To coincide with International Day of the Girl, director Souvid Datta released a haunting film portraying the harsh reality of child marriages in South Asia
Despite countless charities across the globe campaigning for the end of child marriages it's no secret that, unfortunately, many still take place today. And so, to coincide with International Day of the Girl on October 11th, 2020, director Souvid Datta decided to take his lessons from travelling around West Bengal to release a film relating to the stories and oppression many young girls in South Asia face.
The end result is Moonlight Dreams, a 19-minute film following two sisters, 14-year old Tara and pregnant 17-year old Krishna, as they prepare for Tara’s impending wedding. What makes this film even the more prominent is that Souvid used real women’s experiences and worked with NGOs and field workers to create the clip. Despite having a small budget and working with pro-bono post-houses to produce the film, the story of what these women have gone through is in no way diminished.
Here, Souvid tells LBB’s Natasha Patel about creating the film, what happens when women are stripped of their rights and what inspired the title of Moonlight Dreams.
LBB> This film was released to coincide with International Day of the Girl, but what first inspired the story?
Souvid> I spent several years working in rural West Bengal in and around families where child marriage had become a gateway towards cyclical oppression, intergenerational poverty, trafficking and so many other issues. Within this web, I also met some of the most inspiring, enterprising and resilient women of my life.
Moonlight Dreams was made in collaboration with many of them and draws from their real life stories and experiences, which are so often silenced, misrepresented or ignored. My hope for the film was to be a drop in the ocean to raise awareness and debate around women and children's rights in India, and especially across West Bengal.
LBB> What was the writing process like? How did you gather your thoughts into a script?
Souvid> Actually, the idea formed during a drive back towards Kolkata following a documentary shoot in a village where a lot of these issues were alive. I wrote a first draft that very evening in an all-nighter, and then spent the next week rewriting and rewriting in conversation with NGOs, field workers and some of the women whose stories I was inspired by. Coming from a documentary background, the blank page was intimidating at first, but I realised how it allowed me to accentuate all the elements of intimacy, empathy and character which I was drawn to finding organically in real life situations.
This was my first purely narrative project so a lot was done through instinct as opposed to understanding or skill (!) but my aim was to keep things authentic, and in many ways this approach helped.
LBB> How much did you draw upon your experience and time in West Bengal in the final film?
Souvid> A lot. My family is originally from Kolkata, and I've spent a few months there every year since I was a child. But it was only my 20s that I started venturing out more and discovering the state of West Bengal for myself. My background is in photography and reporting, and this exposed me to a lot of stories in the region - investigating issues from climate change to art-house film, organised criminal networks to folk music culture. And one of the themes that ran through this all, especially in rural areas, was female inequality and the structural and social restrictions placed on women's lives.
After finishing school in the UK, I used to return to Kolkata to volunteer in a few NGOs quite regularly, and I found myself meeting so many people my age or younger who'd been affected by issues of child marriage. I suppose this was an issue I was drawn to quite simply because of the disparity in youth lifestyles it highlighted across the world. Some had been forced into marriage, others had fled abusive in-laws, some had fallen into trafficking webs. But what was clear is that these stories were not being told in the media enough, let alone from a youth perspective, or in a nuanced way. Several years later, when opportunity allowed, it was these thoughts and experiences that formed that basis for making Moonlight Dreams.
LBB> Tell us more about Tara's sister's character in the film, she wants to do a lot but seems helpless. How did you want to portray her?
Souvid> Tara's elder, pregnant and teen sister - Krishna - is actually inspired very closely from a real life character. We've known each other for several years and she's a woman I deeply respect for her kindness, fearless nature and willingness to take risks. But she would be the first to highlight that despite bending or even breaking expectations placed on her by society as a woman, she's still trapped by deeper societal barriers. It was this dichotomy that motivated me.
The character of Krishna is an equally assertive and outspoken personality - feared by other youths in the area as a trouble maker, admired by her sisters as a rule breaker. Yet, she too is stripped of basic choices when it comes to marriage; and when faced with the betrothal of her beloved sibling, made to feel helpless like so many other women. I was keen to challenge the stereotype of the demure, often white-washed heroines celebrated in much of Bollywood, and represent so many of women I met across rural West Bengal who were fiercely independent, defiant, autonomous and brave.
I wanted audiences to root for Krishna, as an unstoppable force she is - but equally be stumped by the seemingly immovable reality she has to face.
LBB> In one scene Tara jokes about Krishna’s unborn daughter becoming a footballer. Is there a deeper message here about gender equality in other senses too?
Souvid> The film is called Moonlight Dreams partly because of conversations I had with women in the Sunderban area during visits where the full moon happened to be out. Somehow on those nights the magical, riverine landscape lights up under a star-speckled sky, and as we hopped between villages for chores every evening, skimming across the black waters in long-boats through thick fog - nostalgic conversations started to opened up amongst the women I accompanied - visions of what could have been and what they would like to do differently for their daughters.
The conversations were entirely different in tone and expression to when local men were around, and it felt like an incredibly special dialogue to be part of. Across urban centres in India, women's rights are being both contested and championed in the public more than ever before - from the epidemic of sexual assault cases under spotlight to the large-scale protests calling for more social justice and equality. In some ways, it really feels like we're at a tipping point in India, and this little conversation out in the Sunderban backwaters felt like an equal push in that direction. It spoke of inevitable change to come, of women organising and spearheading a route towards equality, while nonetheless, it highlighted how far we have to go to reach this. Dotted through the film, and particularly with the ending, there are moments where the girls' dreams shine through more brightly - but these are always placed within a wider context of uncertainty and risk, to reflect life for women in India as it is today.
LBB> This film follows the lives of Tara, her sister and mother, but why did you make sure that no males were given large parts in the film?
Souvid> At the heart of this film is the injustice that so many women and children's lives have been determined, restrained and abused by a system of patriarchy. Child marriage is a symptom of this and - though it can take place for many reasons, on socio-economic, religious, or political grounds - it fundamentally prioritises male power at the cost of women's. My hope was to subvert this dynamic and ensure that the film empathised with and elevated female perspectives. By bringing audiences close to these girls then, hopefully they could relate to them, feel for them and even be inspired by their decisions.
Child marriage has often been presented in such a sensationalised way, with women's experiences belittled or misrepresented, so it was crucial for me to take a different approach - one based on field research and one which placed nuanced female perspectives first.
LBB> There are scenes when the sisters are looking at Priyanka Chopra’s wedding pictures and dancing to modern Bollywood songs, and by setting Moonlight Dreams in the present makes the fact that they’re forced into marriage so young even more heartbreaking. Tell us more about why you chose to do this.
Souvid> While I was keen for the film to celebrate the timeless and haunting nature of the Sunderbans, I also wanted it to feel distinctly modern and set in the present day - so as to emphasize child marriage as an ongoing, real problem.
Moments like the reference to Priyanka's wedding and dancing came naturally through work-shopping scenes and running improv exercises with the actors. I wanted people to feel like these characters could be someone they knew, referencing things we're all familiar with and singing the same songs. This approach was definitely helped by almost everyone in the crew bringing their own experiences and stories to the table.
LBB> When the girls’ father appears it's a very frightening scene. He obviously has no care for his children but tell us why you chose to not to even give him a face?
Souvid> The story is very much about the sisters' perspectives and experiences, so it was more important for me to show how their relationship with their father made them feel, rather than giving the father too much shape. I also felt determined to stay away from showing any actual violence on screen, especially when wanting the film to remain accessible to younger audiences. Ultimately, the father became a symbol for really prevalent issues of patriarchy, alcoholism and female abuse in rural West Bengal. It was a limited portrayal, and by no means representative of all men in India, but one that I felt left enough space for the female characters to breathe more in this short.
LBB> What did you want to make viewers feel in the last scene of the film?
Souvid> The last scene was left deliberately ambiguous in many ways, and I'd like for the audience to make up their own mind on the fate of the sisters. Did all three of them leave? Was it just the elder two? Will they be safe? How will they survive on their own? Are they going back to Krishna's in-laws? Or are they all escaping for good? It relates back to the conversations I mentioned earlier. Where as uncertain as things feel right now, we should all know change is happening and inevitable now. The ship's set sail, so to speak. How easy that journey is now, is up to us to decide.
For those interested in statistics on child marriage rates in the Indian state of West Bengal, see here. And for those looking for a way to help: here are a few organisations doing great work: GGBK, Sanlaap.