In the Holy City of Varanasi, sacred and sacrilegious exist hand-in-hand. The city — known for its numerous temples and the river Ganga — also shelters within its dark alleys a dark and dingy world of prostitution and sexual slavery. In fact, an area called Shivdaspur, located 10 km from the Varanasi Railway Station, is one of the biggest red light areas of Uttar Pradesh.
And documentary film Gudiya tells the story of these very places. With scenes of sadhus chanting mantras juxtaposed with the plight of women who fell prey to human trafficking, the 13-minute film takes viewers into the heart of the city, offering a glimpse of flesh trade and its human cost.
On a similar route but with a different context, Geeta, another short documentary on woman and womanhood, explores the journey of a stunt woman in a male-dominated industry. The 14-minute film, drawing from the real-life story of Geeta Tandon, traces her life, her battle with domestic abuse, and the time she was living on the streets.
There is an unmissable connect between both the documentaries — they are women-centric, they both talk of courage and resilience, and (this you might not know) they were created by writer and director Joyna Mukherjee.
When opportunity knocks at the door
Gudiya and Geeta are just glimpses into the talent powerhouse that is Joyna, a self-taught filmmaker who forayed into the industry with no formal training or connections.
“Though I loved watching cinema, I wasn’t always passionate about film making. I didn’t know what filmmaking was. I haven’t studied in a film school. I am a graduate who did multiple jobs and finally found her passion,” she says, “I have been a professional dancer, a front desk manager, a store manager, and a PR executive, and I was lost when I did those jobs.”
Joyna found her true calling while working with a leading Indian media brand. The role there opened up an opportunity for her to spearhead a campaign called ‘I believe’, giving her a taste of what it’s like to be on a film set. Later, Joyna would find herself diving headfirst into the world of creativity, juggling multiple functions as the marketing manager and part-time content creator at Culture Machine, a digital media company.
“I shadowed Akanksha Seda (the then Creative Director at Culture Machine) on her shoots to just see how she thought and executed,” says Joyna, recalling the days leading up to her foray into the content team.
“I was overworked and loving every bit of it. I was thrown into the sea of filmmaking and I swam. I took to direction like a fish takes to water and I have never looked back,” she adds.
When a woman gets behind the camera
Joyna started working as a writer and director for the channel called Blush around five years ago. And in this short span, she has not only made her presence felt with a slew of eye-catching content pieces and videos, bringing the oft-ignored female-point-of-view into the mainstream narrative, but has also rubbed shoulders with some of the most talented stars of our times.
“I worked with women like Taapsee Pannu on the importance of self-defence, and Neha Dhupia on a very stylish piece that spoke about taking a stand against frivolous listicles for women,” she shares, “With the cast of Lipstick Under My Burkha, I made a film around equality in sexual expression.”
The 30-year-old filmmaker has also worked for a legion of popular brands like Vogue, Shoppers Stop, TRESemme, Absolut Vodka, Lakme, Nykaa, Syska, and streax, creating TVCs that are markedly different with a distinct representation of the female voice.
For instance, the Shoppers Stop film “It’s Our Time” focusses on the age-old idea that women take longer to get ready. But instead of harping on the dated narrative, the commercial seamlessly blends in a modern approach by focussing on the fact that society has taken a longer time to accept women as equals and that the fight still continues. All this, without being preachy and in less than a minute.
Explaining what spawns this approach, Joyna says, “I understand and feel very strongly for women-centric content.”
Calling it her signature style, the dynamic filmmaker adds, “People come to me for my personal style of filmmaking, which often has a very bold and unapologetic layer to it.”
In filmmaking, like in any other creative field, it’s imperative to find one’s own distinct, personal voice. And Joyna, who counts Wong Kar Wai, Pedro Almodovar, Majid Majidi, Konkona Sen Sharma, Jane Campion, and Mira Nair among her inspirations, has sure developed a bold and unique style; a glimpse of which we might just see as she takes on her next project – a short women-centric film based on a girl called Mehroonisa.
“It’s a simple story based on certain human truths such as, love, hate, jealousy, and the strongest of them all, the need to feel wanted,” adds Joyna.
(Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta)