The Dragon Girl’s Story
Young Women’s Zone Chief Alankrita Shrivastava of Mumbai follows her dream of making films for the empowerment of women, not giving up no matter what obstacles lie in her way
I was 21 when I started practising Buddhism. My friend from college introduced me to the practice of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to help me deal with my parents’ illnesses. My mother had been diagnosed with cancer for the second time, with dim chance of recovery. My father had had severe heart attacks, his heart function was poor and he, too, was fighting for his life.
The year was 2001. I looked after my parents and my little brother, who was barely three at the time; my sister was away at boarding school. Between hospitals, our home and taking my brother to school, I found it hard to make time for college. Because of my poor attendance, the professors advised me to leave college and deal with my family problems. With the determination that each Nam-myoho-renge-kyo I chanted would penetrate the life of my father and mother, I participated in meetings, made home visits and studied Ikeda Sensei’s writings and the Gosho, always taking responsibility for the happiness of the members around me.
Eventually both my parents recovered and we overcame our extreme financial problems. Despite the opposition I faced in college, I kept going, refusing to give up. I made my diploma film on my mother’s battle with cancer. I completed college and left Delhi for Mumbai in 2003 to pursue my dream of making films.
Film making is a very difficult and unstable profession to choose for a young woman in India who does not belong to a dynastic film family, but through my Buddhist practice I found the courage and tenacity not to give up on my dream. I wanted to make Sensei and Mrs Ikeda proud through my work by becoming the dragon king’s daughter and paving the way for the enlightenment of women.
It has been a long journey, but I had the Gohonzon and my Gakkai family. I pushed myself to chant early in the morning, encourage my young women’s division members and read the Gosho every day.
I moved up one step at a time, with only one thought: I must win for Sensei. I started as a trainee assistant director, earning barely Rs 5000 a month and living in a redeveloped slum, and worked on different films. I went from assistant director to chief assistant director to executive producer to associate director. I would be travelling for months on end and, as I often worked in an all-male atmosphere, I had to shout really loud to be heard.
In the midst of this, I took the first steps towards making my own film. I wrote and directed a short film about a woman who is struggling with an abusive marriage. After that I started writing my first feature film, a coming-of-age film about a woman who is Turning 30! Life in Mumbai was beset with challenges. I had very little money; I was constantly moving homes; and I worked incredibly long hours, with hardly any holidays. One time the building society tried to browbeat me into vacating the flat I was renting because I was single. With single-minded prayer and complete confidence of victory, I remained undaunted. I completed my first film and released it after a fierce struggle. Thousands of women across the country loved the film, but I did not have the wherewithal to ensure that my niche film made a profit. It took me a long time and many failed attempts at setting up projects to get my second film off the ground. Again, based on daimoku, I simply kept advancing one step at a time. With the profound desire to deepen my understanding of writing for cinema, I applied and was selected for India’s most prestigious screenwriters’ lab. It was through that process that I wrote my new film.
I continued exploring the theme of women’s search for freedom in this film. Determined to shine for Sensei, I worked very hard on every aspect of making the film. I knew these battles were an expedient means for making me a better film-maker and a more sensitive storyteller.
I write and direct films with a consciously female gaze. My two feature films, my short film and my new scripts are about women finding courage, freedom and happiness in the depths of their lives. I feel I am living out my determination to be the dragon king’s daughter.
During this time my faith went through a deep shift. I fought like never before in my zone for BSG to achieve our goals of 100,000, then 150,000 Bodhisattvas of the Earth. Not only did I shakubuku many, morning after early morning I encouraged young women’s division members to stand up with courage. Based on the Gosho and Sensei’s messages, we discussed the purpose of shakubuku — to create a compassionate world in which many more people will believe in universal human dignity and the sanctity of life. Although my film was hopelessly stuck, I plunged into the work of a bodhisattva, to practise Buddhism and win while enabling others also to win.
Meanwhile, after winning a battle with cancer, my father was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. He was constantly in and out of hospital and on the ventilator for a month. He survived, but the disease took its toll on him. Last year, on the eve of the Golden March 16thCeremony, my father had a heart attack and passed away at the young age of 61.
I observed March 16 by lighting my father’s funeral pyre. Through the flames of death arose in my heart the flame of courage. In that crucial moment I felt that Sensei and my father are eternally with me, and that my mother, my brother, my sister and I will be fine. It was 16 years ago when we started our battle for my mother to overcome cancer with the sharp sword of faith. Against all odds, she recovered. She is hale and hearty and leads an active, working life. My sister is a lawyer working in the field of Refugee Rights with UNHCR in Delhi. My brother, sensitive and wise beyond his years, is in second year of college.
Everybody in my family chants. My father also chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo sporadically in the last three years of his life while he was struggling with failing health. I plunged into kosen-rufu with an understanding of mission deeper than ever before. I chanted daimoku like a ferocious lion, giving my life to working for the Gakkai. I did shakubuku without hesitation; worked on BSG videos without begrudging my life; fought alongside my YWD members; and on some days even chanted daimoku for five hours. Working on BSG videos, particularly, helped me understand the rhythm of our organization and deepened my bond with Sensei because I knew that through the videos I would be communicating Sensei’s heart to all BSG members.
Moving towards the goal of 150,000 bodhisattvas, in one week 10 of my shakubukus became members. It was an amazing feeling! And after a year’s gridlock, my film was selected to premiere in competition at the Tokyo International Film Festival. While the actual release and distribution in India were still question marks, my film was screened publicly for the first time in my mentor’s land. My joy knew no bounds.
Back home in Mumbai, my film won the inaugural Oxfam Award for the Best Film on Gender Equality on the day I chanted at Daiseido for the first time. A few days later, I won The Spirit of Asia Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival. It was an incredible honour. I received a message from Sensei saying that he is praying for my continued success.
The film was selected for other prestigious film festivals — in Stockholm, Miami, Paris, Glasgow, Tallinn, London, Amsterdam, Los Angeles, New York, Cairo, Dallas, Washington, Athens, Hawaii and several other places. Sometimes I wondered how my film could compete with award-winning films made by accomplished filmmakers from across the world, but I simply prayed to believe that my film has a mission beyond what I can see. Meanwhile, the censor board in India refused to certify my film, saying it is too feminist. The story of four ordinary women, secretly chasing their small dreams and trying to steal a little freedom from the claustrophobia of their lives, was deemed unfit for public exhibition — because, I think, my film threatens the fabric of patriarchy upon which our society is built.
I reached Glasgow for the film festival with a heavy heart, but from somewhere inside myself I found the courage to challenge the censor board on their unfair decision. After that, one after another, national and international media and other organizations, and women across the country, started to speak up in support of my film, defending the rights of women and the freedom of expression. A conversation that had been due for decades, started.
At the Glasgow Film Festival, my film won the only award which in the previous year had been won by an Oscar-nominated film. On March 14 my film also won the Best Feature Audience Choice Award at the CinemAsia Film Festival in Amsterdam. On March 19, the morning of the March 16 commemorative meeting, I was informed that my film had won the Grand Jury Prize for the Best Feature Film, the highest honour, at Films de Femmes, Creteil, France, which is the oldest and most prestigious women’s film festival in the world. That same night we won the Best Film and the Best Actress (Ratna Pathak Shah) awards at the London Asian Film Festival.
The struggle to release my film continued but I kept refreshing my determination, telling myself I will win, one day at a time. The Daishonin says, “Iron, when heated in the flames and pounded, becomes a fine sword. Worthies and sages are tested by abuse” (‘LETTER FROM SADO’, WND-1, 303). I have been tested in unimaginable ways, but my faith remains firm. In the last few weeks I felt as though all my 16 years of Buddhist practice had trained me to develop the courage to fearlessly question the gender norms of popular culture in India and to speak up for the right of women to express themselves. Finally after a long battle the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal has overturned the Censor Board decision, and directed them to certify the film, validating every argument that we made in favour of the film. The film can now be legally exhibited in India.
My film has also become eligible for the prestigious Golden Globes Awards. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association chose to make the Los angeles screening at Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, an official HFPA screening. I now have to campaign for a nomination at the Golden Globes. And I determine to use this opportunity to win the most monumental and eternal honour for Sensei and the Soka Gakkai Arts Division.
In 2017, through efforts in my own life, I determine to help raise a transformative force of 100,000 capable youth who will contribute to the betterment of society, each in their own unique ways. As one of those 100,000 transformative youth, I determine to continue on my path of making films about women that challenge the status quo, and win an Oscar to bring glory to Ikeda Sensei.