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Shabnam Sukhdev – An Untold Story

Posted by Navleen on October 29, 2014 | No Comments

She likes terming herself as a tough person but on the contrary she comes across as someone that one wishes every serious filmmaker was—relaxed and carefree. Though writer, producer, director Shabnam Sukhdev might makes you feel at ease in couple of minutes but her tale would make you uncomfortable in fraction of seconds. Even her recent documentary The Last Adieu that revolves around her father Sukhdev, a renowned documentary filmmaker and Shabnam’s conflicted life; there is so much that touches one’s heart. After knowing about Sukhdev’s path-breaking work through her documentary which is a personal quest of a daughter unraveling the past to connect with her father in order to make peace with an unresolved relationship with him, there is an urge to know both about father and daughter.

Shabnam is a kind of person who ‘can’t stay at one place for long time’. Born and brought up at Worli, Mumbai, she moved to Film and Television Institute of India, Pune for doing a diploma in Film Direction in 1994 in which screenplay writing was the major component. For over a decade, she then worked at Mumbaifilm and television industry in the capacity of writer, director and producer of television shorts and serials. Shabnam shares, “It was followed by migrating to Canada in 2002 where I resurrected my identity as an independent artist with the support of provincial funding. Driven by a strong social conscience, I volunteered a lot of my time towards teaching media courses in film cooperatives and was invited to be on the programming committee of the Global Visions Documentary Film Festival in Edmonton, Alberta. Later I moved to India in 2008 and relocated to Pune and Symbiosis approached me to teach audio visual.”

Currently she is Advisor, Outreach Management at Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. Here her work includes, “Looking after the student exchange program, faculty development program, event organization, representing FTII at various forums and film festival planning. Being in the advisory role there are lot of inputs that I’m expected to give. I also work as a councilor with students, which isn’t a much defined role but I really enjoy doing. The advantage at FTII is a lot of personal growth keeps happening. I can evolve, read, and write, while doing the professional work. My goals today are to share my skills and experience with committed media students and help them develop aesthetic sensitivity towards the audio visual medium and also to pursue my dream of making films exploring personal themes of identity, longing and reconciliation.”

Shabnam’s list of projects include Zee TV’s Nazaraana (co-written/directed) in 1998, Alka: Child to Wife (producer/director), a documentary produced for Indian Cancer Society in 1999, Zee TV’s Nirmala (producer/director/co-writer) and Star Plus’s Gunaah (producer/director/co-writer) in 2001, Star’s Telephone (co-producer/writer/director) in 2002 and Journey Back Home, (producer/ director), a documentary in 2003. In 2005 her film Stranger in my own skin (producer/director/camera/editor) was screened at the Edmonton Women Filmmakers’ Festival, Global Visions Film Festival, Edmonton and nomination for Best Film Reflecting Cultural Diversity, AMPIA awards and in 2008 she made Veiled Voices & Machos which was community video project for Edmonton Arts CouncilThe filmmaker recalls, “When I started teaching documentary at Canada I realized that I couldn’t ignore Sukhdev while teaching the history of Indian documentary filmmaking. That’s when the film idea began to take shape, beyond the personal. Although the personal angle was important to me, since I had a score to settle with my father, it was his work that stood out for me.”

The Last Adieu is the tribute to the man whose revolutionary films made him the most notable director of Films Division. The list of his 60 films that include And Miles to Go…, India 67, Nine Months to Freedom: The Story of Bangladesh in 1960s and 1970s got him a Padma Shri at the age of 35 along with around 35 international and national awards. This film was a ‘moving experience’ for Shabnam who translated a 35-year-old personal, emotional struggle into a 90-minute cinematic catharsis. Sukhdev’s daughter recollects, “It was an organic process for both me and my mother in particular. Meeting all of Sukhdev’s friends and associates was a fulfilling experience. I was slowly coming to terms with my father, accepting him for who he was, trying to reach out to him with all his idiosyncrasies.”

About the shaping of the film which has been an introspective-investigative journey, she says, “I wrote a poem in 2005 on the theme of father at poetry festival in Edmonton where all the local artistes were invited to participate and pair with another artist from another discipline. Who knew that it would trigger a plethora of memories that needed to come to terms with? Moreover I didn’t realize that the interviews that I was documenting in Canada would someday become part of a larger film. My mother was very resistant to the idea about a film on my father; she was worried that a lot of personal details would surface which she was uncomfortable to share with the world. She would rather be remembered as the widow of the late and renowned documentary filmmaker S. Sukhdev. Nothing else.”

Sukhdev passed away in 1979 at the age of 46 when Shabnam was only 14. “I was angry with him for dying early and without giving me a chance to know him as I couldn’t spend time with him when he was alive. I knew it was time to confront my ghosts—and above all, make peace with Sukhdev—my father.”

Two years back, an accidental meeting with FD director-general V.S Kundu provided the much required push to this project. Shabnam tells, “Though I had even written the whole idea that I how I want to see the film but I was always reluctant as then I’ll have to address the ghost if I actually start making it. I had a job and I was happy doing it. I was teaching Sukhdev but teaching Sukhdev enhanced the urgency of making a film about him so that more and more people get to know him. And I wanted to have this approach towards Sukhdev, although personal but also speaking about his work. It was important for me to explore the depth because young people have no clue who Sukhdev was. I realized how Sukhdev was forgotten and now it was up to me to introduce him to the younger generation. He wasn’t even on the internet. When I was searching for him, even I couldn’t find much information. So I said to myself that if I don’t do this, I won’t be able to forgive myself as a daughter as I should have already done that long back. An immediate red signal came from Kundu after sending the proposal. With that I felt that there is a danda on my head and I’ll complete it otherwise it’ll become my lifelong project.”

According to her initially the film had no structure but she just knew the graph of it. Shabnam who has also outstandingly placed herself in the film tells, “I wanted conversations to be part of the film. One day my mentor and friend Pankaj Rishi Kumar asked me why I want to make this film when there are better filmmakers. I told that I wanted to talk to my father. He said precisely that’s what I should be doing. That’s how conversations with my father happened. Frankly it’s based on factual information. The film traces Sukhdev’s tryst with filmmaking as it chronicles the history of documentary movement in India at that time. I spoke to many people, his friends and coworkers such as filmmaker MS Sathyu, actor Shashi Kapoor, late playwright Pratap Sharma etc, who knew of his work—each one had a story to tell which helped me piece together my relationship with him. Although my film is over, my journey continues.”

Recipient of National Award (Rajat Kamal for Best Biographical/Historical Reconstruction), the film also addresses some of the contradictions in Sukhdev’s life and career for making acclaimed documentaries while making the genre of documentary film-making more acceptable and popular in an emerging, Nehruvian India. “Of course he was a bundle of contradictions, like all passionate artistes I guess.  He was making films with State money. And that of course created conflicts. Was he to be true to what he believed in or what the State thought he should propagate? It was a fine line he was treading, but refused to buckle under the pressures, always maneuvering around the system to make his point.” says she.

Shabam started watching his father’s films only when she came to film institute. She looks back, “I was still reluctant to accept. I was always rejecting his work. During the making, when I was shooting the interview, things getting shed completely and that’s when I started accepting him completely. I accepted him for what he was and his work. I’m proud of every part of him. There is no second thought about this. I’m not even cynical or critical. I wanted to end my film on a positive note. And I found my end when I was invited to Bangladesh. What changed it is that what the kind of work he was doing is. He was up to something that he couldn’t physically devote time to us. For me I kind of justified it. Because that pull or push is in my blood. Even I have that push even today.”

The way documentaries such as Gulabi Gang and The World Before Her have managed theatrical releases, even Shabnam wants the same for her flick. She makes a statement saying, “With national award my film might get more attention. The film was also part of Stuttgart Indian film festival and Kerala short film festival. Documentaries are definitely coming back. They are being revived and reinvented with the digital medium. It’s accessibility to the tools of making films. Thanks to the technological revolution, we are more receptive to documenting personal cultural and social histories. My father was doing it in those times when technology was more of a hindrance and a very expensive proposition.”

According to Shabnam Independent documentary is emerging as a strong force and one doesn’t have to depend on Films Division to make documentaries anymore. She feels, “Several hybrid genres are emerging and there is ample scope for creative expression and discourse. Today documentaries are improving and are way better than they used to be. Besides my film there are many such films made by independent filmmakers who get international funding. Again, thanks for accessibility of cinematic tools: digital revolution has opened doors to filmmaking – not as an esoteric medium, but a more available one for the common man. Youtube is a fabulous platform for personal expression. “Home videos” is a genre of documentary by itself – and a fabulous record of it.  More and more films are using multiple formats to shoot their films, depending of the nature of the shoot.  It’s a great time to exist in. Minds like Sukhdev existing in today’s time would have been such an explosive asset to us – he would’ve redefined the grammar of documentary for us!  He was a rare creature, that father of mine.”

Someone who has seen The Last Adieu would readily appreciate Shabnam’s style of filmmaking. “My documentaries have no references. It’s always breaking rules. Earlier documentaries by BBC that had a voice of God were the reference points. Today you don’t need to do that. None of my films had voice of God. Documentary also has a great future because there are so many documentary festivals in India. Every film festival has a section for documentary. Making documentaries come more naturally to me, now for whatever reason that I don’t know. In documentaries one also has more control. With fiction, the entire gamete is very huge to manage.”

Since there is lot of footage of The Last Adieu, that she couldn’t use, Shabnam is planning to sum everything in a book for which is looking for a publisher. “I can therefore take more interviews as there are many people who I have missed. I’ll write as in when I find time. If I find a publisher, then I’ll really push myself to it. But after making the film, I feel every satisfied, a better human being. It was a very therapeutic experience to a very lethargic experience and I’m really happy the way the film is being treated, especially the young people. I think I have done my bit but I won’t stop till I show it to maximum people.” says she.

This woman has a certain attitude that sets her apart from many. She informs, “I like perfection, hard working people and believe in earning privileges and not just enjoying them. I think that ways I’m just like my dad. It’s just that I don’t party as hard as he used to do because there is just no time to party. I’m a mother, not much of a wife, but yes I’m married. It’s a bit funny but I also have my own room just like my father had. I’m a pet lover and have a dog. I love my own space. Our journey is so solitary on this planet. I don’t have any goal. I don’t have a ten thing list to do before I die. For me, it was important to make this film so I did. I don’t even know if I’ll make another film.”

But making a Punjabi feature film is there on her mind for which she is in search of a good script. She says, “I don’t believe coming up with a subject while sitting in an air-conditioned room. Wherever you are in your life, you come across something; some elements that touch your heart. You can’t make a film about every interesting story. Because every story is interesting and everyone has some story. Something has to touch you somewhere and that’s when you can relate to it.”

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