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Chitra Palekar on Maati Maay

By: Moses Navgire, IndiFM
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Born in Dharwad town in Karnataka in India, Chitra Palekar completed her degree in Economics from St. Xavier's College in Mumbai in 1968. She was however, the lead actor and director in avant-garde theatre in Mumbai since 1967. Chitra was also the producer and lead actress in the Marathi feature film Aakriet (Misbegotten), 1981, which won the Special Jury Award at Nantes, France. She was also the Screenplay and Dialogue writer of the film Kairee (The Raw Mango), 1999, which was directed by Amol Palekar. And after making an English documentary Portrait Of A Visionary in 2002, Chitra Palekar has made her first feature film Maati Maay, (A Grave-keeper's Tale) starring Nandita Das and Atul Kulkarni in lead roles. The film was highly appreciated at Toronto Film Festival and will be releasing in theatres in Mumbai soon.

Maati Maay is your first feature film. Tell us about it
The film is based on a short story by Mahasweta Devi and the lead actors of the film are Atul Kulkarni, Nandita Das and Kshitij Gawade. The theme of the film is about a woman who works in a graveyard and her job is of burying the dead bodies' of small children; it has been an ancestral legacy. However, when she herself becomes a mother, she doesn't want to continue with the work. But no one understands her emotional and physical state. The society simply forces her to continue with the work because no one else is ready to do it. But when she ultimately rebels, the society punishes her as the society does not accept people who break its rules and traditions. The film talks about, not only the relationship between human beings and their relationship with the society but also how injustice is inflicted on a woman by the society. The woman in the film is not only ill-treated by the society but also her own people betray and trap her.

Can you explain the title Maati Maay ?
Maati Maay are two separate words in Marathi. The word "Maati" has many connotations. Maati means soil, it also means burying and Maati also has the meaning of destruction. On the other hand "Maay" means Mother. So, the film is about a woman who is doing the job of burying the dead children and when she becomes a mother and she denies continuing with the job, the society accuses her of being a Witch. In English, I've named the film "A Grave-keeper's Tale". I have produced, written and directed this film. This film will also mark my directorial debut.

What inspired you to make this film?
To me, the film seemed to have the possibility of being visually beautiful. But also, the fact is that I have always been concerned about the issues relating to women. Besides, this story deals with a woman as a young mother and speaks about her conflict, her dilemma, her rebellion and finally how society and the people around her cheat her. These were some of the issues that were always of concern to me and therefore I decided to go ahead and make the film.

How was the experience of shooting the film since it is set and shot in a rural background? Which Village was it shot in?
This film was shot near Amravati which is in the Northern part of Maharashtra. No feature film was ever been shot over there before and therefore the locations were almost virgin. But the experience was very beautiful. My entire unit and the actors were extremely cooperative and not only that, even the villagers and everybody around were delighted that a feature film was being shot at that place. Another interesting feature of this film is that apart from Atul Kulkarni and Nandita Das, all the supporting cast, including the young boy Kshitij Gawade, who has a very crucial role in the film were facing the camera for the first time. They are mainly local theatre artists from Amravati and Nagpur.

Was it challenging for you as a director to shoot the film in such a remote location?
Not really. Because I think that if you do your homework properly, you won't face much of a problem. Besides me, my assistants, including the cameraman and other crew members had all visited the location before beginning with the shooting schedule. We knew what the problems there were and we took care of everything well in advance. So, there weren't any problems as such. But yes, the climate there was very hot and we were doing a one schedule film without any breaks. So, that way it was very challenging for the crew.

How was it working with Nandita Das and Atul Kulkarni?
Oh, it was wonderful. Both Nandita and Atul are absolute professionals and it is a pleasure working with such professionals. They would come on sets absolutely prepared. Besides, as Nandita was doing a Marathi film, she would come prepared with her dialogues and even Atul helped her a lot. They used to rehearse every scene. Everyone used to take each others suggestions positively. And since the entire cast and crew was so friendly, shooting this film was like a big picnic.

Wasn't the story originally supposed to be a play but it ended up becoming a movie?
No, it was not like that. A friend of mine just suggested me to read the story and see if I could make it into a play. But then when I read the story I thought that it would better be made into a film. It is not that I had planned to make it into a play or anything like that.

Does this film have music?
It doesn't have songs as such but it has fabulous background score which is designed by Bhaskar Chandavarkar. He is a western music director from Pune.

So then doesn't the film have a traditional folk music?
Interestingly, we discussed and decided not to have folk and traditional kind of music for the film. The music instead is mood oriented and it is a kind of music that goes beyond geographical boundaries or local culture. It is very abstract but it enhances the mood and brings out the theme of the film.

Films like this don't make it big at the Box Office as they are mostly meant for festivals and not the masses?
It's nothing like that; let me explain this to you. There's nothing like a festival film or a Box office film. Any film well made will be appreciated by the audiences. The issue is how you take it to the audiences. Because what happens is that when you sell the film there are many people in between like distributors and exhibitors and sometimes it becomes a bit difficult to convince them. But now with the multiplexes coming up and distribution system changing so much, there isn't much of a problem nowadays. For example, I have released the film in Pune on Friday, October 7, and I've released both the Marathi print and the subtitled print across the city, which is a sort of an experiment and I'm sure it'll succeed as the film goes beyond the Marathi region. It is a story about an Indian woman and her dilemma and conflict. Hence, this goes beyond the restrictions of narrow local boundaries.

So if we ask you the target audiences of the film...
...they will be everybody. For the simple reason that I don't like to differentiate between the audiences. I've never said that a particular film is for the classes and the other is for the masses. Who am I to decide that? Besides this differentiation is very subjective. When I make a film, first and foremost it has to satisfy me. And when that happens I would want everyone to watch it. I cannot decide who may or who may not understand the film. Maati Maay is a complex story but it is not very difficult to understand. The film is emotional and dramatic and people like drama don't they? It is a kind of story that will not only touch the audience's heart but also their mind and make them think. So, I do hope that everybody watches the film.

What kind of release is the film having in India? When is it coming in Mumbai and rest if India?
The film has released in Pune. In November, I am releasing the film in Mumbai. I've already talked with people in Chennai and other Metropolitan cities and we will soon decide when to release the film in other parts of India.

How do you plan to market this film?
I have been talking about the film and my actors have been talking about the film and also there is lot of curiosity about the film among the press. So, whatever I can, I'm doing that to take this film to the people. And like it happened at Toronto Film Festival, I had no publicist there and no one to really push the film but after the press screening people started talking about it and there was lot of mouth publicity. All the shows were sold out. I'm sure that the same will happen in India. I don't say that marketing is not important but if I really believe in my product, I don't think I need to create any hype. A good product gets viewed and I believe in it.

How was the response at the Toronto film festival?
It was a wonderful experience at Toronto. People there, which include not only the Indian audiences but also the Canadians and other international audiences, were touched by watching the film. They didn't have any difficulty in understanding the film and they really appreciated it. That's what they told me during the question-answer round after the film's screening. The film will also be screened at the London Film Festival.

Deepa Mehta too complimented you for the film.
Yea, Deepa Mehta and many other filmmakers from Canada and other countries complimented me for the film. Deepa really liked the film and she did send me a message complimenting my work. I was very happy, as this is my first film as a director. Besides, Deepa has done many films before. So, it feels very nice when a colleague appreciates your work as it pushes you to do even better.

Have you seen Amol Palekar's Quest?
No, I've been busy with my own preparations.

Finally, what are your expectations from Maati Maay?
My intention is to make this a huge commercial and creative success. And now, it is up to the audiences to make it a commercial success. But believe me, whatever is the result, I am very satisfied with the film and that cannot be changed.

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