Filmmaker Megan Doneman tells BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM about documenting the story of India’s most controversial woman, Kiran Bedi, and overcoming her own adversity in the six-year making of Yes Madam, Sir.

KIRAN BEDI is regarded as one of India’s great fighters. The first woman to join the notoriously masculine world of the Indian Police Service, Bedi has overcome a fair amount of establishment pressure in the process. She became inspector-general of the Tihar Jail, one of the world’s biggest jails (essentially she had been thrown to the dogs with the role), and established her reputation as a folk-hero of Gandhi-esque proportions in her country. Her story screams an epic movie about the overcoming of adversity – however, her story has instead been documented by an Australian director, Megan Doneman, filming on the fly for over six years.

Doneman worked as an assistant-editor on films such as Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke, Mission Impossible 2, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and King Kong. Doneman had always wanted to make her own films, but decided to film the documentary while working on bigger projects. She had first heard of Bedi as a youngster. “My Mum travelled to India all the time when I was growing up. She told me about this woman in India called Kiran Bedi. If you ever travel to India, you’ll hear about her, she’s so damn famous. I thought she was fascinating as a figure, someone who is leading her life quite differently, walking a different path.” Her own background helped in that respect. “I was raised in Queensland in Australia, it’s very conservative. It’s all about walking the same path as everybody else, and being different was really ostracised. I was always fascinated by someone who’s deliberately different because I thought ‘oh my god, you’re just asking for it’. I guess as a family we were a little bit like black sheep – my Mum was meditating, we were probably seen as freaks. When I joined the film industry years later I was working on people’s films, and I wanted to develop my own film. I had made a couple of short films, and I saw Kiran Bedi on an interview and professionally the story had everything a great story had. It’s an epic David and Goliath story. And personally, I just thought it was such an important story for people to know about. She’ll be a great historical character one day.”

However, Doneman wasn’t hugely prepared for the early parts of the shoot. “When I first started this documentary, I literally jumped on a plane. I bought the camera in the airport and read the manual on the plane. I never had picked up a camera before in my life. I didn’t even know how to turn the thing on.” She also found the reputation of Bedi a little intimidating at first. “Initially when I first met, I was overwhelmed. Not just by her, but her story. I thought ‘holy cow, I don’t think I’m the right person to do this, because I’m inexperienced, I don’t have any funding, how am I going to do this?’ I actually tried to talk her out of choosing to work with me, and she wouldn’t have a bar of it.” However, she was never sycophantic to Bedi. “When I work on those [Hollywood] films, you work with some really massive personalities, big stars. Some personalities are a little bit megalomaniacal, so I was quite used to dealing with those kind of personalities. It was probably a good combination in that respect. Also, I’m Australian, so it’s not in our nature to be sycophantic. I’m just not, and I’m not somebody who has a lot of faith, so I don’t revere anything. She is either surrounded by sycophants or critics, and I wasn’t either. I was just an observer.”

Bedi had been asked by a number of filmmakers to have her story told in a documentary. However, she turned them down, and agreed to work with Doneman. “I think there were a few reasons. I think the fact that I was a woman helped. I was literally in her bedroom shooting. Literally we were in each other’s pockets when I was there. I lived in her house. I think the biggest reason – I always wondered that – in the first big shoot, it was in fifty degree heat, I thought I was going to die, it almost made me faint. I remember I was shooting a film crew shooting her, because she had a lot of media around her. They were looking at me. They were a film crew with a big camera, and sound guy, and director and producer and runner, the usual. I had my camera in my right hand, my boom in my left, a radio mic on her, and all my equipment attached to my body. They were looking at me going ‘you’re shooting her life story? We’re shooting a ten minute short and we’ve got all these people.’ I was shooting them shooting her and I was walking backwards and I tripped on their four wheel drive and fell down and my camera broke in half. It just snapped in half. It was humiliating. She just kinda looked at me. We were on the outskirts of Delhi, and I ran back into Delhi and I found this guy in this weird cable shop and I was ‘just glue it together, it just has to last a few weeks’. He was quite bewildered.”

“I went home that night, and I met her that night, and I was really embarrassed. I thought ‘I’d exposed myself as this underfunded, inexperienced filmmaker that I am’, even though I was always very honest about that. I went and saw her at the end of that night, and I sat at the end of her bed, and said ‘aren’t you glad you didn’t go with CNN, or PBS, or BBC, or all these world famous filmmakers who were asking to do a film with you’. And she looked at me and said ‘Megan, do you think CNN would be sitting on the edge of my bed at ten pm at night with me in my pyjamas?’ And I said ‘probably not’. And then she said ‘besides, I really enjoy watching you struggle. I want to see how you are going to do this, how you are going to pull it off. I’m curious about watching you falling down, and getting up.’ I think the fact that I was kinda an underdog as well, because I did really struggle making it. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. There was not an easy second shooting it. It was fascinating to death, and I really enjoyed it.”

Doneman overcame some pretty imposing set-backs. From the day she arrived in India when she was robbed of all her possessions (except for the camera). right through to the end, Doneman had to deal with stereotypical views of her, and India’s notorious patriarchal culture. “Obviously I interviewed a tonne of men. I only interviewed three women, because women just wouldn’t come on camera. A lot of those men thought I was there to not interview but do something else which they thought Western women do because they’re apparently loose. That was just damn awkward no matter what you say. I got into very tricky situations which I had to navigate out of. Also shooting in India, in that kind of country, the tide can turn very quickly. Suddenly you’re in a very dangerous situation. That happened to me. There were times I thought I was going to be really harmed, gang-raped at one stage. I was kidnapped and driven out to a forest and this guy saying ‘you’re going to have sex with me’ and I was ‘no I’m not’ ‘yes you are’ ‘no I’m not’ and went like that for an hour. Finally I talked him out of it. I knew enough about the culture, you learn what buttons to press and I knew the buttons to press to make this guy vulnerable and get him out of the things he was trying to do, luckily, because I couldn’t have fought him off. There was another time I was shooting it near a temple and these guys came up and started hitting me because they thought I was American.”

In the process, Doneman came to realise a little bit of what Bedi had overcome in her life. “It was embarrassing for her in a way watching me go through. I didn’t tell her all the stuff I went through, because I picked my battle. She’s got a world on her shoulder. She didn’t need to hear my problems. At the same time, I said to Kiran ‘I’m leaving. I don’t have to live in this culture at the end of the day’. I think I just got a small glimpse into the opposition. There were times when I was there, she was in so much danger. Her house was being watched, her phones were tapped, there were times when I had to leave and she couldn’t guarantee my own safety. Yet she stayed there. And she said ‘what about me? I don’t care. I’ll just carry on.’”

The filmmaking also emphasised how important Bedi is as a cultural icon in India. “She’s huge. In Delhi sometimes, when we went out, it was like being with the Beatles. When you see the film, there’s a scene when she totally gets mobbed, I thought I was going to die, get crushed. She’s got that level of popularity, that she’s actually an icon, not just a person. She represents fighting for your convictions, walking the walk despite the obstacles and opposition. She’s a transcendent personality. She’s been in the media now for thirty years. She’s like this revolutionary type figure. To be in that society, and continually stand on a limb and expose corruption and speak to the media about anything. She’s just incredibly brave. That’s why the public love her – she puts herself in such peril and she suffers for that. Her life comes with enormous costs, and she’s taking those costs on behalf of the public, because they’re too scared to do that. She’s a hero in the public’s eyes, but in the establishment’s eyes, she’s a pain in their backside.”

She found the experience as an assistant editor invaluable in both making the film (which took over six years), and editing as she had to wade through five hundred hours of footage for the completed documentary. “When you work on a big blockbuster, they shoot months at a time. So you’re watching some of the best cinematographers in the world. So you’re watching how they frame their picture, and you’re also seeing where the director puts the camera to tell the story. Then you’re privy to how the editor puts those pictures together to tell the story. That kind of training is extraordinary. I didn’t think I was learning anything when I was working on these films because you’re working such long hours and you’re exhausted. When I was shooting the documentary, I just instinctively know how to frame it. When you’re shooting a documentary, life’s happening, you’ve got literally a split second when a scene’s happening in front of you, you’ve got a split second to decide.” Editing also involved having to deal with particular logistical problems. “There were three languages: Hindi, Punjabi and English. I didn’t speak Hindi or Punjabi. It was very hard to find someone who spoke all those languages. You’ve just got to chunk it down. That’s what I learned on those films, especially Lord of the Rings, it was a massive logistical undertaking shooting three films at once, but you just chunk it down.”

Despite the six years length, Doneman never really felt disheartened by the time the film was taking. “To me it was just a hobby. In between working on these big films, I wouldn’t go on holiday, I’d go to India and hang out with really fascinating person and this really fascinating society. I got to meet the Dalai Lama and world leaders. It was just extraordinary.” However, the continual setbacks meant that she was constantly tempted to throw in the towel. “I felt the universe was conspiring to not get this film made. There were so many obstacles. I thought the regret I would feel not doing it, would be far greater than the regret I would feel doing it and the cost I would have to endure. That regret was bigger – I wouldn’t be able to live with it. And also, I’m kinda doing a film on someone who never gives up. So how could I give up? She had so many obstacles. Her problems she has to deal with everyday. If I looked at my problems, I’d be crying in my soup, but if I looked at the problems she was facing, I’d just be so ridiculously spoiled if I went home.”