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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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Indian mothers are always prepared

“My mom keeps the packed suitcases in the hallway one day before our flight date. She will carry multiple print-outs of the flight tickets because she doesn’t trust smartphone batteries. She also never forgets to carry a medical kit for all sorts of illnesses and allergies”, says Shruti, a 27-year-old professional. When asked if the medical kit was helpful during the trip, she answered “All the time”, in a tone that marvelled at her mother’s clairvoyance.

Some of the many things a mother packs in her travel bags. Source: Google Images
Some of the many things a mother packs in her travel bags. Source: Google Images

Indian mothers love to feel at home, and create the same experience for their family, wherever they are

“My mother has a very strange idea of the kind of food you get in foreign lands, so she always packs multiple packets of khakra and poha for our trips. She also has a habit of carrying her favourite teabags to last the entire trip”, relates Kanchan, a marketing professional who is a frequent international flier often accompanied by her mother. Kanchan’s mother, who is very choosy about her tea, was therefore delighted when she was served a hot cup of garam chai on her recent flight to Frankfurt. She is just like many Indian mothers who love to be reminded of home wherever they are and often strive to organise their hotel rooms to give them the coziness of a home.

Most importantly, Indian mothers are tough, especially when it comes to food

Take for instance, the case of Piyush, who recalls, “We went to this fine dining restaurant and my mother kept quizzing the waiter about the ingredients and the method of preparation of a dish. She believed that once she understood the technique, she would be able to make a better version of the dish just so she could pamper me!”

Indian mothers are extremely particular about food – from the way its cooked, to the way it smells and tastes. Foreign delicacies are only allowed to be consumed if they fulfil all the criteria set by Mom i.e. is it good enough for my children to consume?

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.