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.
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 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.