Female Idol Blog Series: An Interview With Priya Goswami

Documentary filmmakers are extremely intriguing people. And filmmakers who use their love for cinema to portray extremely difficult subjects, must receive a special mention. Recently, I did a “Documentary Series” on WMF’s social media platform and learning about these filmmakers has instilled in me an enormous amount of strength and commitment towards pursuing social activism through visual medium, in general.

For today’s Female Idol Blog Series, WMF is extremely happy to interview Priya Goswami, who is an alumnus of NID and as part of her college project made a documentary by the title “A Pinch Of Skin”. This could just as well be the turning point of her life as the social issue she tried to address in the documentary, gave birth to her organisation, Sahiyo.

How was it for you growing up? How do you think your upbringing has moulded you as a person?

I was born in a loving family, which went great lengths for my sister and my education but my parents always had a preference for a male child.  I was quick to catch on that and self initiated a battle against the male child preference.

priya goswI wanted to make my parents proud in everything I did, especially my father. And at the same time found myself constantly at loggerheads with his ideologies on gender. This struggle defines me in many ways. All my work, thoughts, actions and habits seem to stem from this desire to raise the bar, uproot the inequality between the two sexes as well as prove worthy in a male-dominated bastion.

Filmmaking, what was the beginning of it? How did the aspiration kick in, any inspiration, family, or just pure fascination?

Filmmaking was incidental but the core of it has been storytelling. I was a student of English Literature at the under graduate level and being rather good at it, found myself heavily drawn to both Literature as well as critical studies. Parallely I pursued collegiate theatre and realized a certain knack for visualization and my creative instinct. 

priya gosSo when the time came for me to take next steps for my education, I consciously walked away from pursuing higher studies in Literature and writing and presenting copious papers. I wanted to present something by me in a platform, which was much wider and dynamic.  I knew I wanted to tell stories but what kind of stories was a discovery, which gradually came by.

I started as a journalist, eventually a video producer of car show in a national news channel. Fast cars did give me a lot of thrill and so did outgrowing women can’t drive stereotype, but those were not the kind of stories I wanted to keep telling.

One day I quit my job and made a short fiction using all my savings and since then there has been no looking back or indecision on whether I belong here.

About the film, A pinch of skin – the start of your research onward to national award – please take us through that!

A Pinch of Skin is a lot of things. It’s my first serious project, it’s my best work so far and it also a bar set by me, for me to overshoot. In many ways, it has become a binding for me, a film whose impact was so deep on me that I am still working on the same issue five years after making the film. 

pinch of skinThe idea of the film started with an Outlook article on the practice of Female Genital Cutting practiced by the Dawoodi Bohra community. The moment I read the article I knew I wanted to make a film on it .

However, I do feel that the genesis of the push was in play I wrote in my undergraduate level called Chakravyu which spoke about religious subversion of women, or on how religion is used as a tool to implement traditions which subvert the position of women in the society. I believe the seeds the underlining thought behind ‘A Pinch of Skin’ were sown from then.

The process in itself was a very interesting and a challenging one. I did not know anyone from the community, not even a friend’s friend when I started out. So my only thread was the article I had read. I took to contacting the journalist who had written the piece who in turn connected me to some people from the community and thus triggered a chain reaction and came to meet people from different cities who were willing to speak to me.

The first thing I would tell all those people who agreed to be a part of the film was that I would only record whatever they are comfortable with. I remember travelling from Ahmedabad to another city ( cant’t reveal which) to meet this women who only agreed to voice recording.  So I recorded her voice only and played it on a blank screen in the film.

The visual treatment in the film is stemming from this conditional access. In a way it was good that some agreed to let their hands be shot, some were ok with silhouettes and some only sound. The restriction in only looking at one’s face liberated me as I realized how much people emote through gestures.

On national award:

priyaGoI think every filmmaker/artist should once experience the high that a national award can give and the aftermath of it when you realize that it simply means nothing.

The next day you wake up feeling the same and with the same struggle for more ideas, stories that you feel for and the ones that you can make as honestly as possible.  If anything, the quest to get better at your work becomes harder and search for stories more daunting.

However, awards did seem to have a positive impact on the cause, which A Pinch of Skin espouses since, post the award there was a lot of media attention. Therefore, a continued conversation on ending Khatna ensued.

Your experience working with FAO (food and agriculture organisation)  of the United Nations in Cambodia!

It was a unique experience as it was my first long stay outside of India. Travel and work aboard in your early twenties is still not a very common phenomenon among the Indian youth and this opportunity afforded me that very exciting space where I could live by myself in this foreign land, learn about a new culture and at the same time gain financial independence working with a prestigious body such as UN.

Working with the UN has it’s perks and the best of all is that one gets to travel real interiors (with a translator) and have access to things which may elude a traveller. I can safely say that I have travelled Cambodia more extensively than I have travelled my own country! And the experience becomes even more exciting when you get to shoot these unique spaces and experience news ways of living first hand.

About Sahiyo:

It is a very special endeavor, something which started as a conversation between five women based out of different cities in the world. Common to us was our drive to build a dialogue against Khatna or Type 1 Female Genital Cutting prevalent in the Dawoodi Bohra community.

It is interesting how we connected overseas when I was looking for people for my film Reflecting Her. That’s when I connected to Mariya in the US and Shaheeda in Mumbai. Aarefa and Insia were my protagonists in Reflecting Her! Today the five of us are a team working from three different corners of the world, forming a unique coalition against FGC in India and other parts of the world, specific to the community.

The importance of filmmakers using visual medium for taking powerful socio-political stances?

The more I think of how much I have learnt and emulated, consciously/sub consciously from the cinema/documentaries/videos I have seen, the more I hold on to the belief that cinema can change lives, steadfast. This could well be a universal truth that cinema we watch has impacted each one of us in a deep-seated way.

And then there is so much noise in terms of meaningless cinema that we see. If each of us start to replace that by significant conversations and people start to vouch for that kind of content, which challenges their worldview in some way, I do believe we would have a better world with more empathetic and self-reflective people in it.

Where do you see the future of Sahiyo to be?

Sahiyo is a fast growing organisation which has garnered significant attention worldwide in a very short time span. We wish to continue to keep up our efforts on building a dialogue against the practice of Khatna through as much community involvement as possible. We also wish to keep up with our storytelling and be able to produce more and more conversations on Khatna to reach out to as many people as possible.

Are there other social evils that you wish to address through cinema as a medium?

priyaGOne day when I am emotionally nurtured enough, I wish to tell a story on rape survivors not as a sensationalized narrative but as a study of sheer human will to overcome tragedy. I am also sure that by the end, I would have many films on several traditions instituted by the patriarchal religions of the world and my counter discourse on it!

Future projects?

I would love to make an experimental film, just free from the labels of genres, something, which flexes the definition of a short film or medium of videos. I am also currently working on a documentary, which is a personal narrative, nothing of social or global import per say, but a story of a Japanese woman in India. I want to tell such stories of small personal import, of everyday joys and small tragedies.

This is one of the many inspiring tales under the WMF umbrella. And personally, I am way too excited to take up this pet project than I am ready to admit. Stay tuned and watch this space. Here’s hoping: one is never devoid of female idols anymore!