THE COURAGE AND CONVICTION OF SAIF HYDER HASANby Vinta Nanda January 12 2024, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 13 mins, 55 secs
After seeing the film YES PAPA, story of a victim of child sexual abuse at the hands of her father, Vinta Nanda has a conversation with producer, writer and director Saif Hyder Hasan.
The latest report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) in India, which compiles crime statistics, shows 1,49,404 cases of crime against children were registered in 2021. According to an Indian Express report dated 30th October 2022, “The spurt in incidents of crime against children across India has raised serious concern with 53,874 cases registered in 2021 alone under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. A total of 1,49,404 cases relating to crime against children were registered in 2021 against 1,28,531 cases in 2020, a rise of 16.2 percent. If statistics of the NCRB are an indication, every third crime against a child was registered under the POCSO Act. In 2021, a total of 33,348 incidents were registered under Sections 4 and 6 (punishment for penetrative sexual assault and aggravated penetrative sexual assault) of the POCSO Act and in these cases 33,036 were girls, while 312 were boys”.
There are factors that contribute to a perceived denial and reluctance to address issues of sexual exploitation within homes, particularly involving children. It's crucial to approach this topic with sensitivity and that is what Saif Hyder Hasan’s film ‘YES PAPA’ does - it pieces together a story of a victim of repeated sexual abuse by her father.
I will not say it’s an easy watch. But rather than the mindless crime and violence belted out by the entertainment (ironic!) industry, which gather a huge number of eyeballs to confirm that we consume it ad nauseum, I recommend that you walk through the difficult path of seeing ‘YES PAPA’ (due for release in March 2024), because it aims to trigger conversations around one of the most important but stigmatised issues. These discussions are a must to have if we want scores of children to be protected from horrific experiences.
Some of the reasons why this dialogue is never mainstreamed are societal norms and cultural expectations, which contribute to the stigma, families fearing shame and social ostracism, societal structures that reinforce traditional gender roles and patriarchal values, which contribute to a power dynamic that silences victims and discourages them from reporting abuse. Preserving the family's reputation and protecting male family members is prioritized. Also, lack of education about recognizing this contributes to denial and ignorance.
‘YES PAPA’ deals with all of the above.
I had a long chat with the producer, writer and director, Saif Hyder Hasan about his film, and asked him what compelled him to take on the challenges he already knew he would face. Over to him then…
How did the thought of making ‘YES PAPA’ turn into an idea that you were convinced you need to pursue?
I think of new stories every night – it’s a ritual. Only when a story or an idea does not leave me for at least three months, do I start working on it. With YES PAPA, it was slightly different. The idea took shape over years. It started with me understanding what rape is.
Actually, I never understood the dynamics of rape, the psyche of the predator. Some twenty years ago, I was witness to a neighbour, an elderly man, forcing himself on his maid. The legal process kicked in but that incident made me think. What is it that turns certain people on by forcing themselves on fellow human beings? I do understand attraction and lust…but rape? Never!
Cut to several years later…one heard about the horrors of the Nirbhaya case. Then, what shook me totally were the arrests of two people who I admired greatly. One was a path breaking news editor and another an Urdu scholar of great repute. And my mind went ticking again. The revulsion and the repulsion came back.
The #Metoo movement shook me to the core. Women were openly speaking about workplace harassment and sexual abuse. It was them speaking against a system dominated and abused by men. As a man myself, I never understood the turn on one derives by exploiting women. But these women (though only a miniscule percentage) came out in the open. They had a voice. They protested. They made themselves heard.
My mind went to children…news reports took me there…who were victims and did not have a voice, nor the support system. One keeps hearing of adults who speak about the sexual abuse they faced as children, especially at the hands of relatives or family friends. They never spoke earlier; they did not have the bandwidth nor the understanding of what was happening to them. They were victims without a voice and grew up as fractured personalities. But what if the predator is a parent?
I remember newspapers talking about fathers raping daughters, at least once every three days. But the tipping point was when Sadia M Hasan, my wife and also the producer of the film, visited an NGO and met a girl in flesh and blood who was raped several times by her father. She was rescued by the NGO but her mother kept pressurising her to withdraw the police case. I think it was then that YES PAPA, with its title, theme and story emerged. We knew we were treading on forbidden territory. But what had happened was that we were coping with a tremendous personal tragedy when we decided to dive into the film, not caring about the consequences. Maybe it was our way of paying back to society. I don’t know…
I started talking about this subject to various people across all walks of life (lawyers, activists, friends, artists etc.) and was surprised to know that one out of five people had a similar story to narrate – be it an account of their neighbours, an acquaintance or a close friend. I had at least ten personal stories, which I integrated into the script. And a lot of the cases belonged to the upper crust of the society. There was a girl whose mother was an IAS officer and the father an IFS officer, and she was subjected to rape at the hands of her father.
A time came when there was no investor willing to back this film, and almost no actor, either, who wanted to play a role in it. And, I said to myself: IF I DON’T MAKE THIS FILM I WILL DIE. So, one Diwali, post the first lockdown during the Pandemic, I decided to make the film, come what may, and a few days later I had assembled my crew and started location hunting. Exactly two months after I made the resolution, we shot the first schedule.
Did it strike you when you embarked on the journey that it was not going to be easy?
Yes. I guess. But maybe not as difficult as it turned out to be. The problem was the theme – no one wanted to even talk about it. People from the industry were sure that it would be banned by the Censor Board (it came close to that). There were no funds, no backing, no trust, nothing. So, it was not even about selling the film, getting people to watch the initial cuts was a herculean task.
What were the roadblocks you faced along the way?
The roads were blocked all the time. No investment, no actor, no audience at the screenings, and loads of denial. A prominent film critic saw the film last year and said this does not happen in India and if it does, it happens only amid the lowest strata of society. Before I made the film, a prominent director told me, “Don’t make it now, these are not good times”.
An actor friend, who is a well-wisher came home to convince my wife to persuade me not to make this film. Well…against all common-sense ‘YES PAPA’ was made before the second wave of COVID happened. There was just no money to do the post-production. But with the help of some friends and my crew, we soldiered on. The background music took six months to complete, the songs almost the same time.
Post COVID my theatre shows, which ran our house, also stopped. It was a difficult period. My wife took over and I wonder how she managed. I still don’t know.
The censors took six months to clear the film. Obviously, I lost more money in that period. They took three months to clear the promo. The then Regional Officer told me, “We fear the public may come on the streets. You’re telling the story of a father raping his daughter. This is India, it does not happen here.” Though the newspapers were full of similar horror stories, we were in denial. Some thought it would tarnish India’s image and some were not ready to believe it happened.
The revision committee was divided in its opinion. Most of them wanted to ban the film, they asked Sadia: “Why should this film be allowed to reach the public?” She said, “Let me answer not as a producer but as a mother.” That probably sealed it for them. They did not have a problem with the scenes but the theme. But her response probably swung the game in our favour. The film was cleared without any frames being cut. But yes, some disclaimers were added. One of them states: ‘Watch the film carefully, at your risk (paraphrased)’. May I add that I was also approached to pay a bribe to get the clearance.
But there have been positives as well. Friends stood by me like rocks. The cast and crew have supported me. Vendors too have been patient and understanding.
Until last year, this subject was taboo. But on International Women’s Day 2023, two prominent women spoke up. Swati Maliwal, Chairman of Delhi Commission of Women, and Khushbu Sundar, Member, National Commission of Women came out publicly about the sexual abuse they faced at the hands of their respective fathers. And, the subject was no longer forbidden. The media started speaking about it. However, as a society we still have a long way to go to acknowledge it. As Divya Seth Shah, who essays an important part in the film said: “I hope this film starts a dialogue.”
The film has been screened for the Human Rights Commission (Government of India), Delhi Commission of Women (Government of Delhi), Rinki Bhuyan Sarma, the wife of the CM of Assam. Celebrities like Hema Malini, Asha Parekh, Zeenat Aman, Deepti Naval, Raveena Tandon, Sonali Kulkarni, Celina Jaitley have endorsed the film. It has also won four awards at the Indian International Film Festival of Boston.
I remember, Deepti Naval was “sceptical” about me wanting to make this film. “Certain things should not be shown.” But after watching the film she loved the way the subject was treated. That for me was not just heart-warming, but also an affirmation of what Sadia and I believed for so long.
Do give us a little insight to the main actors with whom you have worked on this film.
I really need to acknowledge the contribution of the cast and crew. Their role has been tremendous. If the film is leaving an impact, a large part of the credit goes to them.
I thought working with Anant Mahadevan ji would be difficult. But it was just the opposite. He was extremely easy to work with. Funny, affable and wise. And what a performance! He has played the antagonist. Not with the flamboyance of a typical villain but as a layered character who is soft-spoken and extremely cultured. When I told him about the proposed film and people’s reactions to my intention of making it, he said: “When hundred people in our industry say don’t do this, it’s time for you to go ahead and make the film.” He is my sounding board, my anchor. I call him even if I have to sneeze. And, he very gently holds a hanky to me every time. He has four scenes in the film but the impact makes has to be seen to be believed.
I always wanted to cast Geetika Tyagi after watching her show, Powder. She had wowed me in it. But I had forgotten about her. However, I saw a poster and picked up the phone. We were on the same page right from day one. She holds the film together. It is her film. She owns it with the authority of a zamindar. She has this knack of saying so much to the camera without actually saying anything. And like Ananth ji, she too holds a hanky to me.
It was Nandita Puri’s debut and she has come out with flying colours. Divya Seth Shah is a pro, of course! I remember how she did the complex climactic court scene in one take. I had planned a day for it but we wrapped it up within an hour. Tejaswini Kolhapure fell sick during the shoot. And those were COVID times. But that did not deter her. Her performance lends a certain softness to the entire texture, almost like that of a mother hen. Sanjeev Tyagi is known for his performance in the television show Crime Patrol, as a tough cop. Here, he went through a complete transformation. In real life he is gentle but he turned himself around totally. His physical and mental prep hit the bull’s eye. To Hasan Zaidi I credit a lot of the sensitivity his character is blessed with. His character was written quite differently but his own interpretation imbues Harshit Kapoor (his character) with empathy. The entire cast has given a fabulous performance. Moreover, they have all given me their love and support during these trying times.
Ratnesh Bhagat’s music is the spine of the film. He has held it together and given me the freedom to treat the film with the sensitivity it required. In fact, I had planned the film to be without songs but as we shot, scenes changed and the songs emerged. Ratnesh then composed the music after watching the first cut.
Abhijeet’s Deshpande’s editing is another big plus. Going with the theme of the film he and his co-editor Hrishikesh Peter refrained from using fast cuts. There was always the temptation to cut out that one lingering shot. But he understood the context.
Does it bother you that our society is still not ready to confront its problem areas? Do you see a day when women are actually equal to men and men stop viewing them as objects to desire/exploit?
My problem is that forget confronting issues, we are not even willing to acknowledge them. Life is not Facebook and Instagram, it is not Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, or the rose-tinted vision of commercial cinema. I am not speaking as a crusader but as a sensitive man who has put everything at stake for something he believes in. Yes, a day will come when men will stop exploiting women. But that will happen only when men will look at women as human beings and not define them by their physical attributes. Mothers need to be enlightened to guide their progeny, and the men should execute this with dignity.
Where did your journey as a filmmaker start? Tell us a little about your past work.
I am essentially a theatre director. Among my previous works are Ek Mulaqaat with Shekhar Suman and Deepti Naval, Gardish Mein Taare with Arif Zakaria and Sonali Kulkarni, Mr and Mrs Murarilal with the late Satish Kaushik, and Dearest Bapu....Love Kasturba with Zeenat Aman and Arif Zakaria. There have been some for other producers, like Devdas and Mirror Mirror. A couple of books, and some soaps, besides a corporate experience of almost 20 years, define me.
What's the road ahead for YES PAPA?
We are looking at 8th March, International Women’s Day as our release date. As I speak, I am waiting for my distributor to arrive. We still seek support to give the film a dignified release and make all voices count. That goes without saying. The money is still not there but the mind and heart have teamed up well.