Fever dream: In this story, ladies first, second and third - Hindustan Times
close_game
close_game

Fever dream: In this story, ladies first, second and third

ByNatasha Rego
Feb 23, 2024 05:16 PM IST

Sultana’s Dream by Spanish animator Isabel Herguera follows a young woman who searches for Ladyland, inspired by a story by Bengali writer Rokeya Hossain.

What would it look like if women ruled the world?

Ladyland is a dream world that’s run by women and where men are confined indoors. In Sultana’s Dream, Inés’s journey to then find a real Ladyland is depicted through three animation styles in the film — mehendi art, shadow puppetry and hand-painting. (Sultana Films SL) PREMIUM
Ladyland is a dream world that’s run by women and where men are confined indoors. In Sultana’s Dream, Inés’s journey to then find a real Ladyland is depicted through three animation styles in the film — mehendi art, shadow puppetry and hand-painting. (Sultana Films SL)

More than a century ago, the Bengali feminist writer Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain followed that line of thought through rather dark alleyways.

A pioneering women’s rights advocate in the early 1900s, Hossain (1880-1932) wrote of her vision in a story titled Sultana’s Dream, published in 1905.

In this tale, written in English, the men thoughtlessly rush into a war and suffer great losses, while the women, who are scientists, inventors and rulers of Ladyland, devise a way to end the war non-violently. The men are then confined indoors and stripped of their freedoms. It is a world order that comes at a price, but a lower price than the alternative, the book would seem to argue.

The Spanish animator Isabel Herguera, 61, first came across this story in 2012, while on one of her many trips to India (she was visiting faculty at the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, at the time).

She has now turned the story into a film titled Sultana’s Dream, with layers added from the now, and from her own life.

In the film, a young Spanish animator named Inés stumbles upon Hossain’s story and is intrigued by it, because of her own inability to dream. She goes in search of Hossain’s grave (which, incidentally, is in Sodepur, West Bengal). She wants to learn more about this writer, and maybe find a real-world Ladyland.

She visits ashrams for widows at Vrindavan, but is chased out. Hires an autorickshaw to aid in her quest, but it turns out to be driven by a man who cannot see.

The film features English, Hindi, Spanish, Basque and Bengali, and three styles of animation, crafted by a range of studios. A mehendi art-inspired section narrates the story of Sultana’s Dream; shadow puppetry depicts the life and times of Hossain; and hand-painted backgrounds populate Inés’s travels in India and Spain.

Isabel Herguera, 61, first came across Sultana’s Dream in 2012, at an art gallery while on one of her many trips to India. “n one corner, on a table, was a red book with an image of a woman piloting a spaceship, in Gond art, on the cover,” she says. She knew immediately she wanted to make this film. (Thomas Schaekel)
Isabel Herguera, 61, first came across Sultana’s Dream in 2012, at an art gallery while on one of her many trips to India. “n one corner, on a table, was a red book with an image of a woman piloting a spaceship, in Gond art, on the cover,” she says. She knew immediately she wanted to make this film. (Thomas Schaekel)

The film recently won the Basque Cinema Award at the San Sebastián International Film Festival and has been screened at DOK Leipzig in Germany; and at the Tokyo International Film Festival, among others. Excerpts from an interview.

You stumbled upon Sultana’s Dream quite by accident…

Yes. I entered a gallery of Gond art in New Delhi, because it had started to rain. I love folk art, so I started to look around, and in one corner, on a table, was a red book with an image of a woman piloting a spaceship, in Gond art, on the cover. It was Sultana’s Dream, written in 1905. I turned the page and read about Rokeya Hossain and her idea of Ladyland, and right at that moment, I knew I wanted to make this film.

What kind of research went into making it?

In the beginning, I didn’t know where to start. So I did a series of workshops with women and girls of different age groups in India and Spain, around Ladyland and the idea of this upside-down utopia where women are in command and men stay at home.

The youngest, from six to eight years, were free-minded little girls, who imagined men being pregnant and dreamed of being astronauts. The adolescents were much more timid, and chose to paint their thoughts according to the story.

Where it got interesting was in the next age groups, of young women students from NID and women from the self-help organisation SEWA. They said the first thing that they would do if they were in charge and the men stayed at home, was to go out at night and not feel fear; undress on a hot day and jump into the water; not have to control how much water they drank because they knew they could relieve themselves anywhere.

The idea of an upside-down world unlocked so much.

How much of the film is autobiographical?

It’s loosely autobiographical. Long before we started on the film, the heritage scholar Tathagata Neogi helped me find Rokeya’s grave in Sodepur. I felt so close to whatever was left of her. He helped me find the Sakhawat Memorial girls’ school, which Rokeya built in 1905, and which still runs. And he helped me find her family home in Kolkata. Until recently, there was not a lot of information publicly available about her.

Some places and events are pure fantasy, for instance I haven’t been to Rokeya’s hometown of Pairabad in Bangladesh. In the movie, the town memorialises her. There is no such memorial in the real world.

What, to your mind, is the significance of Sultana’s Dream today?

When I read of women being harassed, attacked and abused, I always think of Rokeya and how certain she was, 100 years ago, of what could be. Many things have changed since then, of course. The law is more on our side. But there are still so many traditions that confine women. And to have Rokeya’s voice alive today is a powerful reminder that we must continue to dream.

Are you a cricket buff? Participate in the HT Cricket Quiz daily and stand a chance to win an iPhone 15 & Boat Smartwatch. Click here to participate now.

Catch your daily dose of Fashion, Health, Festivals, Travel, Relationship, Recipe and all the other Latest Lifestyle News on Hindustan Times Website and APPs.

Continue reading with HT Premium Subscription

Daily E Paper I Premium Articles I Brunch E Magazine I Daily Infographics
freemium
SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
Share this article
SHARE
Story Saved
Live Score
OPEN APP
Saved Articles
Following
My Reads
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Wednesday, April 17, 2024
Start 14 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now
Follow Us On