The 3 lead actors of award-winning short film ‘Cheepatakadumpa’ on taboo topics and feminist storytelling

Meet actors Annapurna Soni, Bhumika Dube and Ipshita Chakraborty Singh, the three powerful women behind the award-winning feminist short film 'Cheepatakadumpa'.

By Neha Kirpal

Actors Annapurna Soni, Bhumika Dube and Ipshita Chakraborty Singh, all hailing from the National School of Drama, are the three powerful women behind Cheepatakadumpa (2021). The black comedy film, directed and produced by Devashish Makhija, has just won the gender sensitivity award at Dharamshala International Film Festival 2021 this month.

The 24-minute film follows three women, Teja, Santo and Tamanna, over less than a day as they meet after years, turning around the biased patriarchal belief systems of the world they were born into. The script for the film, co-written by Bhumika and Ipshita along with Devashish, draws from their own personal challenges of growing up as women in patriarchal small-town India.

The award-winning short film will be shown at the upcoming Diorama’s International Film Festival of India 2021 (December 18-24) in Delhi.

The three film professionals talk to us among other things about women-centric themes they are drawn towards, the challenges they have faced in their field, and women’s voices increasingly finding a space in today’s mainstream entertainment.

Annapurna Soni

Actor, theatre director and folk singer
Annapurna Soni

Annapurna Soni is an alumna of the National School of Drama (NSD) and founder and director of theatre group Darpan Rang Samiti in Barhi, Katni, in Madhya Pradesh. Annapurna made her acting debut with the Zee5’s web series Rangbaaz opposite Saqib Saleem and has worked in Chhapaak and Class of 83. She has many television commercials and short films to her credit, including Sunflower, directed by Vikas Bahl.

eShe: You are an actor, theatre director and folk singer. Tell us a little about your journey and how you balance all these different roles.

Annapurna: My journey started from my hometown Barhi in Madhya Pradesh. Barhi is a small place, and after finishing school, I went to Jabalpur to pursue music. I did theatre for five years in college and won two nationals and several zonals. At one point in time, whether our college won or not, the university would send me to represent them. I was like an all-rounder for them, as I could compete in various competitions – singing, dancing, skit, mime, dance, theatre – on behalf of the university.

All the exposure instilled a sense of self-belief and confidence in me. Then I joined a theatre group in Jabalpur called Vivechna Rangmandal. It was there that I first heard about NSD. I appeared for the exam and got through in my second attempt. Then I worked in the NSD Repertory for two years, but then it started feeling like a routine, the joy of the craft began dissolving and I missed the thrill of new challenges. So I quit that and came to Mumbai. And that’s the journey so far.

As for balancing the different roles I play, I think I have always been searching for new challenges with multi-tasking skills. Doing different things keeps me active, alert and energised; it increases my productivity and brings in discipline in my life.

What are some of the challenges you have had to face particularly as a woman in your field?

I view every challenge as a scope to learn something new. The first challenge of being a woman in the entertainment industry is to overcome stepping out of the house and deciding to pursue my passion. Another challenge is to balance the various roles, on screen and in real life.

As I was away from home, my parents were constantly worried, like any Indian parent. But because this was the consequence of my decision, I had to be careful about not increasing their worry. So, I couldn’t share my everyday difficulties with them.

And since I am married, the most challenging learning opportunity is to manage societal expectations in my work life. I am blessed with an immensely supportive family on both sides. No matter how progressive your family is, you are always aware that being a woman, the responsibility of being someone’s sister, daughter and wife weighs heavily on your shoulders.

Annapurna Soni as Tamanna in Cheepatakadumpa (2021)

Do you feel there is a level playing field in your profession for young women talent like yourself?

The field is much more level than it was previously, yet it still resembles a hill more than a field. I believe ‘struggle’ is becoming less troublesome in the City of Dreams, but it is still slightly unsafe for girls to enter the industry. I was from NSD, so I did not fall prey to any traps, but I know of people who have been lured into awkward or uncomfortable situations on the pretext of an audition.

According to you, are women’s voices increasingly finding a space in today’s mainstream entertainment more than earlier?

Yes, absolutely. And mainstream ‘entertainment’ is the correct phrase because women are finding different means to voice their narrative now – whether through stand-up comedy, active journalism, films, theatre or songwriting, a new view is unfolding that is bolder, more courageous and less afraid.

What themes can young women writers bring into films and theatre that were not explored earlier?

Many taboo topics are now being brought to light and are also receiving positive acclaim from audiences. For instance, the topic of menstruation in Padman, acid attacks in Chhapaak, and other social concerns like domestic violence, gender equity and proper respect for the LGBTQIA+ community are now being talked about more intensely.

And, of course, there is the major taboo topic of sex and desire that our film Cheepatakadumpa also explores. But to show such sensitive issues with empathy is a challenging task that writers these days are tackling head-on.

In many advertisements, the visual representation of men doing household work is intentionally highlighted. It is through such mediums that a behavioural change in society eventually happens.

Annapurna Soni as Tamanna in a scene from Cheepatakadumpa (2021)

Tell us a little about the activities of your theatre group, Darpan Rang Samiti.

Darpan Rang Samiti is the first-ever theatre group in our area that I founded with my younger brother Durgesh in 2015. This venture is not a business endeavour, but more of a passion project and we invest from our income to keep it running.

It was difficult to start. There are always people who oppose such ideas of creativity in a small place, as they have not been exposed to the theatre so much and often carry a wrong impression of artists who work on stage. The majority of people are apprehensive of sending their children and so, before the work even starts, there is a lot of work that goes into convincing people.

I am trying to use theatre as a tool for self-empowerment and personality development, because that is what it has given me in my own life. When I was in NSD and used to play the dholak, people would be surprised and praise me, but the truth is that in my hometown, every child has the same sense of rhythm and can play it better than me. The arts are imbibed in our daily life – in festivals, daily rituals, celebrations – and it is just a matter of changing the perspective a little bit and developing the talent.

Every year we do a ‘Barhi Rang Mahotsav’ where we encourage local talent and give them a platform to develop their work. This initiative got a very good response, and people like Piyush Misra encouraged our work and spoke about it online.

The great thing about it is that members build it. Children cut carton boxes to create light holders and other props. Technical requirements are hard to find, so a lot of things are DIY but work perfectly well for the setup. There is struggle, and sometimes it is intense, but in the end, it is worth it, and that’s why we continue trying.

I also started something called Rang Bagheli, where I experimented with Bagheli folk songs, creating new tracks with folk-music instruments. We did a couple of Rang Bagheli performance shows, but it has taken a long break because of the pandemic, so I have to recreate it again.

Bhumika Dube

Theatre and film actor, screenwriter
Bhumika Dube

The actor, co-writer, co-producer and casting director for Devashish Makhija’s Cheepatakadumpa, Bhumika Dube was felicitated with Junior Fellowship in theatre in 2011 by the Ministry of Culture. She holds a bachelor’s degree in mass media from Mumbai University and is an alumna of the National School of Drama (2015).

Bhumika has worked with eminent theatre directors such as late Vibha Mishra, late Bansi Kaul, Satyabrat Rout, Manav Kaul, Gopal Dutt Tiwari. She has acted in films such as Tumhari Sulu (2017), Motichoor Chaknachoor (2018) and Barah by Barah (2019), as well as acted in short films such as Agla Station, Tum and Awakening of the Goddess Bridge among many others.

She won the Best Actor Award at Majhi Metro Short Film Festival (2017) for Agla Station, Tum, and has more than 35 TVCs to her credit.

eShe: Tell us about your journey from being a theatre person to navigating the film world now. 

Bhumika: I made my stage debut when I was just 15 days old. It so happened that my father Gopal Dube, a theatre practitioner in Bhopal, misplaced the dummy baby and took me on stage instead. I think it all started with that outing for Bhoomika Theatre Group, and I never gave up on theatre thereon. I love every bit of it. Transforming into something or someone is exhilarating and liberating.

Films were never part of the plan until, one day, I got a chance to act and direct a short film as a part of an assessment while pursuing my bachelor’s degree in mass media from Mumbai University. The medium fascinated me to the core. Acting for the camera is altogether a different craft.

After completing my degree from NSD, I was keen to grab opportunities to work in the Film and Television Institute of India and Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute’s diploma productions. Thankfully, I did quite a few.

L-R: Bhumika Dube and Ipshita Chakraborty Singh in Cheepatakadumpa

What are some of the women-centric themes you have explored in your films and are drawn towards?

There are a few interesting short films where I could explore women-centric themes, such as Agla Station, Tum (2017) story, which revolves around a woman searching for happiness in its many forms. Then recently, there was Cheepatakadumpa, a story of three extraordinary, outlandish friends who go about exploring their sexuality and smashing patriarchy mischievously.

I want to direct my gaze at exploring women characters and their womanhood and see it liberated from the confines of patriarchy, on screen at least, and rise above patriarchal norms and values. I also want to explore personifying a trans character someday.

What challenges have you had to face, particularly as a woman in your field?

From sexism and gender bias to striking the right work-life balance and trying to conquer the gender wage gap, female artists seem to encounter different tests and stresses in the field than their male counterparts. I can’t deny that we are evolving, but there is a long road ahead.

Do you feel there is a level playing field in your profession for young women talent like yourself?

I can’t dismiss a few glaring exceptions that are still prevalent in the industry. One needs to conform to the conventional beauty standards to bag the lead role in a film. Also, one can’t break into the industry and expect to get the same opportunities as someone related to some other established name. Talent needs to be of paramount importance, but it is not.  

Who are some of your contemporaries whose work you admire and are inspired by?

I am literally envious and equally inspired by a few female actors from Malayalam cinema, such as Nimisha Sajayan, Kani Kusruti, Anna Ben, Darshana Rajendran and Sai Pallavi. They are breaking new ground with their outstanding performances! Apart from them, Geetika Vidya strongly inspires me with her work. I cherish the time when spent together while filming Barah by Barah.

According to you, are women’s voices increasingly finding a space in today’s mainstream entertainment more than earlier?

Absolutely! Some films are remarkable for their exceptional storytelling, powerful female characters, the likes of whom audiences haven’t seen before. There is a visible shift in the sense and sensibilities, on both sides, for sure.

We are thankfully moving away from roles where women were either saintly caregivers or hypersexual and seductive. It is a combined effort of the filmmakers, writers and actors, on the one hand, and the audience on the other hand. We need more women who bring their unique gaze to cinema and redefine the landscape with their unique approach.

What themes can young women writers bring into films and theatre that were not explored earlier?

We still write about the same themes but what is adjoining the themes are the ‘layers’ in the characters. Unidimensional female characters are gradually fading. Hundreds of women writers wrote for the stage in the 19th century. Still, their works have become invisible in the history of Indian theatre. It will take time to set the equilibrium in writing, but we are doing well.

Ipshita Chakraborty Singh

Actor, screenwriter
Ipshita Chakraborty Singh

An alumna of the National School of Drama (2010), Ipshita Chakraborty Singh is an actor and also a co-writer of Devashish Makhija’s Cheepatakadumpa. She has appeared in Bhonsle, Shakuntala Devi, Chhapaak, Angrezi Mein Kehte Hain and Sacred Games.

Ipshita has more than 35 plays in her quiver, and her major works include Mai Hun Yusuf Aur Yeh Hai Mera Bhai, Viraasat, Mathemagician, Muktidhaam and Bandish. She has worked with directors such as Anuradha Kapur, Mohit Takalkar, Abhishek Majumdar and Roysten Abel. Ipshita is a recipient of the Manohar Singh Smriti Puraskar for Acting and the Tendulkar-Dubey Fellowship 2018-19.

Her directorial work includes a solo performance, A Girl Who Shot Her Doggy and a series of rehearsed readings based on the short novels and stories by Vijaydan Detha, Mahashweta Devi, Vijay Tendulkar and Ismat Chughtai.

Along with her husband Ajeet Singh Palawat, she runs the theatre group Ujaagar Dramatic Association in Mumbai.

eShe: Tell us about your journey from being a theatre person to navigating the film world now.

Ipshita: My father is a Bengali theatre director. He had never imagined in his wildest dreams that I would make a career out of my passion and go on to study the art and craft of theatre. It all started when I attended a workshop organised by NSD at Jaipur in 2006. I cleared the entrance exam and joined the premier institution in 2007. After graduating, I joined NSD Repertory. In 2013, my husband Ajeet Singh Palawat and I formed our theatre group, Ujaagar Dramatic Association, in Mumbai.

Today, we have more than 35 plays to our credit. The first and most successful theatre outing for Ujaagar Dramatic Association was the Rajasthani adaptation of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream titled Kasumal Sapno in 2014. The music was by Raghubir Yadav, and it has travelled across the country and world.

I have had the opportunity to work with some of the best minds in the films and theatre world, and that’s quite a gratifying feeling when I look back. As far as my journey into the world of cinema is concerned, I would say that I have just taken baby steps so far.

I have done a handful of feature and short films, notably Bhonsle (Sita), Wig (Artika), Chhapaak (Parveen Shaikh), Slice of Life (Suhani), Shakuntala Devi (as Shakuntala’s mother) and Cheepatakadumpa (Santo). It is just the beginning of my cinematic journey, and I am excited to embark on this path. 

What are some of the women-centric themes you have explored in your films and are drawn towards?

I haven’t explored much in my film outings so far. But the roles that I essayed on screen are those of a strong woman character. I am, by nature, attracted to them, both in films and theatre. Strength and power can be either positive or negative, which is true for the characters that I have portrayed in these films. Of all these, Cheepatakadumpa is an out and out women-centric film, led by an all-woman cast.

Ipshita Chakraborty Singh as Santo in Cheepatakadumpa

What challenges have you had to face, particularly as a woman in your field?

Of every 10 films that we make in India, hardly one or two have strong women characters – there is still a long way to go. It is a challenge for a woman to find a narrative for herself in such a patriarchal setup. It is easier said than done. Cinema should be gender agnostic for art to survive and for stories to be told.    

You are a gold medalist in Economics from Rajasthan University. How come you didn’t decide to pursue that line?

Economics was the fifth subject in the science stream for me in high school. In hindsight, I feel that I should have opted for English Literature, and it would have come in handy later on. I never wanted to pursue Economics. My parents thought that if I chose this subject, and scored good marks, maybe I would give up on my passion.

But I outwitted them by taking theatre as my subsidiary paper in graduation. They thought that I would make a career in the administrative services, but I had no such ambitions. I never wanted to sit for the civil services exams.

According to you, are women’s voices increasingly finding a space in today’s mainstream entertainment more than earlier?

It is a war to find a woman’s voice in mainstream entertainment. There are voices like Seema Pahwa, who made Ram Prasad Ki Tehravi and said so much in such a simple and beautiful way. I loved Ribbon and Margarita with a Straw. These remain some of the best works that have moved me in contemporary cinema.     

What are the themes that young women writers are able to bring into films and theatre that were not explored earlier?

Their attention to detail is commendable. In Cheepatakadumpa, we took a part of our body to build the narrative and explored so many layers in the process.  

Poster and film stills courtesy: Makhijafilm

Syndicated to Money Control

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