At just 25, her documentary short has been nominated for an Oscar. Iranian-American filmmaker Rayka Zehtabchi’s ‘Period. End of Sentence’ is about women and menstruation in a village in Hapur district, on the edges of the National Capital Region, before and after a local activist sets up an outfit to make and distribute low-cost sanitary napkins.
“The back story of how I got involved in this project is fascinating,” says Zehtabchi. “This movement was initiated by a group of 12- to 14-year-old school girls of Oakwood High School in Los Angeles, with their high school English teacher, Melissa Berton, after they learned that women all over the world, especially in India, struggle without access to sanitary pads,” Zehtabchi says.
Social entrepreneur Arunachalam ‘Pad Man’ Muruganantham had found a solution, and the story of one village’s transformation has made Zehtabchi the only woman nominated in her category at the 91st Academy Awards.
Back in LA, the school students set out on a fundraising mission, holding vegan bake sales and yoga-thons to collect $3,000 (over Rs 2 lakh) to help Muruganantham in his mission.
“With support from Action India, a Delhi-based non-profit, they were able to collaborate and install a pad machine in Kathikhera, a village in the Hapur district of Uttar Pradesh,” Zehtabchi says.
The students then decided to try and raise another batch of funds—this time, for a documentary that would help bust the taboos surrounding menstruation. Two Kickstarter campaigns and raised $40,000 (over Rs 28 lakh) and they ‘hired’ Zehtabchi as a director. Her first film, Madaran (2016) — about an Iranian mother who pardon’s her son’s killer — had been very well-received, winning awards at numerous festivals.‘Period. End of Sentence’ took about two years to make, and saw Zehtabchi visit India twice with a minimal crew and handheld equipment. When she first visited in 2016, she says she was “very surprised” at how little women and men knew about menstruation.
“There seemed to be a lot of misinformation and shame associated with it. “It’s an illness”. “It’s dirty blood”. “We’re impure”. These were some of the most common responses we’d get from our subjects when they were asked to describe their periods. The machine had just been installed in Kathikhera then.”
When the team returned to India six months later, they were surprised to see how much of a change the machine had wrought. “The women were no longer ashamed. They made pads and proudly shared them with other women. They were earning their own wages and running their own business. They even invited some men to make pads,” Zehtabchi says.
“We wanted the interviews to be as comfortable and organic as possible, so if a crowd gathered, any level of intimacy was immediately compromised. There were times when we had to get clever by creating a distraction, hiding the camera gear, or entering a village with our faces covered,” Zehtabchi says.
Their producers, Guneet Monga and Mandakini Kakar, pulled a lot of strings to make this possible.
“It was my first time in India, so everything was completely new to me. We mostly filmed in the villages. The beauty of the landscape and the hospitality of our subjects made it such a memorable experience.”
We have to talk about menstruation if we want to normalise it, Zehtabchi says. “We hope our film leaves a lasting effect on our audience, compelling them to take action.”
An Oscar nomination and a possible win would allow the fierce women driving this project on the ground to be heard globally, Zehtabchi adds. “There is no bigger, more universally recognized platform for films than the Oscars.”
Monga, whose company Sikhya Entertainment co-produced the film, says she would love to take some of the women who featured in it to glitzy awards ceremony. “I would need government help with that.”
Either way, she adds, the film will take forward in India the conversation begun by R Balki’s 2018 movie, Pad-Man (where Akshay Kumar played Muruganantham).
“It’s all about breaking the taboo,” Monga says. “As our film is short, easy to distribute and easy to watch, we hope to break more taboos.”
BY Madhusree Ghosh FOR Hindustan Times