Aruna Raje Patil passed out of FTII with a gold medal in 1969 becoming the first trained woman technician in the industry.
At the beginning of her career Aruna Raje worked jointly with her ex-husband Vikas Desai in the name of Aruna-Vikas. She co-edited acclaimed films like Giddh and Masoon. The duo later took to direction making films like Shaque, Gehrayee and Sitam. After separating from her husband she began independent film-direction, making hard-hitting feminist movies.
She has also made national award winning documentaries on the well-known classical dancer Mallika Sarabhai, Behind The Glass Wall and The New Paradigm
Vinta Nanda, Managing Director Asian Centre for Entertainment Education and Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Eye caught up with Aruna during the release of her book Freedom which encapsulates Aruna’s life as a filmmaker, a mother and an educator
1. Can you tell us a little about what your growing up in Pune was like and what made you divert to becoming a filmmaker from a career you were intending to pursue in medicine?
I was born in Pune but never really lived in Pune. Until I was 10 years old, we lived in Mumbai and then moved to Bangalore. I completed my high school education there and came back to Mumbai to do Inter Science in Sophia College after which I joined Grant Medical College.
Regarding pursuing a career in Medicine, it was just an alternative. Those days, more than 50 years ago, girls from good families did not go into films. I was crazy to get into movies but chose Medicine as the next best as I was good in studies and I thought Medicine was a noble profession. Though I was a first class student and a topper, I failed for the first time in an exam - in Anatomy in 1st M.B.B.S. I hated it and my mother, the amazing dynamic woman that she was took me out of the medical college and put me in FTII.
Of course, people were aghast and they said ' You are spoiling your daughter's brilliant career' to which she replied 'my daughter is not frivolous - I want her to be happy.’ I passed out with a gold medal and many awards followed after that and her stand was vindicated.
2. What was it like at FTII in those days?
There were hardly any girls - just 2 or 3 in the acting course and none at all on the technical side. It was fun too, with so many boys chasing you because of the skewed girl-boy ratio. It was quite a dream - full of creativity. I ended up being the first trained girl technician from the institute to join the film industry after passing out with a diploma in Editing.
Since I was interested in Direction, I would finish my editing practical and sit in the Direction class. Nobody objected - in fact I was most welcome so I could add to my learning and do what I wanted to do.
3. How do you look back at your early days in the film and television industries? Tell us a little about the films you have edited as well as those you made with Vikas Desai, your former husband, and those you made independently, the documentary films that you made and/or supported in the making?
Initially people did not listen to me or trust me - as it is, it was a male-dominated profession (it still is!) and men don't like to take orders from women. I had to work many times harder than Vikas and prove most of the time that I knew my job. Once they got that, they trusted me and were willing to do anything for me.
Initially I was an object of curiosity and wonder working in the studios. People would come, peep in just to see a girl editing or taking a shot! In my first press conference during the release of SHAQUE, my first film which I co-directed with Vikas, my ex-husband, a journalist actually asked me 'Do you expect us to believe that Vinod Khanna, the star, listened to a chit of a girl like you?' At that time I had shot back 'Ask Vinod Khanna!'
Apart from editing my/our own films I edited quite a few films some of which are Vamsha Vriksha directed by Girish Karnad & B.V. Karanth, Masoom directed by Shekhar Kapur, Giddh by T.S. Ranga and many others.
I directed 3 films as part of the Arunavikas duo, which was SHAQUE, GEHRAYEE & SITUM. On my own after the breakup I directed RIHAEE, PATITA PAVANA, PATITA PAVANI, BHAIRAVI, KEH DO NA & TUM.
For television I produced and directed a series on marriage and the various issues in it - real stories yet untold. It was called SHAADI YA . . .? Each week there was a new title and a new story - 20 mins of drama followed by 10 mins of discussion.I did a lot of ad films and documentaries too - 3 of which got me 5 National awards. They were Mallika Sarabhai, A new Paradigm and Behind the Glass Wall - the last two on the mentally challenged and the autistic.
4. You have been involved with the work of many NGO's as well as civic bodies. As a filmmaker, what was it that propelled you towards social work and how did that reflect in your work as a content creator?
My father was a freedom fighter - after independence he was a Minister in the old Bombay State and later in Karnataka. But when he saw that politics was beginning to get dirty he quit and went off to his village. He found a girl’s school and later a college for girls as well as a Rural Institute for farmers etc. just so that he could serve his countrymen. I inherited the desire to serve and make a difference to people from him and worked in NGOs and bodies like IDPA, IFDA etc. Two issues that were close to my heart were women’s issues and empowerment of women and documentaries. I also taught a good deal over the years. I was also involved in film education, helping to set up Whistling Woods. I also trained to lead transformational programs as a FORUM LEADER working for Landmark Education for some time. Now I do motivational workshops and operate as a Life Coach for people along with making films.
It was not surprising therefore that I liked to tell stories and make films that were issue based or were about the marginalized etc. Basically human stories about relationships and odds people face and their journeys.
5. Would you want to share some things about your personal life with us, about your marriage to Vikas Desai, and about your children as well?
I had a great marriage while it lasted. We had two children - a daughter and a son - two years apart. When my daughter was 8 years old she got cancer. We did everything under the sun to save her, even took her to Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York. At that time my husband got involved with my friend.
When my daughter died a year later, the very next morning he asked me for a divorce. I was shattered, devastated - said no initially but when the pressure mounted, I agreed. I set up home with my son after the divorce and started working again full throttle. It was the most difficult time in my life but I learnt to survive and later to live life fully.
6. Tell us a little about your continued commitment to and your relationship with feminism?
I have a huge commitment to women being empowered. I got that from both my parents. I believe in equality for both sexes and the freedom to be. In recent years I have added the LGBT community too, to the causes I support. Women for thousands of years have got a raw deal from men - and have been so conditioned that they haven't been seeking a life of self-esteem, respect and individuality. In the last so many years with all the work done all over the world, I have seen women being empowered - today they have found a voice and are demanding a right over their minds and bodies and a life of their choice.
There is still a long way to go as many are still stuck in their old world of patriarchy and male domination. I also see now that though a lot of work was done with women nobody addressed the men. It has become important to include men in the conversations for a healthy partnership and acceptance of the new woman who is unwilling to compromise thanks to education. What is needed today is a new equation between men and women based on mutual love, respect and space for individuality.
7. Why did you want to encapsulate your life in the book Freedom?
FREEDOM is about many things - growing up in a new independent India - finding my way through what was evolving as a country - carving out a space for myself without compromise - learning to live by my principle and values - standing for myself - being independent and self-reliant - reaching out to various groups of people and making a difference.
It is also about how films were made 50 years ago - interesting stories and anecdotes from my personal and professional life - sharing what became possible for a girl / woman who dared to take risks and not just learned to survive but live a life of fulfilment and happiness. People found my life inspiring so my intention was to leave them with anything is possible if you can be a source of your own life! I have always believed that if you have freedom, you can have anything!
8. What was the process of writing a book like, in comparison to writing scripts, editing and directing films?
The biggest difference was that this book was non-fiction - an autobiography. All that is in the book is the truth as I know it and as I see it. Truth is relative and there are many truths - the same thing may occur different to different people but I had to be true to myself and be authentic about it. There was no space for drama - all I knew was that it needed to be engaging and I was sharing in a way that I could take people along on my journey.
As against that in a script for a film, one is creating the characters and their journey and most of the time manipulating the audience where you want to take them. While editing and directing you are creating an audio-visual experience for the audience and in a book you have to rely only on your words and your articulation and the readers create that audio-visual experience in their minds on their own as they visualize what you have written.
9. Where are you going from here?
I am at a stage where I do what I love and love what I do. I am planning a couple of features - have written the scripts and waiting for the funding to come through; a novel is on its way and I am also designing the syllabus and curriculum for the Ramesh Sippy Academy for Cinema & Entertainment - the film school Ramesh Sippy is starting in collaboration with Mumbai University and Garware Institute.