Cinema as a medium of change in society: Nagesh Kukunoor at TEDxSITM


Translator: Denise RQ
Reviewer: Mary Kay Good afternoon. I guess I am the only thing that stands
between you and the lunch, so I am going to try and get through this
as quickly as possible. My topic today is
“Сan cinema cause social change?” I genuinely believe it can; while it may not effect
sweeping social changes, it has the power to tell stories
and even plant images in your head. Storytelling is something
that’s existed since time immemorial, and you know that stories have been an extremely important way
of delivering thoughts and ideas. History is peppered with examples. You have the Bible, the [Bhagavad] Gita,
Qu’ran, Ramayana. These are all great stories. I mean imagine if Krishna
stood on a podium like this and told Arjuna what Dharma was;
think Arjuna would have fallen asleep. Take it on to the battle of Kurukshetra. You have a blood strewn battlefield. You have brothers fighting each other. You have Arjuna
– a truly cinematic moment – putting an arrow into his bow,
being about to unleash it overcome by anguish. And boom! We have the concept of Dharma. So, stories have continuously done this, they have used imagery
to get ideas across. The difference between cinema and most
of the earlier forms of storytelling is very simple:
early forms were a two-step process. So, when someone told a story
to another person, – which was the earliest form,
a verbal form – the listener had to listen and then form
an image in his or her head. We moved to books. I see Ravi there;
that’s what he does for a living. He puts words on a page,
a reader reads it, forms an image. Drama took it one step further:
tried to eliminate some of those things, but still, the person had to
visualize the place. And finally came movies. Today, as we know it, by and large, it’s the most important
form of storytelling, because it works
with the way our brain is wired. We like images, we think in images;
off the ground. But “Dor”, again, tried to do the thing of breaking the Bollywood portrayal
of strong women, which is to portray them
as these shrill, screaming vixens standing and screaming
at the injustice perpetrated by society. And it is ironic,
because they were reinforcing the same gender inequality
that they were fighting against. And with “Dor”, again,
it was a very humbling experience because of the offshoots that it had. My most memorable one was the fact that when the film screened
at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., this tear-eyed woman
walked up to me and said, “That’s the most beautiful
lesbian love story that I’ve ever seen.” (Laughter) I am serious.
And I took that as a compliment. Again, never intended. But you know, people read
what they want from a film. Finally, it brings me to “Lakshmi”. With “Lakshmi”
I actually had a very specific agenda, no matter how many times I’ve said “Entertainment first,
story first, message later.” With “Lakshmi” I actually tried
to approach it from the reverse. Once again, the reason is deliberate: to sort of jolt the audiences
from the comfort of their homes and actually take them to places
where they haven’t been. About three and a half years ago, I was invited by Plan India
to talk at some conference, which I really didn’t know much about, but most of the times, we’re called and just before we go on stage
we are given a little briefing sheet and for these 10 minutes, we pretend
to be intelligent about the topic at hand. And this was one such occasion,
so I was doing my little bit, I went; they were asking for some parliament
to pass some bills. So I went, I did my little bit, and when I left, I met
this rather interesting gentleman and we got talking. He said that he ran
a little rescue shelter in a small town in Andhra Pradesh. He said, “If you have
some time at some point, I’d love for you to come down and visit.” And one thing that he told me – an incident that actually
changed his life – sort of triggered my interest. He said he was a journalist,
and he was covering one such event, – where there was a raid and they picked up
a bunch of these sex workers and they were bringing them – and the hate unleashed on them
by the public was so strong – from the journalists, from the cops, and from the general public
as they walked – that he couldn’t fathom how one human being could have
that kind of hate for another without actually knowing what they did. You know, he just said this
in broad strokes and he said, “When you have the time
I’d love for you to visit.” So eventually, out of curiosity
more than anything else, I went down there. He runs a small rescue shelter
outside Ongole in Andhra Pradhesh, and I went there. There were about 45 women, and there were about
25 children in the place. So I got talking with these women. And what happened over the next two days was something
that pretty much changed my life. When you are in the comfort of your homes
– I’m no different – and you sort of click images
on the Internet, you do a little [scrolling]
and then you move on to the next one, or if you are socially conscious,
then you say, “OK, I am going to forward this email
to a bunch of other people.” Nothing wrong with that.
All of these things are very essential. But when you actually
stand across from someone who has gone through stuff
that I cannot even begin to describe, tale after tale
of absolute inhumanity emerged. I kept listening to them;
and at one point, you sort of grow numb with you know, the tales
that you are hearing, but at the back of my mind I kept saying,
“OK, I need to do something about this. I need to shed the spotlight
because this is the topic I care about.” But we, filmmakers, are very fickle. There’s that momentary burst
of “Oh, we want to do something,” then you go back,
and the next cheque is cut, and you move on with your life. So this was no different. Except, I met this amazing girl, and in a very quiet voice, you know, she mumbled something. I thought I didn’t hear it correctly
so I asked the guy. I said, “Did I hear what she is saying?” He said, “Yeah, you have no idea
how courageous this girl is.” She was the first one
in the state of Andhra Pradesh to take her traffickers to court. This is something
they had been struggling for years. They would rescue these girls,
bring them to the shelter. After few months of settling them,
trying to heal their wounds both psychologically,
mentally, physically, they would try to get
these girls to go to court, to stand as witnesses, and none of them would have the courage because of all the social issues, they were threatened
by the mafia and all this. This girl, this unassuming,
quiet little girl, who just stood there in a corner,
had actually done it. And that was the first case
in the state of Andhra Pradesh. And that set a precedent. And then, by last count, there were 94 traffickers
who had been jailed. Yeah, I mean this is a story of heroism,
and I said: “OK, that’s my hook.” Like I keep saying, we’ve become so numb
in today’s time, especially to images, I’m talking about the power of images to change our thought processes
and sort of instil amazing ideas, but we become so numb
to images that I felt, instead of just giving you all statistics I would take you all down a road
which few people traveled. The ones who have seen “Lakshmi”,
it is an extremely hard film to watch. And I am going to address the women
more than the men. It is extremely disturbing. Like a lot of people have said,
there are many chunks of the movie where your have your eyes
averted from the screen. Again, the reason is simple. If I show you the journey
that one little girl took, I think I can do a lot more
than just throwing, you know, even at the beginning
of this trailer it’s said 44,000 children are abducted,
3 million sex workers, these are just numbers; all irrelevant. And that’s how the journey
of “Laskhmi” started. Now, with “Lakshmi”, my intention,
both as a producer and director, is absolutely clear. Irrespective of what happens
at the box office, I want this film to travel. So, what I have done
specifically for this film is, way before the release, we started showing the film
around college campuses. And it has been one
of the most gratifying things that I have done in my life, because the responses that we got, the kind of spread of awareness
through social media and the reason that I attacked
the colleges was very simple. You guys are literally the last stage before total cynicism sets in. You are still not jaded
to reject every good idea. At least you will consider the idea, and if, by chance,
you end up liking it, champion it. And that’s why I started taking it
to college campuses. In addition, we started talking to NGOs
to try and screen this. Initially, I was a little hesitant
because I felt that girls who have been through this
would not want to see their own horror depicted on the screen. So I was little hesitant. But the response that I’ve gotten
from a lot of the NGOs is that this will actually inspire
many more Lakshmis. So this needs to be shown.
So another burst of enthusiasm. And the key thing
with this whole process has been I have never found a more potent tool. I used to just constantly pass it off as “Oh, this is good entertainment,
this is good entertainment,” but never once realized that when you sit in the dark hall
and these images play out, what exactly goes on in your head is something that’s
never been truly analyzed, and I think that is something
worth looking and studying. I want to close with a wonderful
little anecdote that happened. Recently, we screened the film
in Palm Springs, and it was very interesting to see an international audience
react to the film. I had many
– and I am using the word carefully – distraught women approach me
and, you know, say, “Thank you for putting the spotlight
on a difficult topic,” and blah blah blah. But there was one woman who just stood next to me
and she couldn’t talk, and she just kept sobbing, but she kept saying
one thing over and over again. She kept saying,
“I need to do something.” “I need to do something.” And for me that was it. I was like,”I think
that’s what a good film can do.” Good is subjective, I’ll rephrase it:
that’s what I think a film can do. Which is inspire the need to do something. Thank you. (Applause )

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