Anita is a 17-minute short about a visiting NRI couple, specifically the wife after whom the film takes its title. She's gotten herself an internship. She's thrilled. She thinks it's the start of big things. But first, she wants her husband to break the news, casually, to her very conservative parents – so it will seem like he is totally okay with it. He seems supportive initially, but soon things happen that make Anita wonder if life in New York, with an "NRI husband", is any better than life back home.
"I grew up in a community with the belief that a woman who moves to America lives an exciting, independent life," director Sushma Khadepaun said in her director's statement. "Anita is an exploration of this myth of the independent, young, expat wife and the struggle to maintain this façade." Sushma will graduate from Columbia next month. She is writing a feature, and was excited about getting the visa for Venice when I spoke to her.
One thing that surprised me about the film is that "women wanting to work" isn't seen as much of an issue in the movies anymore.
It's something that I know people around me struggle with. I know people in my family who think either way. It's like someone saying, "My husband is very modern and open minded. He allows me to work." So that itself is something to think about. I have an outside view because I have been away from India for 15 years. I'm aware that people who move away get stuck in a certain time period when you leave India. But that often happens to people, I think, who don't go back home often. I spend sometimes half a year in Bombay and in Gujarat, where most of my family is. So while I'm aware that can happen, it's interesting to see how often people, especially in metros, feel like certain things are no longer an issue or it's a rural issue. But it's still so present in our society, I feel.
No, no. It is not because I live in a metro. It's because people don't typically take up this subject in cinema. It was a big thing in the 1960s and 70s, of course, with Ray's Mahanagar being a benchmark. At that point, women were just beginning to step out of home. So it was still a big issue. And I felt it is interesting to see that in a 2020 film.
Actually, it's a great point. This is something that I have actively thought about even when it comes to showing abuse or an oppressive relationship or writing about arranged marriages. Let's take arranged marriages. I mean, who talks about it anymore? But of course, arranged marriages still happen and people still wonder about going to work or whether they are allowed to work. At the same time, I feel that all subjects have often been talked about. It's about how we talk about them that's different. It is a matter of craft more than the subject. It is certainly a challenge of the craft to show it differently so that it doesn't feel like we're talking about what Mahanagar did.
Speaking of craft, one thing that struck me was how vivid the colours are. It's a very saturated palette.
I was mostly looking at sort of warm and cool in terms of colour, and how all this would play out in a home with a wedding. All of our celebratory colours are warm colours. I would use a lot of that and the 'cool' to sort of bring out the dissonance that's going on in the whole thing. It is instinctive, and some of it might just be coming from a sense of memory of a place. I grew up in an ancestral home, and so some of the memories are a lot more vivid in our head sometimes than they are in real life.
There is an entire stretch that's shot from outside of the bedroom that Anita and her husband are in, after we've begun to see there's an ugly patriarchal side to this man, too. Your camera is outside the doorway, and you frame the couple as though you are an outsider and you don't want to intrude.
I think people tend to look away from this subject matter. Marital rape is still not a crime in India and in many states in the US. It is also about the 'non-event' of how abuse works, and how complex and grey it can be. Somewhere deep inside, I kind of wanted to peel people's eyes open and be like, 'That happens'. I think that's the place it came from.
My favourite touch in the film is that Anita has henna on her hands and it kind of renders her helpless, because she cannot use her hands to defend herself…
It comes very much from the character, Anita, who went out and told her husband something that was bubbling for a while right before she said it. And now, she sort of feels like she has to play a coy woman and make up for speaking her mind. So for me, it comes very much from the reality of where my character is and what her obstacles are, in a way. So yeah, I think I did intend the henna as a metaphor.
For a while, the husband has been supportive. You think he's been the ideal husband so to speak. But at one point, he just turns. What makes him turn?
I think he becomes more overt at that point. Because the scene before that was the dinner. That's when he actually goes off-script. She'd given him a script and when he's pushed for his masculinity is when he goes off script, when his father-in-law asks if his salary isn't enough. To me it's like, she's wondering why that happened. But until it's overt there's no way for her to know what's happening. I also think she wants to know where he stands and she's pushing his buttons. And when she does that, he's like: "Woah! It's just an internship, not a job".
And she pushes him even more when she says "Are you afraid that I'm going to start earning more than you?" And then, this whole caveman thing takes over and he thinks that maybe making a baby is going to be the way to keep her at home. In contrast, how did you see the character of Anita's seemingly conservative younger sister?
She is somebody who is rather naive. I guess for me, the younger sister represents the conditioning.
So she's simply following the family's (and society's) "script"?
Right. Because she doesn't know any other way. The reason she represents conditioning is because Anita has left and so she thinks she might be better off, I guess. That's a lot of the attitude of the people who leave. It's like, "My life is better than yours because I left!"
Yeah, actually at first, it does come across like Anita has a bit of a superiority complex, though not in a very overt way.
I'm glad it comes across because it was absolutely my intention to do that. I mean even Anita has her flaws.
What has the reaction of people been like, among the Indian people that you've shown the film to versus the non-Indian people?
Mostly, the Indian people who have watched this have been journalists and friends. I have probably shown it to more Indian women than men. I'm getting very powerful responses coming from a place of familiarity and "I know what this feels like", which has been interesting. One of the common reactions has been about the husband's turn. That scene was completely unexpected, given the first few minutes of the film. With non-Indians, it can be a mix. Actually, even from non-Indians, it has been women with a lot of familiarity and sometimes a lot of anger, which has been interesting. They are feeling angry about what the character has been put through or gone through. In any case, the reactions have been quite strong.
I felt profound sadness for Anita. She thought she had escaped and gone to a better place and then she finds that it's still the same.
I think that was my approach to the story. It is a disillusionment story — not just about the fact that this happens. And certainly not about this happening in India. It's about this happening and the disillusionment when you think you have escaped from it. And the question is, "Can you really escape it?"