Australia director Megan Doneman's lack of Indian experience didn't stop her from documenting one of the country's most controversial figures.
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13 Dec 2011 - 4:50 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:10 PM

Narrated by Helen Mirren, Yes Madam, Sir is the debut feature documentary for Australian filmmaker Megan Doneman. It takes as its subject one of the most controversial figures in contemporary Indian public life, the country's first female Police Service officer, Kiran Bedi.

A dedicated public servant, Kiran Bedi's life is the fabric of legend. In 1972, she applied to join the elite ranks of the Indian Police Service. Her application was initially contested, yet Bedi went on to become the highest-ranking female officer in the force. As Bedi herself says, she stood for “the power to prevent” rather than to punish and in the process redefined policing in India. Advocating education, including when she was assigned to Delhi's notorious Tihar Jail, Bedi became known as an agent of reform, recognised across the world.

To Megan Doneman, Bedi embodied “a real David vs. Goliath epic story of someone who is an anomaly in her society. She pushed against the status quo.”

An assistant editor of large-scale feature films, including Dark City and Babe 2, Doneman made contact with Bedi in 1999 and travelled to India to secure her participation in the film. It was the first time the filmmaker had visited the sub-continent.

“I had no relationship with India,” admits Doneman, “I was a solo, Western young blonde filmmaker making a documentary about a controversial, famous Indian figure that certain people didn't want publicised. My naïveté probably gave me a great deal of courage…. In some respects, I was very ill-equipped, jumping into the middle of a snake pit of something I didn't know a lot about.”

Filmed over a period of six years, Yes Madam, Sir offers a unique window into Indian culture and society. Doneman uses Bedi's life and career to explore a number of both culturally specific and universal themes. These include the toll extracted on individuals who refuse to conform to the established norm, and the fundamental complexities of the Indian Police force. Yes Madam, Sir also explores the traditional role of gender in Indian society and the polarising reactions that emerged as Bedi, and others, demanded change. Doneman concedes it was her gender that was a deciding factor in Bedi's participation in the documentary. “For once, it actually helped that I was a woman,” the director says. “I certainly think my gender helped to make an intimate film about her.”

It was the private life of the public figure that Doneman insisted she capture. “Kiran's had so much press about her work life, I thought if I can't get in and document her personal life then I'm just repeating everyone else's story,” the director reflects. “I was really open with her when I landed on her doorstep. I told her my plans. She had no creative control.”

Bedi insisted that Doneman stayed with her, living under her roof while she worked. As Doneman tells it, “I agreed to live under the rules of the house but I said, 'As far as the filmmaking goes, I'm thoroughly independent. You let me know your schedule and I'll decide if I shoot it or not'. It's a catch-22. You can't get the access and build the relationship without being there 24/7—especially in Kiran Bedi's life. Seismic events can come and go within two hours. You have to be there. She sees that you are there and she starts to include you. But it was incredibly difficult living with [my] subject matter.”

The very difficulties Doneman faced facilitated some of the most rewarding moments in the film. Intimate, observational footage with both Bedi's daughter and husband reveals the reality of living with one of India's most controversial figures as well her access to Bedi's beloved father, whose vision and determination to educate his four girls provided the foundations for her success and strength. Other materials include interviews with numerous colleagues that illuminate the challenges Bedi faced throughout her career, the complex reactions she continues to evoke from her peers and subordinate,, and selections from more than 30 years of archival print and television media kept in storage by Bedi herself.

For Doneman, Bedi proved to be a revelatory subject in all aspects of her life. “Everyone wants to keep something to themselves. I think in a broad way, Kiran is far more transparent than many other individuals. She's very happy to put it all on the table. She would make a critical remark about an institution, a politician or a person. She'd say it and stand by it. It's one of the reasons why she gets into trouble so often. There was one instance when I was there for a 10-day period and she said, 'I think you should leave because I can't guarantee your safety'.”

Threats on Bedi's life are hinted at throughout the film. “She would never openly admit it,” Doneman says. “There is one conversation in the film, 'Everyone wants you buried two hundred feet below'. I shot that through a window – it just happened. I could not get anyone willingly to come on camera and say it up front. They were too scared.”

Yes Madam, Sir screens in limited release. See Antidote Films for more details.