Documentary channel

Kali for Women gets its own history in the documentary ‘The Books We Made’

Anupama Chandra and Uma Tanuku trace the history of the feminist publishing house that was set up by Ritu Menon and Urvashi Butalia.

Feminist movements are bold, multi-hued manifestations of activism and are extremely tricky to define. Regardless how these campaigns are described, strands of their origins can be traced back to feisty feminist publications. The Books We Made, by Anupama Chandra and Uma Tanuku, documents the work of Kali for Women, one of the feminist publishing houses in India, founded by Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon.

The Public Service Broadcasting Trust production traces the history of Kali for Women, from its inception in 1984 to its eventual dissolution in 2003 into two separate publishing houses, Butalia’s Zubaan and Menon’s Women Unlimited. The film, which is part of the annual Open Frame festival, outlines the evolution and growth of the women associated with the publishing house – founders and authors alike. The Books We Made brings together stories of women from different backgrounds, touched by a beautiful range of experiences, who contributed to the success of Kali for Women.

Chandra and Tanuku allow authors and translators to narrate their stories with as little or as much emotion as they please and therefore wind up with nostalgic accounts that are as vivid and varied as the movement itself. This sense of wistful looking back is pervasive, reinforced by black and white photographs and footage, and contemplative female voices.

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‘The Books We Made’.

Books occupy centrestage in the narrative, swallowing up the screen in their many incarnations. They appear laid about in a cluttered room with erudite carelessness, neatly arranged on shelves in book fairs, lovingly paged through by women who wrote them and with their pages magnified so each word can be easily read.

There’s something deliciously rebellious about reading the pages of books on a screen that is not traditionally meant for them. This rule-bending works well for the documentary because it emphasises the subversive roots of Kali for Women, which was formed during the women’s rights movements of the 1980s, and bolsters the idea that the publishing house rode on the waves of important campaigns and created waves of its own. Founders speak about the powerful books they published, such as Shareer Ki Jaankari, a frank account of female bodily processes written by a community of 75 village women, and the iconic anthology Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History, edited by Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid.

The 75 authors of ‘Shareer Ki Jaankari’.
The 75 authors of ‘Shareer Ki Jaankari’.

The documentary gets too preoccupied with nostalgia, and meanders before it hits its stride. But its biggest achievement is arguably its unadorned and matter-of-fact treatment of authorship coupled with the premise that important stories can be told sensitively through all-female voices. Experiences with feminist authors like Nivedita Menon, Qurratulian Haider, Shaheen Akhtar and Baby Halder are narrated with equal gravity and nuance.

This egalitarianism reflects in the visuals, which feature women engaged in a host of different activities, ranging from washing cookers to proofreading copy. Women also appear in different milieus – homes, kitchens, workspaces and conferences.

The film largely eschews music in favor of female voices raised in rhythmic slogans and the hum of printing presses till the last few minutes. The final moments illustrate the deceptive simplicity of Kali for Women’s enormous achievements and the sense of solidarity it espouses in countless women.

Butalia and Menon became Padma Shri awardees in 2011 for their achievements, but their struggles and experiences never ceased to be relatable. In the film, Butalia remarks that several people viewed Kali for Women with a sense of possessiveness that gratified and humbled its founders. Chanda and Tanuku gently but consistently elucidate this sense of collective effort and ownership associated with the books Kali made.

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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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For more information on special offers on flights to London and other destinations in the UK, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.