Priya Bhattacharji spoke to Tariq Vasudev on his award-winning film, Circus
India’s ability to make statements and raise issues can’t be unseen. Shrieking newsroom panels, aggressive demonstration marches, belligerent social media arguments, grandiose political speeches invariably draw attention to themselves and not necessarily to the concerned issues.
While it is yet to dawn on the country that airing concerns alone don’t heal problems, debutante director Tariq Vasudev skips the righteous task of making a statement or passing a judgment to throw a high-beaming light on issues that cripple the country. Embedded with subtle kicks-in-face, the film address a social malignancy that receive endless attention and talk yet continues to metastasise—Rape.
“From the time I conceptualised Circus, to this date, there are plethora of news reports about the violence women are facing all over India. I wrote it out of sheer anger against the way our society functions. Everyone is aware of this epidemic. We simply have not been able to find the answers as to why men behave so brutally towards women and why this problem has been growing year after year,” says Vasudev.
Through his film, he captures the various acts that keep the country distracted from its dangerous inequities and regressive power structures. The theatre actor-turned- filmmaker believes, “it’s high time we confronted reality head-on, without airbrushing it with the lightness of comedy and give a visual form to stories that remind people of the struggles we all face.” He explains this is as the reason for staying away from writing this film as a satire or a comedy and instead portray the grim reality of the situation as it exists today. Having acted in plays that have delved into issues of social concerns, he says he wants to now focus on work that “explores the societal and environmental impact of our actions as a society.”
This is the reason that instead of offering palliatives, the 26-min short film Circus takes charge of a simple responsibility—to put on display the farces, distractions, and frustrations that contribute to the malaise of rape. The film doesn’t move like a long-winding tome, but parades everyday events that occur in upper-middle urban Indian household to make us ponder on what’s oppression and what’s privilege. It follows two characters—a vocal, privileged, disenchanted young woman and a submissive, deprived young man and the inter-connectedness of their different worlds.
Rape in India has never been an unexplored theme for documentaries or films, what set Circus apart is the manner in which rape appears excruciatingly normal where patriarchy isn’t the lone perpetrator but class and socio economic problems play an equally important role in perpetuating the violence. “The film is essentially a scathing mirror to society that serves as a reminder of the dire circumstances we all live in. I created Circus because I have strong feelings regarding the state of social disarray in Indian cities today. I had to find a way to give a visual form to the glaring gender and class divisions that exist in present-day urban India. It is critical for us to look at some of the causes that create an atmosphere of violence against women.”
Vasudev stresses on the “wide disconnect between all of us at the moment, with nobody willing to take responsibility for anyone else. The wealthy elite of the nation tend to live in isolation from the rest of the country. So often, you will see beautiful houses but as soon as you exit the house there will be dirty roads and broken pavements. Then, those trying to rise out of the middle class face a huge competitive landscape in every industry, especially when nepotism prevents the most deserving candidates to get the job. Their struggle continues for years and they may still not have any growth at the end of it. ”
Circus is no easy watch and it is not intended to be. It isn’t visually creative but has an intriguing dryness. With its stripped-down aesthetic, lack of sharp cuts or jarring visuals, Vasudev creates a ‘see for yourself experience’, the frustrations and violence economic and psychological chasms trigger, “Psychologically dark films that showcase the brutal reality of life in India tend to be ignored because nobody wants to watch a serious film. Most Indian films that are appreciated internationally and locally are films that explore problems through the use of social satire. Everyone likes a film that sends out a message in an intelligent and satirical way, and Circus definitely stays away from that. It can be disturbing to watch and can make people uncomfortable,” notes Tariq.
The common accusation most Indian independent filmmakers face is the need to showcase India in a poor light to win international accolades.
“Most people judge it as Indian filmmakers pandering to the West. That is a completely flawed judgment. Bollywood movies constantly sell misogyny and escapism to audiences. In fact, those movies have a worse effect on the image of India and isolate us from opening up a healthy dialogue” refutes Vasudev. He clarifies the film isn’t made simply to travel international film circuits but does highlight the barriers indie films face in finding acceptance within the country, “there are countless examples where we have failed to tell our own stories. Even a film on our biggest national icon—Mahatma Gandhi—has been made by an outsider. I hope people in India can watch Circus with an open mind, although it is always very difficult to look at our own problems and recognise what is happening around us. I always hope that a film is not restricted to a certain type of audience. It should reach everyone, everywhere in the world. Unfortunately, the financial muscle needed to promote the reach of a small, independent film is humungous. Putting up a serious, hard-hitting film on a free platform like Youtube can be counterproductive because mindless content is so popular on Youtube. Honestly, there are no proper distribution channels for short films beyond the festival circuit.”
Vasudev seems particularly enthused with the idea of filmmaking that doesn’t rely on box-office receipts or a number of likes for its popularity, “a strong film can plant the seed of thought and pave the path to behavioural change. Budding Indian filmmakers need to take up the responsibility to make meaningful, independent films. Especially in a landscape that is dominated by absolutely meaningless and derogatory Bollywood movies.”
He deliberates on the spirit, essence, and potential of indie filmmaking
“I had to save the money for two years to put together a very basic shoot. There was no proper film crew – just a few of us that got together and put our sweat into it. Sheer willpower helped us make this film. And, at the end of the day, anyone from any strata of society that wants to tell a story should just pick up a camera and do it. Or just shoot a film on a phone camera if they are unable to put together the money. As long as the story pushes the boundaries and explores the harsh realities of our lives – it doesn’t matter who you are, where you are and how much money you have – that story needs to be told”
Circus is an honest exercise of “privilege check” that will hopefully make the average woke viewer quieten slogans and do the uncomfortable – examine their own homes and lifestyles. As Vasudev sums up, “Any change starts by being aware and reflecting on our own actions first. A film might not provide any immediate solutions but it can make people think, introspect and talk to each other about why certain issues exist”