recorded, transcribed and form the basis for a screenplay. The working title of the project was Looking for Fun – a reply attributed to one of the rapists when asked by the cops why the gang of six took a school bus to roam the city.
At this point, I reached out to the eminent theatre director Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry, who works out of Chandigarh. Neelam is not only a good friend but has also facilitated and lead a number of workshops for four of my films. Essentially these workshops took the script of the film and prepped the actors to explore the characters they were going to be playing.
For Looking for Fun, I needed more than a prep workshop. I wanted a collaborator who would also help identify the actors playing not only the rapists but also other characters in supporting roles. Neelam was a perfect for my partner in crime role. Eclectic, adventurous and experienced in the milieu I wanted to explore. With a bit of luck, a workshop for a Bombay film she was committed to fell through, and her next theatrical production did not begin for over a month, so we were on.
The next step was Toronto. Looking at the footage that we had shot, it became obvious that there was no way I wanted to complete the screenplay and then shoot a film in the traditional manner. In some way, it seemed contradictory to the rawness of the story to hire actors, rehearse scenes, prep locations, prepare costumes and primp the characters with hair and makeup. Something felt very wrong about this. I already had the film somewhere lurking within the 8,000 hours. I was convinced that some judicious editing would result in 90 minutes that hung together as a narrative. Well, that 90 minutes took six months of digging, maneuvering and just plain elbow grease to edit and make cohesive.
Another month of sound editing and colour correcting and sound mixing. Salar, our post supervisor, worked 24/7 to bring it all together as did our editor, Darby. Sadly the potential investor in New York did not understand my obduracy in not wanting to reshoot the film with proper lighting, makeup, hair, real kids, composed music and of course “known” Bollywood actors. and she decided to bow out. Understandable – Looking for Fun had morphed into Anatomy of Violence.
However painful, neither David nor I regret the decision we took in remaining true to the special spirit of the project and the hope that the viewer would be brought closer to the brutality and inhumanity which inhabits our world. Our aspirations are far more ambitious than simply creating a piece of art for others to either eschew or admire. Our hopes are that the film might have enough impact on enough people to become a tool which stimulates both dialogue and concrete actions assisting in leading us to the re-invention of society so as to generate and promote a gentler and more humane world.
I am ready for change. It’s been a long time coming.