Director: Harish Sundarajan
Writer: Harish Sundarajan
Running time: 13mins
The costs of running a film festival often mean they struggle to break even, let alone make a profit, making fee waivers difficult to grant. As a result, filmmakers who already struggle to have their voices heard are often further marginalised.
But movies from artists from low-income backgrounds, opposition groups hit by censorship, or individuals in nations subjected to international sanctions still need a platform. That’s why Indy Film Library’s Saturday Matinees are returning for a third season. Over six weeks, the latest series of Saturday Matinees is showcasing work from places where monetary and legal constraints have prevented the free communication of political and social issues.
The fifth film in our free-to-view programme, Sevi [Hear], comes from Harish Sundarajan, a filmmaker based in India. With India’s incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi currently coming under international scrutiny for his nationalist government’s oppressive treatment of the country’s minorities – while moving to silence criticism from the media and opposition parties – the film tells the story of a woman who is a journalist, paying the ultimate price for speaking truth to power.
Trying to tell this kind of story, at a time when filmmakers have also been targeted by censorship laws and police crackdowns on dissent, deserves no small amount of praise. It is easy to underestimate the kind of courage it takes to put your freedom on the line just for the sake of telling stories that make powerful people uncomfortable.
According to the director’s statement which arrived with Sevi [Hear], the film aims to serve as “an inspiration” to “bold women who fight for justice and to bring a change in the thought process of society”. The problem here, is that the film’s delivery seems far more likely to scare viewers into silence, than working as a call to arms – while undermining the apparent lionising of activist women, by portraying its lead Rakshitha (who may or may not be played by a woman of the same name – the credits are far from helpful on this front) as helpless and pitiable.
As you may have noticed from last week’s Saturday Matinees Preview for C’era una volta il Covid, this arm of Indy Film Library is not just about screening the work of financially-limited or politically-silenced filmmakers from around the world. It is also an extension of our other pledge to filmmakers; to provide impartial feedback that can help them improve on their previous work, to connect better with film festivals and, ultimately, audiences.
Frankly, there is a lot of room for improvement in Harish Sundarajan’s work. Much of this stems from the desire to tell as grand a story as possible, with neither the time nor resources to do so. To reflect a growing hostility throughout society for Rakshitha, who has run a corruption story about a politician representing an unnamed party, the film largely resorts to pointing the camera at a television, where talking heads and puppet commentators condemn the behaviour of our protagonist – while giving her no right to reply.
The problem is that delivering an instant, national scandal in this way removes us from the immediacy of its impact. We do not get the time or space to develop an intimate understanding of Rakshitha, her motivations, and whether she knew these consequences might have manifested before she ran her report.
Perhaps sensing this, the filmmakers throw in a couple of brief disconnected scenes which might as well take place on a different planet, never mind in a different film. These see the introduction and exit of Rakshitha’s boyfriend, who declares her “emotional” need to tell the truth is not something he can live with. We never get his name, so it is impossible to credit the actor – but he seems like he cannot physically wait to get off the set; the half-hearted “bye” he mumbles as he shuffles off the screen seems to be the most authentic part of his performance.
Similarly, Rakshitha is binned off by her mother; something you would imagine would be an emotionally excruciating moment for both of them – but carries all the complacency and passive-aggression of a workplace dismissal for turning up late. This aloofness, the film seemingly suggests, is because this is Rakshitha’s adopted mother (not a particularly progressive outlook on adoption) – something which manifests in an absurd and unhelpful ending about the ghost of her real mother, all of which simply seems to drive our hero to the point of mental collapse.
To some extent, it is understandable why filmmakers want to go to the most hyperbolic and extreme version of any story, to try and get as many bums on seats as possible. At the same time, the melodramatic trope of using an innocent woman as a victim to implore audiences to enact social change is a cinematic staple as old as the medium itself. But neither of these practices seem to help the intended goals of the film – which would have been far better serviced by a simpler, enclosed storyline.
Rakshitha’s fight to publish her story in the first place is boiled down to a tiny flashback scene in her office, while her boss’s firing of her takes place over telephone. The internal politics of her news organisation, the manoeuvres she would have to pull off to get her way, and bracing for the coming storm those actions would incur, would all have made for a more compelling narrative, while allowing for a much simpler production that does not need to show what is happening across the rest of the country. It could all be there, in that one place.
This is a technique that is common across ‘realist cinema’, with the likes of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh finding ways to reflect the broader world through tiny venues, via so-called kitchen sink drama. It is a cost-effective and narratively more compelling way of addressing politics, and the need for change, helping relate them better to people’s lived experiences. In the future, then, Harish Sundarajan and his team might do well to think smaller, if they want to keep getting the bigger messages out there.
But what do I know? To see for yourself – and maybe prove me wrong about the film – Sevi [Hear] will be available to view for free in full from 09:00 UK time on Saturday the 29th of July, until the end of the weekend, via our Saturday Matinees theatre page.
As the film is still trying to gain access to other festivals, the page is password protected. Use the code IFLMATINEE23 to access the film.
Viewers can also vote to score the film out of five stars – the Saturday Matinee which receives the highest score will be declared the winner of the third season.
Stay tuned for our final Saturday Matinee next week!