After her mother’s death, photographer and LGBTQ+ activist Monisha Ajgaonkar had to hustle as a photographer at an early age to make a living. From award-winning photographer, to wedding filmmaker, she decided to turn the lens on her own journey. And thus was born the short film ‘I will also get married’ produced by The Photo Diary, directed by Raunaq Sahni and Chandrashekhar Parab executed and shot by Aakash Shah, Mitesh Mirchandani and Dharmil Doshi which encapsulates the battles she faced and the aspirations that she’s held on to. The film has won the Berlin Flash Film Festival 2020 monthly winner category for Super Short Documentary, and was a finalist at the Prague International Monthly Film Festival. Here is Monisha, on chasing her dreams and making her voice heard.
It takes a lot of courage to do what you have done – bravo! When did you decide you wanted to film your journey, your story?
The entire thought behind “माझं पण लग्न होईल” struck me during the lockdown when one of my pals sent me insights about Rode Reel, the World's Largest Short Film Competition. I quickly addressed my colleagues and the directors of this narrative, Raunaq Sahni and Chandrashekhar Parab, and they immediately proposed a subject for this celebration and they said: "Monisha, we should do this on your life".
It all started as a trailblazer for the queer community when my team suggested documenting my prodigious journey. Sceptical at first because opening up on a public forum in a nation that houses homophobes seemed like a battle for another day but cut from a superwoman's cloth, my dubious doubts turned into a certainty that was rooted from spirits of cheer and motivation from my entire team. People have heard my story from a lot of alternate points of view. It was an open door for me to pass on my story through my language and my crude feelings.
And, since this happened during the lockdown, we were immediately thinking about the winning amount and how it would be a ray of sunshine for my team and I during these hard times. We couldn't have thought of a better theme that would be as significant at this point in time. We wanted people to empathize, relate, and understand that hard work pays off. Eventually, if you love what you do and you are surrounded by a few good people in your life then you have a lot to be grateful for. We at Photo Diary hoped for this to touch as many lives as possible.The poster for Monisha Ajgaonkar's film I Will Also Get Married with its numerous accolades
How did you put together the team of your film – as a wedding filmmaker did you already have filming talent on hand?
The short film produced by The Photo Diary, titled ‘I will also get married’ has been directed by Raunaq Sahni and Chandrashekhar Parab, executed and shot by Aakash Shah, Mitesh Mirchandani and Dharmil Doshi. My group consisted of individuals like Raunaq and Chandrashekhar who have worked with me for as long as six years, so having that comfort factor helped me to open up for the camera. The idea itself was suggested by the team; the fact that this was done by people who've known me closely and supported my work made it a lot easier as compared to outsourcing a production team. Our main work went in deciding on the locations, the direction, and the idea. Besides this it was a very candid conversation shot in less than a day.
This short film was planned and directed during the lockdown; the directors of this narrative were in different states, so the planning and direction were done on FaceTime. We have managed to pull this shoot off within a few hours of the day. Managing the deadlines for submissions and the limitations due to Covid19 make the filming a little harder than usual, I would like to give credits to my entire team for pulling this off within deadlines and so beautifully executing this in one day, that it will be something that I will cherish forever.
How did your profession as a wedding filmmaker come in handy for this film?
Being in this field for as long as I have been, and understanding the significance and impact that raw emotions and a true story can have, has immensely helped me through this journey. Capturing weddings has been such an experience since it does not involve scripted shoots, it helps you capture raw emotions for you to reminisce in the future.
My team and I knew it had to be as raw as possible, like capturing a wedding ceremony, it had to flow, and I believe when things flow and come straight from the heart, this touches lives.
Why is it so important to tell this story?
I would not like to be distinguished as a "bechari" and didn't need a pity party around me; I needed individuals to empathize and not sympathize. I needed it to be a ground-breaking short film for individuals who are experiencing something similar in their everyday life.
My courage and undying striving to achieve success and attain love outweighs all the struggles life has thrown at me. I want to continue to inspire others to not shy away from theirs.
I have a handful of people I am appreciative of, and with my hard work and passion, along with their support, I have been able to become who I am today.
This story wasn't about me and it wasn't about glorifying my struggles, it was about every other girl that will never encounter the warmth and adoration of their family, for every girl that had to move out and start hustling at a young age, and every other girl who dreams to be different. It is to let every other person know that “it's okay to not be okay”.
When did you start working as a photographer – you mentioned you did shoots for Rolling Stone magazine – did you do fashion shoots or portraiture at first?
I started my career as a freelancer and a Page 3 photographer. Capturing celebrities and their day to day lifestyle was my starting work, together with this I used to work as a gig photographer at places like Blue Frog. I fell in love with capturing concerts and gigs to start with, and working with Rolling Stones was my official breakthrough and something I crossed off on my check list.Monisha Ajgaonkar at home in Mumbai
What is it about photography that you loved, and did it provide an escape or outlet from your family?
I quit studying at an early age; I was fortunate to have found my passion at an early age and go after it. I was lucky enough to have started with my career assisting a huge name in the Page 3 photography industry at that point. I still clearly recall the day I got my first check – perhaps it wasn’t that substantial of a sum, yet the way that I had earned it was my initial step to want a happier and more satisfying life. Getting up each day realizing I needed to go through the day doing what I love was nothing short than rewarding to me.
What were some of the photo awards that you won and which one has been your most special one?
We have won several awards, last year and this year, and received them from very esteemed names of the industry such as Kriti Sanon and Geeta Phogat. With regards to the recognition we gained for this documentary was nothing short than overwhelming, the thought of your work being screened across the globe at festivals makes all my hard work and my team's hard work worth it in the end.
Coming to this film – was it difficult to open up about yourself about this film – especially when you speak to your dad?
It was harder than I thought it would be, I did not want it to come off as a sympathy video or a video glorifying my hardships. It wasn't easy to revisit old memories, to reopen wounds that somewhere down the line remain unhealed, to make that phone call to my father and hear those things, even though I was mentally prepared and I know what I was getting myself into, but at that moment, it hurt more than I anticipated. Till date, a tear may move down my eye each time I hear my dad state “giving birth to me was my worst mistake”, however after that short snapshot of the shortcoming, I pull myself back up and help myself in my motivation to remember life and how far I have come.
I want this short film to touch lives, and make the viewer feel strength, courage and love instead of sadness, sympathy, and heartbreak.
Which have been the most special awards you’ve received for this film, and did you expect the film to do so well?
The amount of support and recognition we at Photo Diary have received through this film was nothing short of overwhelming. We did take this project as a submission for one festival, and who knew we’d gain recognition across the globe for it?
A special award immensely close to my heart would be the one we received as the Best LGBTQ Short Film at Independent Shorts Awards ( Los Angeles, Oct 2020). Considering the hard work my team and I put in to create a stellar film within a short period of time that has touched even a few lives, makes me so proud of my team.
Just the thought of this film getting screened across in Toronto makes me immensely happy. Residing in the city of dreams - Bombay and seeing my short film getting nominated and screened at the PVR gave me a sense of pride and accomplishment.
Internationally you have been written about – as a champion for LGBTQ rights. At what point looking back did you feel, yes, we have achieved a breakthrough in our movement and our voice is being heard?
It was the point at which I did my first LGBTQ shoot “Unmasked”. That story gave me strength and acknowledgement. And the rest is history post which I took several LGBTQ+ shoots – from a lesbian photoshoot to a lesbian wedding – and a shoot with Ogilvy & Mather India, launching a campaign to break the stereotypes and notions about lesbians. I am thankful that we are at last ready to voice our thoughts and not be scared to reveal what makes our identity but till date in a country like India where we hear so much about the gay community, there is not enough said about the lesbian community or the bisexual community.
How did it feel to be interviewed by so many international magazines?
Regardless of the number of interviews I give, each time it appears to be so overpowering to get the adoration and backing from individuals all the way across the globe, it motivates me to wake up and continue doing what I do. The objective is to inspire even one soul through this journey of life. My photography was a voice for me and I need my work to be a voice for a lot more individuals. I am happy that in the end I am perceived as a lady who stirred myself up rather than a “bechari” as a result of my battles.
How difficult is the road ahead for an LGBTQ person?
Every single person has a story to tell and this was mine, touch wood some are blessed to have the support of their family and loved ones. But to conclude I’d say my work turned out to be my best friend, and for everyone, regardless of whether you are a part of this community or not, whatever challenge you my face just know, in the end it's important to find a passion and go after it. If you love what you do, life might not get easier but it definitely gets better as the day progresses. I have through the course of life learned to love myself and proudly embrace who I am, and this story is for every person who is scared to be different.
I need this short film to touch lives, and let the viewer feel strength, courage, and love instead of sadness, sympathy and heartbreak.
You mention in the film that you wish that the man in the film was your dad and that woman your sister – why?
After 10 years of experience as a wedding photographer and much the same as every girl’s fantasy, I too pictured a beautiful wedding with my family around me. Being born as a girl in India comes with its own set of orthodox taboos but identifying as a queer Indian girl comes with a whole other set of stereotypical baggage. I will probably never be the daughter my father expected me to be, and maybe I crushed my family dreams. God had an alternate arrangement for me and I realize I have arrived at a point in my life where I want to get married, I still want a family, I still want to walk down the aisle, and I still want my family to be a part of my celebration. And being a wedding photographer, reminds me of this every day, catching these eccentric unions, capturing their raw emotions and their family being a part of their celebration. What gets my heart throbbing is the acknowledgment that I will never have that in my life.
What is your biggest dream in life?
I think to say out loud is my biggest dream in life. I have a lot of things planned for the future, and I would like them to come as a surprise, so I wouldn't want to reveal much. In conclusion, let's just say I will keep hustling, keep inspiring, and keep trying to be the change.
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