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Doctor-actor Lakshmi Devy on gender violence and her fearless directorial debut

Indian-American actor and filmmaker Dr Lakshmi Devy is sending out a strong message of women’s empowerment through her directorial debut.

April 07, 2021 / 10:22 AM IST

Large parts of Dr Lakshmi Devy’s directorial debut film, When the Music Changes (2020), are intensely gut-wrenching in their portrayal of gang-rape. Without the use of voyeurism or nudity, Lakshmi—who is also the lead actor in the drama—manages to make the viewer queasy enough to want to turn the screen off.

“Imagine, if you—as the viewer—feel so sick, how must actual victims of rape feel? I kept the full length of the scene because I want stomachs to churn. I want to burn it into the viewer’s memory—so that the next time someone makes a rape joke, this is the scene that will come to your mind,” says Lakshmi who wears various hats, as a doctor, actor, screenwriter and now director.

Born in New York, Lakshmi belongs to a typical Malayalee family “where most of the men are engineers and most of the women are doctors”. One of three siblings, Lakshmi spent part of her childhood in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, and hadn’t considered any other course of education other than medicine.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t know films were a career option, even though dance and drama were a huge part of my upbringing,” says Lakshmi, whose mother is a nephrologist and compensated for her own lack of dance training by making sure her daughters learnt dance and drama all through school.

Being pretty was not “a thing” when Lakshmi was growing up; it wasn’t a virtue to be attained. “The only thing we were expected to do was study. If anyone called me pretty, my mother would tell me, ‘I made that,’ meaning that my looks were not counted as an achievement and if I wanted to be proud of something, I had to go out there and make it myself,” she grins.

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Lakshmi’s first experiences of watching film shoots were at her ancestral beachside house in Thiruvananthapuram, which was regularly used by Malayalam filmmakers as a set for films and television serials. She was even “spotted” by one of the filmmakers and offered a role, but when Lakshmi’s family realised it involved a romantic scene with the much older lead actor, there was no more talk of it.

Later, while studying at Government Kilpauk Medical College in Chennai, Lakshmi began getting modelling offers. From there to films was a short step away. “I decided to give it a shot; if I was bad at it, I would have quit it. But I noticed that I was able to put in hours of work without getting bored. I was, in fact, willing to be bored and poor. That’s when I knew this was the right career for me,” laughs Lakshmi.

Having acted in several Tamil films, Lakshmi ventured into screenwriting with the film Masala Padam, starring Mirchi Shiva and Bobby Simha. The first film Lakshmi produced was the Hindi-Tamil Daro Mat (2019), which she wrote, produced and co-directed. Available on YouTube, the 20-minute short film, in which Lakshmi also plays the lead role, has garnered over three million views.

After that, she set up her own production banner FiDi Talkies based out of Manhattan, New York, and named after her favourite part of the city—the Financial District! The first film under this banner is When The Music Changes, which Lakshmi has written, directed and produced.

“I was very particular about casting. I wasn’t looking for someone famous but they had to be fabulous actors,” says Lakshmi, whose film is based in Hyderabad and employs all local talent.

Besides acting skills, she also sought high IQ in her cast. “I like hiring smart actors. I don’t want them to just mimic what the director is telling them to do, but to bring something of their own to the table,” explains Lakshmi.

She deliberately leaves room for improv (improvisational theatre), and is very flexible about changing the script on set. Since most of her shoots are done in sync sound or synchronised sound recording, there is scope for impromptu changes in script as there is no dubbing required later.

Lakshmi was triggered to shoot a film on rape because she noticed people swiping through news headlines on their phones on this topic without stopping or thinking twice about it.

“Rape has become so common that we have become immune to reading about it. But just because you close your eyes doesn’t mean it’s not happening. We aren’t doing enough,” she says, adding that a woman is raped every 16 minutes in India and those are only the reported numbers. “Women and girls of all age groups are raped, whether they are babies or old women. It astounds me that all this still exists today—as if women are not people,” she says heatedly.

Through her film, she says, she wants women to stop equating rape with “losing one’s honour”. It is such kind of misogynistic misconceptions that are at play when Indian judges tell rapists to marry their victims. “If you decide your honour isn’t gone, it isn’t gone. It’s not a thing you can lose, don’t believe that lie,” she says.

This article was first published in eShe magazine.
Aekta Kapoor is the founder of eShe magazine and the peacebuilding initiative South Asia Union.

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