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12 Apr 2017

Reel story of a real shero - National award for film on disability activist Jeeja Ghosh

Chandreyee Ghose, TT, April 11: A real-life shero has starred in, narrated and co-written a documentary that has won laurels at the 64th National Film Awards.
I am Jeeja, a 28-minute film on Jeeja Ghosh of the Indian Institute of Cerebral Palsy (IICP), bagged the national award for Best Film on Social Issues (non-fiction) last Friday.
The film directed by Swati Chakraborty, who heads the IT wing at IICP, traces Jeeja's journey from being a person born with cerebral palsy to her role as head of IICP's advocacy group Ankur and fighting for the rights of persons with disability. Jeeja has not only acted in the film but also narrated her own story and co-written the script along with Swati.
"Both of us were at the IICP when we heard about the award. We could just hug each other and dance in disbelief," laughed Jeeja, recounting the happy moment.
IICP founder and vice-chairperson Sudha Kaul admitted to feeling like a "proud mother when I heard the news". "It is a wonderful film and deserves the recognition it got," she added.
But Swati said it wasn't easy convincing Jeeja. "Why me?" was her initial reaction though the two have known each other for 29 years. Once on board, however, it turned out to be a fun journey for both with few retakes.
Jeeja overcame her disability to study at premier institutions in the city and outside and even lived alone in the UK and Delhi. A social activist, she won a legal battle against an airline. She has also had her share of good and bad relationships. The film highlights all that and more.
I am Jeeja begins with Jeeja trying to cross the road and almost getting hit by a motorcycle. Her immediate reaction is to turn around and abuse the rider. "I wish the expletive was not done away with on the editing table. It is so me," laughed Jeeja. Such nuggets pepper the film that tries to capture the fun person behind the gritty image.
The road scene was the last shot of a film whose making stretched for over a year. The shoot included 10 days of gruelling outdoor schedule. "The planning took even longer. It was not easy finding a financier," chipped in Swati. It was finally commissioned by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT).
The film sees Jeeja looking back at her school days in IICP and La Martiniere for Girls, her campus life at Delhi School of Social Work and her advocacy days in IICP and elsewhere. She was the only girl who sat for her ICSE from St. James' School, an all-boys' institution. "I wish I had taken part in more activities and had a busier student life," she rued.
Going back to Presidency College was an emotional moment for Jeeja. "There were no lifts during my three years (1990-92) in college. The main flight of stairs did not even have a banister. I wonder now how I coped, rushing from one class to another," said Jeeja.
The addition of a lift and handrails made Jeeja happy. "Quitting was never an option for me. It's sad many students with disability are forced to quit because of a hostile environment," she said. "The only time I quit was when I refused to continue with Calcutta University and opted for Delhi School of Social Work instead."
The film also touches on her personal life. Jeeja's pet grouse: people with disability are often looked upon as asexual objects. They are also victims of abuse. While she fights for justice and inclusion in her workspace, her life and marriage are like a message of hope for many others.
"Trusting a man enough to marry him took time. I wanted to make Jeeja tell that story too to show how everyone has the right to happiness," Swati said. "It's very difficult to concise a multi-faceted person like Jeeja within 28 minutes. I wish I could highlight her wit and her fun side more."
Many of Jeeja's friends, teachers, associates and family members have featured in the film along with her.
The acting bug has already bitten Jeeja. "I feel the stage is a very powerful medium to send messages across. And there are no retakes here. I love to perform on stage and will continue doing so," said Jeeja, who has acted in Black Holes Are Not Black, a play in Bengali by Katha Kalam, an inclusive theatre group. She has also shot for an English feature filmrecently.
"Acting is my new passion," she signed off.

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