For Sunday night’s Women’s Programming block at the 2017 DFW South Asian Film Festival, we sat down with Sayani Gupta, star of Leeches, the startling short which precedes the feature Dr Rakhmabai. Her character, Raisa, goes to extreme lengths to save her 13-year-old sister from a brutal one-day marriage in the slums of Old Hyderabad.
TheaterJones: In this country, we’re more familiar with Bollywood films, which have the reputation of being very G-rated—they don’t kiss, they don’t get controversial.
Sayani Gupta: That’s actually a very small section of films that actually get made. We make films in various languages. Regional films are very big in the country…the Bollywood ones are the most popular, because they’re huge films with the stars. They’re seen worldwide, but many kinds of films get made in India. All kinds of stories, and we have so many impeccable stories, billions and billions of them. And it’s so sad, because you only concentrate on the Bollywood ones, which are mostly romantic ones, song-and-dance comedies, or dramas, and there’s incredible stories waiting to be told.
And you’ve done all those kinds.
SG: Yes, and I did a film called Fan with Shah Rukh Khan, the biggest Bollywood star, but that wasn’t a musical, it was actually the first film Shah Rukh Khan did that wasn’t a song-and-dance film. But it’s been quite interesting, the journey, you know because you want to tell various kinds of stories, and play different parts that excite you as an artist.
Have you done any in the West yet?
SG: I’m probably going to do an independent American film. I’m going to L.A. after [this festival] to figure that out, and I’ve just finished two Indo-British films. One is called The Hungry, produced by Film London, and the other is Darkness Visible, a thriller funded by BFI (British Film Institute). I think it’s a really good time in the country right now. Apart from your big-budget blockbuster Bollywood films, which are considered to be more mainstream, you have these smaller independent films. The defining line between commercial and independent is also blurring, because people are interested in telling stories that are new. It’s really good times for us writers, directors and actors.
Leeches is set in Hyderabad, in modern times, 2017. And we’re shocked to learn that some of these practices are still going on that we thought died out long time ago—arranged marriages with children 11, 12, 13 years old.
SG: Or eight.
Why is this still happening? Why hasn’t the government of India just banned these things outright?
SG: Honestly, because there is no education, no awareness. And India is so populated, that lives become dispensable. There are so many of us that, especially if you’re poor, and something happens to you, no one really cares about you, including the government unfortunately. It’s everything from education, to sanitation, to basic health facilities, to awareness of health care for women. The problems are so wide, and so deep-rooted, it’ll probably take another 50 years to eradicate them completely. There is an awareness that is growing, but it’s in pockets.
To completely bring the entire society up, you have to ensure that there’s basic education and awareness, which is absolutely absent.
We’re also very privileged; we come from a very small section of English-speaking, English-bred, educated youth. There’s a major part of the population that are under the poverty line…for example, this family [in Leeches], there’s so many children, and so many girls, they have to be married off. There’s a system of dowry in India, where the family of the bride has to pay the groom to take her into his family. This is obviously one of those extreme stories that still happen, it’s quite rampant actually, in these pockets, especially lower middle class Muslim ghetto families. Someone’s actually paying you to take [a girl child] for a day, and marry her, and probably brutalize her, exploit her sexually, and then give her away.
What usually happens to them after that?
SG: Mostly what happens is, the families refuse to take them back. They are sold to other people, leading to the sex trade, or prostitution. Mostly their lives are lost forever.
And they’re no longer virgins.
SG: They’re no longer virgins so no one’s willing to take them, they’re doomed. In India in many places, if a girl is raped, the society or immediate community actually forces her to marry the rapist, or they are beaten to death because they were raped.
We’ve been hearing a lot about that because of the famous cases that have happened in the last few years. It’s shocking, something most of us never knew about India. You were shooting Leeches right where it happened, right?
SG: Yes, all shot on real locations. And these were locations where you literally have to cover yourself. I was in the burka for 12 days [to play Raisa], and I was totally comfortable, I got used to it. People would actually come up to us and say strange things. Little girls would walk up to me and say, in Hindi, “You’re a Hindu, but you’re not totally Muslim.”
I couldn’t understand what it could mean, you know, because there is no difference, right? People think the Muslim looks different from the Hindu, or the Christian, which is crazy. Coming from there, if you walk those streets without a burka or hijab, you would get into trouble. Throughout while we were shooting, people were ready to come up and stop the shoot, probably be violent with us, and we were like, “if anything happens, we just run into our cars.” I’d actually gone into places where no one knew we were shooting there, I’d just be myself and the camera would be hiding, shooting me. Most of these places we shot like that.
"All Access" Festival Pass (Feb 17 and after) - $175
Opening Night Film Only (Perot Museum) - $20
Opening Night Film & Party (Perot Museum) - $75
Centerpiece Film Only (AMC Village on the Parkway 9) - $20
Centerpiece Film & Party (AMC Village on the Parkway 9/Saffron House) - $50
Closing Night Film (AMC Village on the Parkway 9) - $20
All other film blocks - $15
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