Celebrity Stylist Sapna Moti Bhavnani has recently made her directorial debut with her documentary, Sindhustan. Surprisingly, Sindhustan isn’t her first foray into the world of filmmaking. Bhavnani holds a degree in filmmaking and has filmed music videos before but this is her first big venture in this field. Sindhustan has won the Griffith Film School Award at DocEdge Kolkata 2019 and is an Official Selection at the New York Indian Film Festival and Atlanta Indian Film Festival 2019.
Sindhustan is a fascinating exploration of the Sindhi community’s migration to India narrated through a series of extensively designed body tattoos, all of which are illustrated on Bhavnani’s body. The tattoos on her legs are designed using the art forms Ajrak and Madhubani which originate from Sindh and India respectively.
Through the documentary, Bhavnani attempts to also dwell into her roots and the history of the Sindhi community, which migrated in large numbers to India from Sindh during the India-Pakistan partition. Sindhustan derives its title from the Sindhu river, as when the Persians came to India, they had difficulty pronouncing ‘se’ and used the alphabet ‘h’ instead. ‘So Sindhu became Hindu and the Hindustan was used instead of what could have been Sindhustan’ says Bhavnani.
Sindhustan was inspired by an interesting conversation that occurred between Bhavnani and her maternal grandmother many years ago. Bhavnani was visiting India after staying in the U.S for 14 years. During this time, she was considerably inked and was desperately trying to hide her inked body. Her grandmother who herself sported tattoos remarked “Sapna, you are so old fashioned”. Sapna was taken aback when her grandmother told her that, “When we first came as a human race, we didn’t have countries or governments, we lived in extended families and we all had our markings. We all looked like you. I’m happy to see that you are going back to our roots, your roots.”
Bhavnani was surprised because until then she had believed that tattoos were her way of rebelling against the Indian culture. She then set out to chronicle the Sindh community’s history and thus Sindhustan was born. Another important inspiration behind the film is Bhavnani’s favourite singer, Abida Parveen, who is also Sindhi, and which made Sapna realise that unknowingly she had always loved music made by the people of Sindh region.
Bhavnani has worked on the documentary for a period of 7 years. ‘Initially I did not even want to direct the documentary but anyone, who I pursued to do it for me, told me that it was my story and I should be the one to direct it,’ she tells us. During the process, she spoke to people from India as well as Pakistan hailing from the Sindh region, as she wanted to cover all the perspectives of its fascinating history. She also took the help of her friends from Pakistan for shooting footage of the Sindh because she was denied a Visa.
‘The biggest challenge I faced was filming while being inked because the pain and the pressure together were ridiculous. Especially with a documentary, I had to be responsible for everything and keep in mind the budget constraints, which is not what you would face while filming a feature film!’ says Bhavnani. The film was also shot multiple times. While she never really intended to be in the documentary, a friend of hers insisted otherwise which led them to shooting footage that had her present in every frame. ‘After the editing process I ended up with something completely different from what I really wanted, and I just thought maybe this is it,’ recounts Bhavnani, but when Kabir Singh, the director of the award winning mockumentary Mehsampur came on board to edit the film, he suggested that Bhavnani to reshoot the film if she wasn’t happy with it. ‘So in December last year we ended up reshooting most of the footage used in the documentary but at the end of it I finally received the film that I had set out to make.’
The New Normal
On talking about the pandemic and its impact Sapna adds, 'I have been volunteering most of the time so actually been quite active. But that being said, just watching the state of the migrants has been quite impacting on me. Also immersing myself in the promotion of my film has been therapeutic. On the salon front, paying high rents for the last 21/2 months has been quite stressful and I hope we come up with a solution to ease the financial impact on all. I think the new normal will be a mindset more than anything. An efficient work ethic coupled with an empathetic lens should make a substantial change in filmmaking and I'm quite looking forward to it.'
Text Nidhi Verma