Ananth Mahadevan juggles between being an actor, director and a screenwriter effortlessly. While acting is something he enjoys, being a director has been an uplifting experience.
He has made films inspired by real life incidents and figures, and many of his works " Mee Sindhutai Sapkal, Rough Book, Doctor Rakhmabai, and Mai Ghat: Crime No 103/2005 among others " have received critical acclaim at international film festivals. Now his most recent, true-life Marathi film Bittersweet is headed to Busan International Film Festival. It's also in the race for the prestigious event's Jiseok Awards.
Bittersweet unravels the shocking practice of exploitation of women workers at the hands of sugar barons in Maharashtra. The film explores how women are forced to work even on their period, and often driven to removing their wombs to avoid the physical pain of menstruation and the penalties they often have to pay for taking an off.
The story is told from sugarcane cutter Saguna's perspective (played by Marathi actor Akshaya Gurav), who discovers the frightening practice of hysterectomy, and revolts against atrocities often brushed under the carpet. Her decision to save her present and the future is illustrated in Bittersweet.
A still from Bittersweet
Mahadevan, whose lead is inspired from a disturbing news report he once read, tells Firstpost, "I came across this headline and I have used it in the film, too. It said, 'Beed, the village of women without wombs'. My first reaction was 'How is it possible?' I thought it was a biological malfunction, but then, learnt that Maharashtra's richest industry, in its endeavour to pip Brazil to become the number one sugar exporter in the world, is forcing women to undergo hysterectomies with the connivance of contractors and unscrupulous surgeons, so they can work through the sugarcane cutting season without a break. As I read up on the characters and people talking about the incidents that happen there, I felt this is one hell of a movie. I have a film here to show the world. I wanted to take this film to the highest level of global viewing."
"Everything in the film is true," he continues. "I have kept the real girl's name hidden to respect her identity. I couldn't meet that girl, I think she went back to her village after revealing it to the media but I got all the first person accounts from the interviews. There were others who told us a lot of things which were not in the reports, so we combined that with her story and we rounded off in a very comprehensive and bigger picture of what could have happened in Beed. The point of view is of course, the girl, the protagonist, who has been taken out of her catering college by her family because they needed an extra hand in the sugarcane field this year as her father suffered from asthma and he couldn't work to a full strength. And when she went there the horrific truths that she discovered and the dilemma in her mind as to do it, or not to do it is what the film is all about."
Some time in 2019, there were reports of the Maharashtra government deciding to conduct a survey on the treatment of these sugarcane cutters after the NCW (National Commission for Women) wrote to the state's chief secretary over reports of forced hysterectomies. "I thought probably action would be taken once Saguna revealed but all that the women's commission did was sent a government secretary there to probe into this. So I have that character but he comes up against the wall. He tries to pin it down on the sugar baron, on the contractors, on the gynaecologists, but he realises that he has nothing against them. The way they explain their stand is so believable and credible that there is no counter argument to that, and that is the frightening part of the film. That when you know a crime has been committed but you have no proof that this was the killer and the horror of this is something that I have brought out in the film," says Mahadevan.
Since the issue is controversial, one wonders whether Mahadevan and his crew faced any hindrance during the shoot. "We had to take certain people into confidence and tell them that we were making a film on the women cane cutters. We couldn't reveal more than that. We went into the real fields where there were hundreds of cane cutters and we just threw our characters into that milieu and we shot. The sugar cane mill is real, the production design was already there, just that the sugarcane was cut at a very fast pace as the cutting season is only for six months and we had to keep pace with the sugarcane cutting to complete our film. It was an adventure because we were racing against time and if we wanted to shoot then it had to be when they were working. You can't stop their work, or get into their work. It was a tough challenge to merge into a real life situation and pretend that you are doing the real thing and not filming," says the filmmaker.
Mahadevan's protagonist Saguna is a girl in her 20s who is forced to put her career on hold because her family is in need of an extra pair of hands in the field. For the character to leave a lasting impact, he wanted a face his audience could identify with. Mahadevan explains why he cast Gurav, who has previously starred in several Marathi shows, "I needed a person with very ordinary looks and at the same time with extraordinary acting abilities. Now Akshaya had the looks but she didn't have the experience. I told her this is my level of pitching, this is the way my character will talk. This is all she will express and there is a lot unsaid than said. Her dialogues had to be minimal but she had to speak much more than that. For her it was a trial by fire. She has given a very intense and very internalised performance. She reached the location four days early, because being left-handed, it was not easy for her to cut the canes and she needed practice.
Menstruation and the biases that menstruating individuals face, a topic Bittersweet deals with, is relevant and topical. While the corporate world debates granting period leaves, women workers of Beed have had to brave an even ominous present and future. Mahadevan describes the circumstances the workers face: "If they oppose, they are told to return the advance which has already been spent in paying off loans. So, they have no choice but to submit to the present with no thought for the future. Sometimes a couple runs away, but, as a woman there told us, they were caught and her husband hacked to death. She returned to the fields to look after her family."
Many of Mahadevan's previous films have dealt with serious issues and being a socially responsible filmmaker is an objective he realised over his past few projects. "But I am not a messenger, I am not giving a speech, or preaching but if you can read the message between the lines, it is great. This has worked as a double-edged sword for me, one as exposing the ills of society without taking cinematic liberties, or by over dramatising, and on the other hand these films are making me grow tremendously as a filmmaker," says Mahadevan, whose other film Mai Ghat is also being appreciated by global audience.
And Mahadevan, who makes films purely for the big screen, is thrilled about theatres opening up. "Because cinema for me is and will always remain a big screen. The darkness between you and the screen is magic that you are living. Bittersweet has been made for the 70 mm screen, the sprawling fields, the unimaginable awesome looking sugar-cutting mill. Fifty per cent occupancy is a great thing for the kind of films I make. Even 25 or 40 people in the auditorium for each show does the job for me. And now, after the pandemic the multiplexes have learnt their lessons and they will give quality cinema because audience taste has changed drastically. Even the films releasing on OTT platforms have been declared flops, just imagine, if you can recognise a flop on a digital platform, how bad that should be and how much the audience has shunned it. Now it is about time attitude and policies also change and the distributors and exhibitors come up with policies that will help cinema of substance. That is the writing on the wall," he says.
The filmmaker has kept himself busy during the pandemic. He has published a book on his memoirs and 40 years of television, called Once Upon A Prime Time, then his two web series (as actor) " Avrodh: The Siege Within, and Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story were released recently. Next, he will start work on directing Satyajit Ray's The Storyteller in Hindi with Naseeruddin Shah, Paresh Rawal, Revathi and Tannishtha Chatterjee. "We will celebrate the birth centenary of Satyajit Ray with this film," says the director, who is also excited to play the antagonist in two upcoming mainstream films " Durgavati and Haathi Mere Saathi.
When asked if he finds his characters in his earlier films too dramatic and overstated considering that it's only the real-life stories that excite him as a director, Mahadevan explains, "Yes, absolutely, those used to be over-the-top. Today, as an actor, I can put my foot down and say, I am playing this villain with a very cool, chilled demeanour. I will play the psychiatrist in Durgavati with a certain amount of know it all kind of attitude because when you have the knowledge you don't have to show it, there is a certain casualness that comes into your act. Fortunately, the directors today see the sense behind realistic performances."
Watch the trailer of Bittersweet here "