Thought Box

Well-behaved women rarely make history

Well-behaved women rarely make history

by Vinta Nanda February 9 2019, 12:51 am Estimated Reading Time: 20 mins, 27 secs

Mona Ambegaonkar is an Indian film and television actress. She has featured in over 15 plays, 18 feature films, 38 TV projects and 37 advertising campaigns. She also played a small role in the film Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa and the medical drama Dhadkan (TV series) as Dr. Chitra.

Mona Ambegaonkar plays the lead in the 2018 Hindi feature film Evening Shadows directed by Sridhar Rangayan and produced by Solaris Pictures. She plays the role of Vasudha, a South Indian woman who is confronted by the truth of her son Kartik (Devansh Doshi) being gay. Being from a traditional society and bound within a patriarchal family, she finds it very difficult to accept her son's sexuality. She also is scared that her strict husband Damodar (played by eminent actor Ananth Narayan Mahadevan) will find out about the truth. She won the award for Best Performance in a Supporting Role at Out at the Movies, Winston-Salem for her role in the film Evening Shadows.

I have known Mona since the time, when she was about eighteen years old and she would hang around in the wings during our rehearsals and performances of the play Jasma Odhan, which was directed by the Don of Hindi Theatre in Mumbai, Nadira Zaheer Babbar. We were all a part of Baaji’s (as we would lovingly call Nadiraji) theatre group Ekjute and I too during the time was at the very beginning of my career, soaking in the mysteries and intrigues of a world in which people’s creations, actions and responses are spontaneous because they reciprocate by each second to the impetus’ that events taking place around them administer to their consciousness.

What used to strike me about Mona then, when we were engaged with ontogeny in the mid 1980’s, was her curiosity and what strikes me now about her in 2019 is the same. Her hunger for knowledge and her desperate desire to plunge into the unknown and discover what is lying hidden there is savage, so much so that she’s among the very few women I know, who actually walks her talk fearlessly.

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples”, said Mother Teresa once and the words hold true for a woman like Mona Ambegaonkar as well.

Here in this conversation with me, Mona traces her journey of over 30 years from where she started as a creative person, what her pursuits led her towards and the place in life that she is at now.

Q: How are you feeling after the release of Evening Shadows?

A: As if the journey has grown in scope and length. As if it will never end. And it won’t. Not for me. To get the leading part in a feature film at my age and then for the film to travel the world, taking me with it, literally, is a dream few women working in the Indian Film Industry can hope to see; fewer still can actually live that dream. I am one of the lucky few. As far as I am concerned, I will be promoting the film and travelling with it to present it to new audiences, for as long as I am called to do so.

I am not given to simple expressions of feelings like saying ‘I feel fantastic’ or ‘I feel like I am on cloud 9’ or ‘I am grateful’ etc. What I am feeling is far more complex. Certainly, one is elated and nervous, but Evening Shadows is not just a fictional narrative, it’s actually the real lives of many people, on celluloid and it is also a catalyst that has changed many of those lives, by touching them. I am still coming to terms with the responsibility of being a symbol of hope, which so many people had given up on, before they saw the film.

Q: Tell us about the journey you've taken with the film, before and during its making as well as after its release? 

A: The script of the film was written about 8 years ago. It was shot in 2017 and the final print, after the censor certificate, came out in early 2018. The film had its International Festival Premier at the Mardi Gras Film Festival in Sydney in February 2018 and its Indian Festival Premier at the Bengaluru International Film Festival, immediately after. Then on the 11th Jan 2019, it had a limited commercial release using the Vkaao Screening Platform provided by PVR Cinemas in five cities around India, including, Mumbai.

From the moment it was written, the role of Vasudha in ‘Evening Shadows’ was mine. But it has taken all these years for us to find the funding to make the film. For a while I had come to believe that the film might never be made. Then during one of our, fairly regular chats, over the phone, at the start of 2017, I told Sridhar, my producer/director, that if we don’t make this film soon, I will have to play the grandmother because I will be too old to play the mother.

I think this galvanized all of us and one day Sridhar turned up at my home with his photographer friend and we took some pictures at my window and around the house and on the beach and we put them up online and crowd funded the film. I am just gob-smacked, even now, thinking about the 182 people, from around the world, who trusted us and have given us money, on the basis of a few photographs and a synopsis of the story of the film.

When we went on the floor, Devansh, who plays the main protagonist in the film, fell ill with jaundice and there was panic that the shoot may have to be postponed or worse that we may have to re-cast the part. But, things pulled themselves together and we rolled. The outdoor portions were shot in Mysore and Talakad and on the river Kaveri.

That was spectacular, shooting on the Kaveri!

Being in the middle of the river, in that dingy boat, with the crew shouting orders from the shore, camera hovering and flying over us on a drone, in the middle of the crucial turning point of the film, hanging on to my emotional turmoil while watching a man pee a perfect arch into the river, on the opposite shore!

That is the stuff cinema is made of.

Personally, the challenge that playing Vasudha presented to me, was finding those soft, dependent, subservient parts of me that now reside in the far corners of my psyche, having played very strong, up-front characters, on screen and stage, for a long time.

Even in my personal life, my hard shell is always on display for public viewing. Very few people are permitted inside my shell. So that was an ongoing battle on the set.

After its release, I thought that work would flood in. Nothing of the sort has happened. I thought I would feel like a ‘star’, but that’s not happened either; I still feel like myself (wicked smile).

The one memory of the World Premier of the Film in Sydney, that will remain with me forever, is grown men, big Australian men, bending and lying down to touch my feet after the screening and the Q&A, because that is how they believed we say thank you and show respect, here in India. Even now when I think of that moment of pure love that I received, from total strangers, I feel a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.

This is the sort of impact that the film continues to have on audiences even today. After the screening in Yangon, Myanmar, the stories that people entrusted me with and the counseling that they reached out for, make me realize that as long as the film lives on, so does my responsibility towards it and the hopes that it kindles, as well as the wounds that it asks me to sooth.

I thank the Universe for the opportunity and also ask it for the courage and the moral compass to fulfill this responsibility.  

Q: Where did it all start for you as a creative force in the industry of entertainment?

A: Oh gosh! That was so far back I have to time travel to retrieve the memories and the facts!! Let me see, I had finished giving my 12th Standard exams and was waiting for the results. They used to take about a couple of months to give them out, those days. And someone offered to take me to see a shooting, something that hadn’t even occurred to me, ever.

So I walk onto the set of the first ever sit-com on Indian TV (Doordarshan) titled ‘Mr ya Mrs’ and smack-bang into the DOP (Mr. Ishan Arya), a tall man with a hip flask in his hand, who looks down on me with slightly unfocussed, gentle and puzzled eyes. I tell him I have come to see the shooting and can I meet the director? He steps aside courteously, mumbles that he needs the passage clear to lay down the trolley, replies to a query shouted down from the ‘taraafaa’ (scaffolding) and instructs me to walk on and turn right to where the bright lights are shining.

I remember this, including the aromas and the dust, with such searing clarity because I knew that I had reached home, that this is where I belonged and that no one was going to make me leave.

I walked to the lights and turned to face a set made up to look like a living room. At the far corner, sitting with his arms spread out on the back of the ‘L’ shaped sofa, leg crossed over his thigh, was a pink, plump man. I looked at him and smiled. He beamed back as if he was happy to see me. He gestured and I approached him and asked for a job. He was amused and wanted to know what sort of job and if I had any idea who he was. I told him he must be important because he seemed to be the only one sitting around doing nothing while everyone else was scurrying around, He laughed and I knew I was right. He introduced himself, “Jalal Agha”, he said (“aha! Sholay!” The Eureka moment happened) and told me I could be his assistant, which was just a euphemism for slave.

I was the 8th assistant director on the set when I began, but within a month I was the First Assistant, mainly because his other assistants were all male, lazy or from privileged filmy back grounds and I was not. I took on responsibility, came to work early, took charge, made mistakes, got told off, learnt and generally slogged my arse off because I just loved it and couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

Jalal put me through the paces and gave me no quarter; he made me do shot-divisions, look through the lens of the camera, set up shots, rehearse with actors and get tea. I had no privileges based on gender except for access to a clean toilet.

And when our editor vanished one day, I was bumped up to replace him and learnt how to put together episodes on the U-matic, non-linear edit suite. The wonderful Sardarji (I called him papaji) who operated the machine at the now-erstwhile, Eagle Films Edit Suite taught me how to operate the machines and gently prodded me into understanding the craft, the superior skill, of film editing; to go back and look at what my edit was doing to the narrative of the episode, was it enhancing it, changing it, depleting it?

Both Jalal and papaji are not with us anymore. They stopped making people like them long ago. That is a sore in my heart that never heals.

I worked with Jalal on two more projects. Then I joined Shekhar Kapur and was the Chief AD on Mr. India. I learnt about lensing; the cinematic camera and lenses opened up greater visual flexibility and depth; what it can do to influence a scene or a character. I worked with masters of their craft, Peter Pereira – who created all our in-camera special effects, including the vanishing and reappearing of Mr. India (he actually let me operate the Michele camera for one shot which is retained in the film), Waman-Guru – the Kings of Editing – who taught me to splice film and work the Steinbeck and even cut ‘married print’.

So many teachers, so much knowledge; I was blessed to have the best Gurus.

Over the years, I have been a model with a very prominent career that spanned over 9-10 years, before it began to taper off; a Theatre Practitioner, which I continue to be; an actress on TV and in Cinema; and an independent documentary filmmaker.

I have also written a feature film, which unfortunately has never been released.

Part of my creative journey is also the work I do in the area of Human Rights and Animal Rights and Environmental Awareness and Preservation, through my theatre practice and by making and sharing videos on social media platforms. I also personally feed and take care of strays in my area along with their rescue and rehabilitation.   

Q: What made you decide to pursue your career as an actor when you are a writer, poet and filmmaker as well? 

That’s easy to answer – in the beginning it was the path of least resistance – then later, inertia.

However, my documentaries were funded with the money I earned as an actress and I wrote the feature film, which I have mentioned earlier, for a producer-director duo that I had worked with on 3-4 projects, as an actress.

The only time I was offered an opportunity to become a full-fledged Director was when one of my scripts was picked up by Mukul Anand, to be serialized for a production house called ANZ, in which he was a partner. It was the time of landline telephones only. He called me from Film City, one morning, at about 7am and asked me to meet him at his place for breakfast the next day, at 7am, to present a script, if I had one.

When I put the phone down I thought it was a prank. I mean, how did he even know my number? I went, reaching early, was shown into the living room and waited. When he appeared he offered me a cigarette, which I accepted, and proceeded to almost burn my eyebrows as I scrapped the match stick on the rough surface of the match book I was carrying, making them all light up altogether. Mukul did not flinch at my awkwardness or crack a smile and make me feel foolish. He sailed right past the flaming embarrassment and got down to work.

I narrated the story, told him about the actors I had in mind, the writers I wanted to bring on board, the extensive special mechanical effects that will be needed, the computer effects that I hoped we could get someone to create the software for, then sat back and waited for him to shoot it all down – in flames.

He didn’t. He gave me the address of the office, in Juhu, from where I would be working, set a meeting with a software chap in town, briefed me about the senior writer who would be supervising the scripts and asked to meet the writers I had in mind, to work out their monies. Auditions/Tests for actor were scheduled at his Ad film Production Office, Mad films and we were off and running. Just like that.

Five days before I was to roll camera, Mukul passed away. I remember cringing with shock and grief on the stairway leading to his apartment, squatting on the steps, finding it hard to move. After his funeral, I met his partner and realized that I would never be able to work with him. That was the end of that dream.

I haven’t been able to revive it and become a writer/director yet, but I still hope that I will find good people to collaborate with, again, one day, and complete that journey.

Poetry is exercise for my heart, the stretching and breathing that keeps it working and staves off illness and blood pressure problems. It’s the whisper of tomorrow and the quiet glowing line of the horizon at dawn, in a world that is screeching incoherently and is, sometimes, just plain scary.

Q: What drives you as an activist, what makes you angry and what are the things you would like to correct in the industry, in the politics that you follow and in society? 

A: You are not making this interview easy, are you? What drives me as an activist is exactly what drives me when I am in front of the camera or on stage or writing – the awareness that opportunity, kindness, grace and advantages are so unfairly distributed amongst humans, the (sadly) dominant species on this planet. The very fact that we go about destroying the only home we have in this Universe, without a thought about how terrible this destruction is, makes me furious.

I can’t be quiet and ‘mind my own business’ if ever I see animals being abused or tortured. I once snatched the whip from a tonga-wala at Juhu beach and let him have a taste of it because he was flogging his wounded and tired horse without mercy, so that a bunch of brats could have a ‘joy-ride’. The cops intervened and made him take the horse off the harness, I think, just to get me to calm down. The tonga-wala was not contrite and that pisses me off, even today, when I hark back to that incident.

The very fact that kindness is not a universal quality and that neither homes nor schools teach kindness to our children, is a tragedy.

What drives me nuts is how people take advantage of those who are weak or under privileged or ill informed and then smirk about it, as if it’s something to be proud of.

I see this in our ‘industry’ all the time and have acquired a reputation for standing up to it, vocally and visibly, again and again, over the years. Like in all other work places, I am looked upon as ‘difficult’ because I demand a just and clean working environment, on the sets.

I demand payment on time, clean toilets, efficient (people who actually know their jobs or are, at least, focused and willing to learn) and punctual staff/unit members, non-slimy production personnel, a certain quality and standard in the script and direction department and above all, a working environment that is geared towards productivity and not cheap time-pass.

If you look at my life, I have never followed societal norms or rules, but I have forged a path that does not hurt or harm, is productive and of a quality, respects everybody’s boundaries and yet is not loud or cheap or meaninglessly ‘controversial’. It is a road less travelled. I would like to meet more people on this path.

I believe in politics that stands opposed to Fascist right-wing ideologies and the saffornization of my country. I believe that borders and communal identities are the root cause of conflicts and national identities defeat our future as Global Citizens.

Instead of investing in armies, we should invest in scientific education and research, globally. We should make travel a mandatory part of our educational curriculums, teach history based on archeological evidence and do away with religions as a basis of societal structures.

Personally, I think organized religion, as pedaled by ‘holy men’, or scriptures written by men, is poison. It has nothing to do with God and everything to do with oppression, violence and control. Especially of women and the ‘lower’ classes.

And as I age, this constant deal, this trade, that we try to conduct with God – ‘I will fast or give money to your temple/church/mosque or whatever else and in return give me wealth or health or opportunity – seems both laughable and creepy to me.

I have become agnostic, I discover, no longer interested in ritualistic religious practices or slavish dependence on a God. I embrace all of Nature and I respect the power of the Universe and of this amazing Earth and her bounty. I have got over Religion. I am free.

My only participation in Society is to help, if I can, stay out of the way, if I can’t, point out evils that ail it and reach out to animals and humans who need comfort and care. Beyond that I feel no need to ‘fit into’ society.  

Q: What's new and coming up in the near future? What are the panels and workshops that you’re engaging with? What are your plans as an actor and as an activist?  

A: I have just shot for the sequel to a film; just a day’s work, so far (next schedule is being planned). I am also looking to create my own work now, partly because, the several auditions I have given recently, have not resulted in a job.

I have experience in teaching and used to conduct workshops for actors, which were well received. I am going to conduct more of those; in fact, they are starting off from March.

I continue to travel with my film ‘Evening Shadows’ and participate in Q&As as well as panel discussions on issues faced by the LGBTQI in India.

I will be on the panel exploring “Changing the Narrative” in the Entertainment Industry, which is part of ActFest, on 16th February.

My work on stage whether it be ‘Vagina Monologues’ or ‘Ek Madhavbaug’ reaches out to people and sensitizes them to issues we ignore in our country.

As an activist, the next few months are going to be dedicated to making people aware of the violent, communal, saffron, fascist plague that has spread in our country these past five years, taking center stage in our Government, bringing with it pseudo-science and lies and fake news and hate.

I hope to make people see that if they choose this kind of political dirt again, the inclusive, social, secular, democratic, republic we have lived in and that we all want for our children, and ourselves, will die. Is that what we want?

Q: Lastly tell me more about Diva and about being mother to her? Also let me and the readers know about your being unmarried and yet a parent to your biological child? 

A: I am proud to be Diva’s mother. She has just become a teenager and I think, I can safely say, she still likes me (I am told that at that age they are automatically ashamed of their parents, but this has not happened! So far so good, I say) hahahha..!!

Parenthood does not come with a handbook of instructions and single, unwed parenthood comes with a lack of support, as well; however, I think we have done just fine.

Besides, marriage is the social construct, child birth is about biology; the twain are not inter-dependent for someone who is happy to make a life without a ‘partner’ hanging around the neck.

Whether or not one is married, raising a child is not easy. All parents have to make tough choices and I have had to do the same. I want no sympathy, nor do I wish to share sob stories, about this part of my journey.

Suffice it to say that I would not have had it any other way. My child is a product of Love and she will hold Love aloft, with Pride and Joy.

And I will hold her aloft, until I die.



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