a small Indian village, Sheena and Tarun (played with great
skill by Athira Rajan and Bibin Baby) are childhood friends
who walk to and from school together every day. Sheenas
hobby is collecting wedding photos from magazines. One day,
Tarun suggests that he and Sheena get a wedding-style photo
taken of themselves. Living in such a small village, though,
cameras are a rarity, so they set off to have their picture
taken at a camera studio in a nearby town. Before they realize
whats happened, Tarun and Sheena have been tricked,
threatened, forced into being photographed nude, and eventually
separated as Sheena is kidnapped, and presumably forced
into a life of prostitution or some other sexual abuse.
The Photo, a dramatic short by
Hari Das, explores the issue of child abusein particular,
the issue of children being forced into the sex industry.
Unlike so many filmmakers trying to accomplish the task
of exploring an important social problem, Hari Das does
not preach to us. Presenting child pornography and sexual
abuse as shocking is an easy task, which is why he seems
to have avoided it. Instead, he shocks us by luring us into
the same trap that has been laid for these two children.
Focused simply on having their
photo taken together, Tarun and Sheena think as children
and act as children, and we happily see the world through
their eyes. Expecting a sweet, childhood drama to ensue,
we are as horrified as they are when trouble suddenly finds
them. Moreover, we wind up feeling for them with the same
sympathy and rage that we would for a member of our own
family. Perhaps the brilliance of The Photo is that
it is the portrait of an average day. After all,
tragedy rarely announces itself before arrival. It usually
comes swiftly and seemingly out of nowhere. In short, The
Photo is a film that flawlessly captures how easy it
is for a child to fall unwittingly into the traps of life
that adults try constantly to shelter them from.
Nearly a million girls
and women are believed to be forced into the sex industry
in India at any given time. Thousands of child prostitutes
are kept in Mumbai brothels against their will. Social service
agencies estimate that as many as 50,000 women and children
are trafficked into India annually from Nepal and Pakistan
for the sex trade.
Statistics such as this
always shocked me. However, living in Canada, any tangible
action remained a pipe dream. Until I read The Photo
in early 2004.
I was immediately captivated
by the story, which portrayed the exploitation of a little
girl by an evil photographer. It was a simple story of a
small eight-year-old getting into the clutches of an evil
photographer. To me, this was the perfect opportunity to
sensitize the public against the evil of child pornography.
I wrote to Mukundan, the story writer, to get his permission
to make a film, which he readily granted.
If getting permission to
make a film was easy, the shoot itself was going to be a
lot harder. It was impossible to make the story into a full-length
feature without the usual Bollywood songs and dances, something
I found abhorrent given the seriousness of the theme. In
India, there is no market for short films, my production
assistant warned me. I pretended not to hear him.
But the challenge remained.
Short films are qualitatively different from their longer
counterparts, especially the Indian variety. You have 22
minutes or less to establish characters, their motives,
and tell a complete story. How to transform a simple act
of going to take a photo to a memory of terror? The ugly
fate that awaits the little girl is left to the imagination
of the viewer. I don't tell them about her likely future,
although it is almost guaranteed that her fate can range
anywhere from a permanent psychological scar to possible
suicide or a career in prostitution or pornography. It is
ugly, sad and shocking. The horror lurks there. I wanted
the viewers to leave the show with a totally unsettled feeling.
There were other challenges,
as well. Given my job demands, I could only spend a maximum
of three months in India. Unfortunately, those three months
coincided with Indias monsoon season, essentially
reducing available time to twenty days. There was only one
digital camera available in Ernakulam where I was planning
to shoot, and that, too, only for a weekend. The shooting
locations were already booked for the next two months except
during one particular weekend. Some of the actors were available
only for two days; one fell sick for several hours during
But I persisted. The film
The Photo was finally produced against almost impossible
odds. Now, it was time for the first preview. Would the
film have any impact? Were all those efforts worth the outcome?
I was like a pregnant mother waiting for the big day.
Did The Photo maintain
audience interest? I always look for audience behaviours
while they watch my films (eye and finger movements, whispers).
If I see that people are fidgety or appear distracted, I
wonder. If I could see it holding their attention, I congratulate
myself. I also try to maintain high standards for other
technical aspects like editing, music and camera. As a director,
that is all that one can dothe rest depends on how
the audience sees your film. In what light and what frame
The viewer reaction during
the preview in India made it all worthwhile. I could see
that a number of persons were upset by the little girls
fate. My wife was disturbed when she saw The Photo...
a viewer wrote. There were many compliments about dialogue,
editing and acting. All viewers were touched by the story.
The music score I had identified and developed by Geo turned
out to be a big hit. The Photo is an award-winner
for sure, several of them told me.
That will be superb, I
concur, but always telling myself that the final success
is measured by the films ability to bring the evil
of child pornography into the evoked mindsets of people.
As for the future? There
are several other stories already on the drawing board.
But for those to see the light of day, The Photo
As always, I am optimistic
that it will. After all, without such optimism, this film
would never have been made!