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‘But What Was She Wearing’ Couldn’t Have Come at a Better Time

This first-of-its-kind documentary on workplace sexual harassment opens with a quote from the Manusmriti.

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"In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her Lord is dead to her sons; a woman must never be independent."

Independent Filmmaker Vaishnavi Sundar's first-of-its-kind documentary on workplace sexual harassment opens with this quote from the Manusmriti, and a powerful backdrop of four sombre women performers staring into the abyss.

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Normally I'd be weary of watching a talking-heads style documentary film, however But What Was She Wearing? had me riveted to the screen for the entire 110 minutes. Listening to the gut-wrenching accounts that the women narrated without so much as flinching made me think how difficult and conflicting it must have been to cut eighteen hours of footage down to just under two hours. How does one even begin to decide which of these compelling stories to keep or cut out?

Editing the film wasn’t the least of Vaishnavi’s woes. The lack of funding, difficulty in assembling an all-women crew for the film, the feeling of hopelessness and futility that every story and every piece of research on the topic brought about, threatened to doom the project at its very inception. But Vaishnavi strapped her gear and went from one city to another on a shoestring budget that primarily came out of her own savings, braving the Indian public transport system and the million eyes on it that ogle at a lone woman lugging around filming equipment, in her pursuit of logging the experiences of women - from plush corporate cubicles to construction sites and manual scavengers.
This first-of-its-kind documentary on workplace sexual harassment opens with a quote from the Manusmriti.
Independent filmmaker Vaishnavi Sundar’s has helmed a first-of-its-kind documentary on workplace sexual harassment.
(Photo Courtesy: Facebook)

The post production came with its own set of challenges. Vaishnavi explains how listening to the women's stories over and over again reopened old scars of her own abuse. Stories such as that of the construction site daily-wage worker who was coerced and blackmailed for sex by her labour-supervisor on site. He repeatedly raped her over months. She finally brought him to book, but only after many years of fighting in court with the child born of that rape at her hip.

‘But What Was She Wearing’ is a well-researched documentary that dissects the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act of 2013, juxtaposing this toothless law on paper with ground realities and challenges Indian women face, in pursuit of justice.
This first-of-its-kind documentary on workplace sexual harassment opens with a quote from the Manusmriti.
The narratives of the women are brilliantly punctuated with short segments from the music video Jackal’s Womb.
(Photo Courtesy: Facebook)

The forthright straight-from-the-shoulder narratives of the women shot against a pitch black backdrop are brilliantly punctuated with short segments from the music video Jackal's Womb - a well choreographed performance depicting the misogynistic scriptural verses from the Manusmriti. If the documentary attests to Sundar's credentials as a brilliant storyteller, the music video vindicates her as a creative genius.

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A prescient film that couldn't have come at a better time, when #MeTooIndia has brought these conversations out of closets and into our drawing rooms.

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