Advertising professional Swati Bhattacharya was frustrated with the kind of woman she was creating for her work – the perfect Horlicks Mom or the Maggi Mother who, in her words, “was always in a good mood and lived to be the gatekeeper of her family’s health.” They were nothing like the actual women in her life. One night, sitting in a hotel room with her friends after having created yet another one of these fictional superwomen, she was struck with the idea for what became her 2014 documentary Saints of Sin.
Saints of Sin features eight women – her closest friends – representing the Bible’s ‘seven deadly sins’ by opening up about their inner lives and the experiences that define what patriarchal society might see as their deepest flaw, their deadly sin.
But what is a sin really? It’s the constructed notion of virtue and good behaviour that imposes shame and uncertainty on women. In her film, Swati uses the idea of the seven deadly sins to look into how the notion of the ‘good woman’ restricts women’s lives, allowing these moralities to sometimes shape their choices, and sometimes their relationship with themselves. Yet each of them eventually uses this so-called ‘sin’ as a prism, to understand herself and arrive at a certain wisdom about life.
Through these stories of women who chose ‘sin’, or rather, the rocky road of being a flawed person, over virtue or always conforming to what’s expected, we get to hear about women who have struggled with ideas of morality and even their sense of self, and emerged stronger. By doing this they have stripped the sinfulness from the sin and imbued it with humanity.
With a narrative interspersed with beautiful Bengali ballads about women’s radical inner selves, each of these women takes us through their story of how their ‘sin’ became their strength. Through these intimate conversations, Swati opens up a liberating world, where her characters are free from the binaries of good or bad women. In that sense, this film and these women (who are not living in the way women are supposed to, and yet they are fabulous), are inspiring and queering the idea of acceptable womanhood.
Here’s a small primer on each of the stories:
Wrath: A woman who was sexually abused by her brother as a child, recounts how her mother turned blind eye to it. That feeling of being abandoned, left her angry, in relationships and at the world, but it also protects her and makes her self reliant.
Greed: A woman who chooses her independence over the custody of her children.
Vanity: A woman who has a lot of vanity about her intelligence and depth – that she can always have the attention of whatever room she walks into. And another who changes her life from being an alcoholic to a health enthusiast – always conscious of how she looks.
Gluttony: A woman who was sexually abused by people who were supposed to be trusted and loved feels abandoned, and buying things makes her feel good in a way that people don’t.
Lust: A woman who does not feel hesitation about sex, but faces judgement for her choice, sees sex with a lens of curiosity and as a source of wisdom, not shame.
Sloth: A woman who doesn’t ‘do it all’ – who would rather take help from others, and get things done right and well.
Envy: A trans-woman’s envy of cis-women who could be loved by the men that she desired, their bodies, the lives that they could lead, that she could not.
We spoke to Swati about her work and the queerness of women who don’t conform.
How did the idea for the film come about?
Being in advertising, every time I had to portray a woman, I was in conflict with what I really believed. You can create careless dads, but every image of a woman that you are creating has to be perfect. So, I was growing old, and I knew I had nothing in common with the women I was creating in advertising. I wanted to break out of this window of perfection and liberate all of us and truly accept what we are.
I used my friends because I know that the things that make each one of them special, granular, attractive, are not the squeaky clean bits of them, but the other bits. I just wanted to do something that celebrated the imperfections that give one a more perfect and rounded life.
The stories in the film are so deeply personal and internal.
See, all of them were talking to me – an old friend who knew the blueprint of their life. So it helped me ask the right questions and they opened up to me comfortably. This is what is unusual about this film. The film shows different aspects of the inner life of an urban woman. The characters talk about abuse, they talk about favouritism, they talk about guilt, shame – these are very relatable experiences. It shows you what real women look like, and it makes you reflect on your own life.
I think each of these lives has taught me and has unlocked some new understanding for me, so for me this film is a little bit of a toolbox, you know. If you live with it, it helps you unclog arteries.
You also feature in the film – your sin is sloth. Can you say more about that?
I don’t understand why we have to be good at every role that we play as women. Why can’t we be lazy and yet, be okay? We’re made to think that a lazy mother is the worst thing. I think that in understanding and accepting that that ‘Mujhe sab kuch nahi aata’, I have actually become a better mother because I am not neglectful, I simply delegate. And it has worked for me and my girls. Why should the entire responsibility of the household and childcare be put on the woman anyway?
In the film, you say, “What I lack in doing, I make up for by feeling”. It’s an unusual thing to say. Could you explain what you meant?
I feel like there are people who like to get things done. Then there are some people in your life with whom you just sit and you chat with to just feel understood and heard, to feel accepted. I feel I am that person. As long as you are the one who comes over, I am always there to listen. I am always there to talk. People who do a lot, can’t do that.
My sloth makes me rely on other people to get things done. I trust easily, and in my experience at work and at home, people have respected that trust. Had I not allowed myself to be vulnerable, I wouldn’t have been able to be a single mom, to have this job, to manage my daughters. I actually get a lot done by letting others do it for me.
There is a give and take in my relationships, but maybe the give is emotional and the take is physical. So there is a bartering of two different things with two different values.
What is the idea that you wish to communicate from this film?
I think when we learn to be kind to ourselves, we find it easier to be kind to the world. In accepting ourselves, seeing ourselves, we worry less about what other people will think. This film is about our warts and moles. And those warts and moles are why people find you beautiful, and then everything is okay. You have nothing to hide. And not having anything to hide makes life so much easier.
What’s wrong with being greedy or vain or lazy? Don’t these very things seem to look different on men? We all know of greedy and lazy men, whether they’re in our lives or from the media, but somehow they don’t seem to be as bad as a woman who may be selfish, or lazy or lustful. Even as more and more brands are jumping on the women’s liberation bandwagon, somehow, the idea of a large appetite is not encouraged in women. Putting oneself before anyone else is not considered feminine. And perhaps in this scenario, being unladylike, selfish or sinful – which all seem to mean just being yourself – can be a great act of rebellion.