Director Shilpi Dasgupta and producer Mrigdeep Singh Lamba tell Chahak Mittal that Khandaani Shafakhana is an attempt to shatter the rigid stereotypes and taboos associated with sex problems in India
Sex. It is a word that many of us in India prefer to tip toe around. We won’t speak it out unless it is in a whisper due to fear of inviting censure from everyone around. ‘Are you not in your senses to be saying out the word so loudly in public?’ ‘How can you even say it in front of strangers?’ And similar questions abound if you dare to mention the ‘S’ word. The mere hint of the term is embarassing for most people. And this, despite having the largest adolescent population, which supposedly does not have any qualms about expressing themselves freely. Actress Sonakshi Sinha hits the nail on the head with an epic dialogue in the trailer of her forthcoming film Khandaani Shafakhana, when she says, “Poori duniya me 500 crore ki abaadi vaale hum hain aur baat toh aise karte hain jaise aadhe log prasad ke kele khaa ke prakat huye hain!” (We are the only country with a population of 500 crore people in this world and we shy away from sex as if half of us were born as a result of eating an offering of bananas from god!) Indeed, the question comes to fore — why do we hesitate in talking about sex so openly despite having the fastest growing population?
The film essays the life journey of a quick-witted small-town medical representative, Baby Bedi (played by Sonakshi), who has been willed the clinic of her late estranged uncle. She is forced to choose to run it over her monotonous work life and modest bills. As she takes up the extraordinary job of running a local sex clinic or a shafakhana, she breaks multiple stereotypes, taboos and ultimately opens minds along the way. Her brother (played by Varun Sharma) whose opinions are driven by stereotypes opposes her as well.
The film’s director Shilpi Dasgupta and producer Mrigdeep Singh Lamba tell us that they felt it was an important subject to be showcased. And hence, the tagline of the film goes, Baat Toh Karo. “Just like regular subjects, sex education and understanding of mental health are two very important issues that need to be a part of primary studies in India. And this thought inspired the film as well. The tagline implies that talking is actually the solution. After a small argument with a friend, if we stop talking to them, it creates misunderstandings in the long run. Discussing mends things. Similarly, with this issue, if we don’t talk, a thousand thoughts, views and emotions will emerge and none of them will make sense after a point,” says Fukrey director Mrigdeep.
For Shilpi, it was very organic. “It just made sense at the very first hearing of the script and I was instantly drawn towards working on it,” says she.
It was about three years ago when Mrigdeep’s writer friend Gautam (Mehra) wrote the script and came up with the idea. “Gautam, Shilpi, Bhushan (Kumar, co-producer), Divya (Khosla Kumar, co-producer) and I have been friends for a long time. The script didn’t come to me. We usually keep passing each other ideas and stories and bouncing scripts to each other. When I write a story, I pass it ahead and similarly, Gautam bounced off this idea. And right from the beginning, we agreed to work on it,” he says.
So why did Shilpi choose a woman protagonist for the film? “In small towns, it instantly becomes a hot topic when a girl does something extraordinary like running an ancestral sex clinic. People around the entire town will judge her and talk about her in a not-so-positive way. They will even try to dig out certain past incidents, blow them up and build up gossip around her. It is a reflection upon the society rather than the girl.”
Indeed, there is a huge disparity between the urban elite class in metro cities and the middle class and small town people in India when it comes to talking about sexual problems outside their personal domains. The elite, after certain qualms, might consider consulting a sexologist but for the small town people, it would lead people to cast aspersions, especially when they see a girl in the business. They would find it difficult to consult a doctor about these issues and rather, dictate guidelines to the girl by questioning her, “Tu ladki hokar yeh karegi? (You will do this despite being a girl?)” Says Shilpi, “Fundamentally, we are a shy lot,” and points towards the vast middle class that India has. “And much of the interesting stories originate from a class that is always pressured by a lot of their values, pre-conditioning and internal conflicts. This subject doesn’t include the lower and the higher strata as they don’t really have such problems. It is the middle class which is affected by such issues.”
This is one of the reasons why filmmakers are picking up small town backgrounds to provide a realistic base to their plots and stories. This, in turn, makes the films and the subjects seem very real and relatable. Recent examples being, Luka Chuppi, Badhaai Ho, Stree and the forthcoming Jabariya Jodi. All the films initiate a dialogue on social issues in small towns and among middle class people. “When a story comes from there, I think, it affects a lot of people already and they associate closely with it as it comes from their very surroundings. This story too came very organically from a world, which already has a mindset and then focusses on what happens when a girl from that setup decides to do something extraordinary and path-breaking,” adds Shilpi.
She believes that there is another reason that such great stories are coming out from small towns. It is because they have a very “settled” kind of a setup, where most people own some khandaani or ancestral property, and have permanent homes and business. “Their social mindsets are rigid. They are disturbed if someone tries to change or shift them. Whereas in cities, people adjust and adapt to new lifestyles because their financial and living priorities are different. They adjust quickly to the changing times to survive. So they get less time to conduct a panchayat for such petty things. Na hi time hai unke paas aur na hi dimag inn sab cheezon ke liye (They neither have the time nor the mind to discuss these things). But in small towns, people have a lot of time to discuss these things on a regular basis.”
Mrigdeep feels that yet another reason is that big cities like Mumbai and Delhi have people from diverse backgrounds who have a lot of different problems to cope with. “But in small towns, most people know each other. It is like a big family. Also, when you cast a pebble in these still waters, there is bound to be disturbance. Some Sharma ji ki beti yeh kar rahi hai would be of a great interest for a person. But in Delhi, nobody cares about who is doing what. They are all struck and struggling in their fast-paced lives. In metros, you don’t even mind sending your daughters for further education or even work as nobody questions it,” says he.
The film combines comic elements with a bold topic like sexuality and problems related to it. However, it is not a new genre. Films like Vicky Donor, Shubh Mangal Savdhaan and Badhaai Ho have also touched upon similar topics while keeping the comedy element intact. Why though? Why cannot they just directly say it aloud? Shilpi believes that there is a difference between preaching and imposing as opposed to making it relatable through humour. “More than comic, the film’s story has a humourous touch to it and it is being dwelled on light-heartedly. Humour instantly strikes a chord. Agar ekdum seedha bologe, toh unhe lagega aap unhe sikha rahe ho. When you present your point of view through comedy and humour, there would be two scenarios, either the audience understands it better or it remains confined to entertainment. It’s like hitting two eyes with one arrow.”
Talking about why sex education is the need of the hour, Shilpi points out that because we have been a shy country, we have never looked beyond our comfortable spaces. “Even while crossing a road, we usually don’t smile at people. Even as children we are told not to engage with strangers. So we never even say a ‘Hi’ to an outsider. But abroad and in Western countries, most strangers pass a smile when they cross paths. They have a friendly nature. I feel that an open society is very important to create a healthy environment and lifestyle. Even today, teenagers might not be fully aware of the changes happening in their bodies with time,” she says as she walks towards creating another path-breaking piece of cinema in a bid to change the rigid society.
Friday, 02 August 2019 | Chahak Mittal | in Vivacity