Exploring 1947 & 1984 In "My Mother India": Safina Uberoi

There is something very special about the Punjabi diaspora spawning an inspired breed of female filmmakers like Gurinder Chadha, Meera Syal and Deepa Mehta. Staking a claim to join this pantheon of successful women behind the lens is a lady from Down Under, Safina Uberoi. As is with the other women directors mentioned, Safina's work is her passion, her creativity is blended with an-almost-brutal honesty and her films have been applauded the world over.

Safina's life story is an interesting tale of 'reverse migration'. Her father came to Australia in the 1960's, married an Australian and later moved back to India. So Safina grew up in India with an Australian mother, a story brilliantly narrated in her film "My Mother India". This film screened successfully all over the world - including Europe and the US - picking up 11 major awards along the way. Here in Australia, it screened continuously for six months and won the Australian Film Institute Award for Best Australian documentary.

What inspired her to become a filmmaker? She replies instantly "It was a happy medium for me to collaborate all of my interests and roll them into one art form. I had done theatre, was an artist, and I loved to write; although it was by accident that I did this film-making course in Jamia Milia in Delhi (my boyfriend suggested I do it), but on the very first day, I knew I had found my calling".

An avid Bollywood fan, Safina is also credited with introducing Indian cinema to the average Aussie through Indian film festivals, the first of which she organized in 1993. For the first time, people in Australia got to see a mainstream Bollywood film 'Parinda', alongside the all-time-classic, Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam (a movie she thinks should be screened in all Indian film festivals), as well as alternative Indian cinema. Not only that, veteran actor Nana Patekar came to Sydney to open the festival and even ran workshops for Australian actors. Ever since, Safina has organized four more Indian film festivals in Australia; others have followed suit and Bollywood is now a buzzword for the locals here.

In 2004, the BBC called her "out of the blue" to direct a one-hour film on the British Asian writer, Meera Syal. This was a part of the series called "Who do you think you are", which looked into the family histories of 10 high-profile British celebrities. Safina was virtually handpicked by Meera Syal to delve into her family history for this series, because she felt comfortable with the plain honesty of My Mother India. While researching this film, Safina traveled extensively across Punjab, discovering the involvement of Meera's two grandfathers in the Akali movement. The climax of the film is the "Jaito morcha", when scores of "ordinary" Punjabi peasants skirmished with the British and shook the Empire from its roots. "It is so unfortunate", Safina says, "that today virtually no one knows anything about such significant grass-roots movements. The contribution of these ordinary men and women is no less than that of a Gandhi or a Nehru, because they left their family, took great personal risks, lived underground, just to carry the freedom struggle forward. It's a pity that not many people today are even aware of their contribution".

Something else Safina feels deeply about and has portrayed eloquently in My Mother India is the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. According to her "That wasn't a riot, it was a pogrom. In a riot you see one person killed for every ten injured, but in November 1984 the ratio had reversed. There were ten killed for every one person injured!"

Safina worked for over a year at the riot camps in Delhi, nursing those physically wounded and caressing minds of those bearing deep emotional scars. "I was left with the trauma of the survivors, the anguish of their loss, their grief, their anger", says Safina. It was there that she decided that these stories must be retold. "It took us three or four decades after the partition of 1947 to finally talk openly and make films about it. That's why I thought I had to retell the 1984 stories as early as possible." She revisited all these emotions 15 years later when she filmed My Mother India.

For Safina, one memory stands out the most from the hundreds she gathered at those riot camps in Delhi. There was a quiet little girl at a refugee camp, who used to listen to stories Safina and other volunteers told and very often would sit in Safina's lap too. But whenever this child drew on paper, she always used the colours yellow and orange; Safina soon found out that this little girl actually held her father's hand while he was doused by the rioters and burnt to death. So all the pictures she drew depicted the colour of fire. But Safina still remembers the deep satisfaction she felt the day that little girl used other colours and finally drew something else. Although this story isn't narrated in as many words in My Mother India but the essence is carried through in a deeply emotive way.

Safina's other projects have included "The Brides of Khan", a portrait of a Bangladeshi wedding photographer in Sydney and "Faith", a film about people of different religious faiths living in a Delhi slum. Earlier in 2005, she traveled to Sri Lanka and made a documentary "The wave of Aid". According to her, "This was an incredible journey into a beautiful land ravaged first by civil war and then by the tsunami disaster".

But her most recent experience has been the least memorable one. She was asked by the US- based TV channel PBS to make a one-hour documentary on outsourcing in India. On completion, she was asked to include stereotypical shots about India, which she felt would compromise the integrity of the film. According to Safina, "In the end, the producers aired a poorly edited version of the film and all in all it was a very bad experience".

Safina warns, "There is a growing conservatism in the world of films, just as there is in other parts of society. The areas of producing new, innovative thoughts and projects are shrinking". Which is why she has chosen to work from Australia again, after a period of toggling between Sydney and Mumbai. She says," I'm insane, because self-originated projects are so much harder to pursue. But I have decided to be my own boss and do it the harder way, which I guess is the typical Punjabi way, isn't it?" she chuckles.

Which brings us to the obvious question - will she go over to Mumbai and work in the Bollywood industry? She replies," I want to make films that Indians love to watch, whether that's in Mumbai or here, I don't know." Her husband, Himan Dhamija is already entrenched in the Bollywood industry - he was director of photography for Aamir Khan's "The Rising", the new release "Bluffmaster", starring Abhishek Bachchan and has many more films and commercials to his credit. But she isn't sure if the transition would suit her style of work. "I think Bollywood might find me too weird" she says. "For a start, the script would have to be much shorter than the usual Bollywood fare".

Next on the anvil is Andrew Lloyd Weber's hit West End musical, "Bombay Dreams", when it tours Asia in 2006. Safina will be an Associate Director for the tour and she's quite looking forward to it. Apart from that she is working on a documentary and a short fiction script, the details of which she says, "Are top-secret". A self-confessed film fanatic, she says, "Films were the greatest gift to society in the 20th century", and she is inspired to carry the baton forward in her own way.

Courtesy: India Today

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