“I BROKE DOWN IN TEARS – MY OWN FATHER HAD ALWAYS TALKED ABOUT THIS PAIN”
BY URVASHI BAHUGUNA
Swati Pandey’s directorial debut, Elephants Do Remember, follows the ninety-two-year old recluse Rama Khandwala, whose storied past includes serving in the freedom struggle and being the oldest tour guide in India. The Peacock sat down with the 47-year-old director to talk about what moved her about Rama’s life story and her first time directing.
What first got you interested in Rama’s story?
I am the daughter of a refugee from East Pakistan. During Partition, my father was thirteen years old. All Hindus were compelled to migrate. He was the tenth- grade topper at Dhaka University, and in Calcutta, the Ramakrishna Mission took him in and realised he was a brilliant student. They got him an education, but he had to work from age fourteen as a compounder. He became a doctor, and joined the World Health Organisation.
The sorrow from his heart never went away that independence was only for a few, that the country could not take care of everybody.
I was not looking for a movie. I asked my team to find a chief guest for an event, but not a routine chief guest. I wanted someone who could speak about the freedom struggle with some feeling. They found Rama. I was really
intrigued by someone who’d been given an award by the then-President at 89, and who was still mobile at 91. I read her history and found that she’d fought alongside Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose in Rangoon. In her speech, she spoke about what the struggle meant – for us, it’s a concept. For them, it was a reality. I broke down in tears – my own father had always talked about this pain and trauma. I approached my Director General at the Films Division and said I wanted to document her journey. I felt the country hadn’t considered her important, but she is a living relic.
I believe it’s your directorial debut. How did you find that experience?
It was less romantic than I thought it would be. It involved a lot of hard work. There were lots of technical challenges that I learned about the hard way.
There’s an intimacy to a biographical film. Did you build up a rapport with Rama?
Oh, absolutely. We’re friends and meet often. Through her, I’ve become a part of the Tourist Guide Association network. As the Postmaster General, I organised the first heritage walk of the Mumbai Post Office. She inspired me.
What eras of Rama’s life does the film cover?
She wasn’t what I thought she would be, old and tired. She was spunky. There are two eras. I called the film, Elephants Do Remember, because her memories of seventy years ago were so clear. She could describe Bose like he was sitting in front of her today. She was shooting rifles at the age of 16. I asked her about her time after the freedom struggle where she had a normal, ordinary life, met a normal, ordinary person, got married. After Independence, she migrated to Mumbai from Rangoon. She was Gujarati, and her place of birth became a separate country, Burma.
When I asked her about how her life with her husband had been, she said she didn’t remember. After fighting in the Rani of Jhansi regiment where the soldiers were called his Ranis by Bose, she said her life was ordinary. I captured her current life, what her days were like. I couldn’t document the middle because she really couldn’t recall it.
Read more from The Peacock: Issue 8 (2019) here: