Ageing must be archived and documented: Tanuja Chandra

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Ageing must be archived and documented: Tanuja Chandra
Tanuja Chandra documentry
Tanuja Chandra found a “cinematic gold” in Sudha and Radha’s mundaneness on one of her visits to their house, and it was when the upcoming documentary, Aunty Sudha, Aunty Radha, was born.

A few hours drive from Delhi, in the small town of Lahra, two sisters, Sudha and Radha – 86 and 93 respectively – are quietly celebrating their liberation. When their filmmaker-niece Tanuja Chandra found a “cinematic gold” in their mundaneness on one of her visits to their house, the upcoming documentary, Aunty Sudha, Aunty Radha, was born.

On the sidelines of its premiere at the 21st Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival with Star on October 22, Chandra spoke about the joyride that was filming her aunts, the challenges, if any, that came with it and our collective ignorance of the old.

Q. Aunty Sudha, Aunty Radha comes at a time when most of what we consume rides on the young (even getting younger actors to play older roles). Here, you seem to be shifting the gaze to the old.

It’s hard to fathom the shortsightedness of thinking that old people have nothing of value to contribute to the world! The world has literally changed in front of their eyes, and yet, much of it hasn’t. Much of it is pushing back to old ways. This interesting paradox, this tension exists in very much the same frame in modern India. Therefore aging must be archived and documented. For the future. Besides, don’t we all, even the very young, need lessons in how to age with dignity, how to navigate the prospect of death? In my film, my aunts do it with humour and a simplicity and that itself is of great value.

Q. What started the story?

I had always, even as a kid been enthralled by my buas and mausis. They were always funny women with large personalities. However, when these two moved to the village to live with each other once their husbands passed away, it felt like a wonderful story to me. And when, through my parents who visit them, I found out about the adopted family of domestic help that lights up their village home with its chatter and humour, it emerged as a definite, documentary idea for me.

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Q. Is it difficult to film people, whom you know closely?

It can be if one is self-conscious or if they are reserved. In this case, they weren’t the least bit awkward or quiet. They loved talking, they loved having me and my crew over. They fed us, they fussed over us and also went about their day in such a natural and an undisturbed manner, that for me as a director, it was just cinematic gold.

Q. What did you set out to achieve when you started the documentary? Or, like what usually happens, the story took its form along the way?

Honestly, I was a bit more serious in the beginning about my ideas of what it might be, especially when speaking about illness and death. But these two just didn’t let these things weigh them down. So my serious tone disappeared too. It has largely turned out to be a film that’s fun to watch, all thanks to their vision of life.

Q. Could you tell me what are the areas of life—loneliness, hope—that the film touches through the protagonists?

All things human, actually. Love, hope, memories, laughter, sorrow, and finally sickness and death. And of course, companionship. The main theme is about journeying with people, not receding into a dark, secluded hole. Two sisters who live together and sleep on the same, large bed, at who’s place the caretakers gather everyday, becoming a part of this journey – this is the core of the film. To be together in life.

Q. How long was the shooting process like? How many hours of footage did you accumulate by the end of it?

There was a bit of a search for a producer. In India, people don’t love the documentary format as much as it’s loved internationally. My ex-colleague, Anupama Mandloi, who has been at top positions in television channels, offered to make this her debut production and I was thrilled. After that I gathered my teammates who are really colleague-friends, who came to this project out of love for the subject. We were in Lahra village for a week and came away with over 20 hours of footage. And then it took over 6 months to edit the film.

Q. Was there something that you had to keep in mind while filming the story?

I had a lot of fun filming this, there wasn’t much we had to worry about at all, except perhaps keeping the health of my aunts in mind, which fortunately was just fine.

Q. Have they seen the film? How did they react watching themselves on screen?

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They saw it in their home since they don’t travel much at all. They kind of shrugged and said, ‘Nice.’ They didn’t quite understand why a film on their lives would be interesting to people and although seeing it made them smile, they still don’t really get what the fuss is about! Which is so fitting, I think. They hardly care to impress anyone. Although the younger one does say that I’ve immortalised them, to which I reply that it really may be the other way around – they’ve given me a special film with which my name will be attached forever. I’ve received more than I’ve given.

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