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DIFF 2021: Devashish Makhija on his award-winning short, ‘Cheepatakadumpa’

The director on the dark comedy that explores women’s sexuality and is firing up the festival circuit, and his other film, ‘Cycle’

Devashish Makhija’s short films Cheepatakadumpa (Hindi) and Cycle (multilingual) can’t be more different. The former, which was screened recently at the Dharamshala International Film Fest (DIFF), is about three girls in a small town speaking about physical desire using a tomato as a demonstration tool — and one of them discovering what her body is capable of.

Cycle, which premieres at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala (IDSFFK, on from December 4-9), is about systemic violence by the State against people of the forest, and the ripple effect such violence has.

If Cheepatakadumpa, which won the Gender Sensitivity Award at DIFF, leaves you chuckling at the irreverent conclusion, Cycle forces you to acknowledge tribal people’s right to determine their lives. In both films, the gaze is intimate and immediate, not voyeuristic.

“After Ajji [his 2017 drama] — about a grandmother extracting revenge for her granddaughter’s rape — released, quite a few women pointed out the issues they had with the film [male gaze and voyuerism] and they made me introspect even more deeply. I could not sleep for many months after that, wondering why I had never thought of the film that way. Ajji prepared me for Cycle. I checked my gaze 10 times to ensure that while you’ll be horrified, you will never feel the slightest voyeuristic excitement,” says Makhija, who, after his father’s passing, dipped into the funds he had put aside for the treatment to complete Cycle.

A still from ‘Cycle’ Special Arrangement

Too close for comfort

In Cycle — also a part of the official competition at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala from December 4-9 — the camera zooms in, focussing on the pain of the young tribal girl, and the perpetrators are mostly voices in the background. The effect is chilling. “I came up with the idea to shoot this way, inspired by the group called Video Volunteers. They trained people to use any available device to record what was happening around them. I first used it in my short film, Agli Baar, in 2015, and took it a little further in Cycle. I structured the film as being shot by someone very close to the scene of action,” he says.

Makhija wanted to make Cycle six years ago, but waited because, thanks to the subject of the film, no one was really willing to back it. “Funding posed a problem as the subject put people off, and I was not willing to hold back on what I wanted to say. When my father passed, I had the money I’d set aside for his treatment. I felt he empowered me to make the film. It was shot near Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh, and most of the cast were people who had never faced a camera before.”

A still from ‘Cheepatakadumpa’

While lead actor Bhumisuta Das is a National School of Drama (NSD) alumna, Bhumika Dube, the documentary filmmaker in Cycle, also the co-producer and casting director, got her group of theatre actors to step in. “I actually shot Cycle like a theatre production,” he says of the closing film at the Hummingbird Film Festival in Kolkata (on until November 21).

Actors as source

As for Cheepatakadumka, it was named after a phrase Makhija’s father often used. It refers to a game like hide-and-seek or tag, and evokes a feeling of lightness of being — ideal for a film that set out to speak about ‘that which must not be spoken, women’s sexuality’. “I decided to go to the opposite end of the spectrum and tried not to be pedantic or preachy. The film was born of conversations with Dube [Teja in the film] and Ipshita Chakraborty Singh, from NSD, and hailing from small-town cities. Gender was one of the things we spoke about, and I asked them to throw all their experiences at me and see if we could structure a story. It was a very organic process, drawn from their lives,” says Makhija.

A still from ‘Cheepatakadumpa’

The director listened to the women and that is evident in the film that celebrates the female gaze. There’s a certain lightness, humour, and sisterhood, untainted by the intrusion of anyone else. And the climax leaves you laughing. After a girl’s (Annapoorna Soni) stress knots are released by an elderly woman at a hamam (Bishna Chauhan), the first thing she says is that she’s hungry. The scene cuts to them eating poha and jalebi, a popular snack in Bhopal. “As a man, I could have never come up with that,” he concludes.

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