Megan Doneman was just 13 when she first heard about Kiran Bedi, the maverick policewoman who rattled India’s corrupt bureaucracy with her unconventional methods. But it would be another 10 years before Doneman, by then an assistant editor with movies such as Mission: Impossible II to her name, would decide to make her the focus of an extensive documentary, Yes Madam, Sir. The documentary, which took six years to make and which finally premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, is already garnering rave reviews.
American show business trade bible Variety called it “an enthralling chronicle” that “ought to attract widespread pubcaster interest”. With Doneman basking in the success of her first feature- length film, we spoke to her about her long journey, shadowing Bedi, and why this controversial figure continues to surprise her. Edited excerpts:
Bedi will next star in a reality show on Star Plus. India Today Images
Early reviews at the Toronto Film Festival last month were glowing.
I knew it was going to be a crowd-pleaser, but I was worried critics would write it up as a chick flick. I was really taken aback by the response. It got standing ovations at all public screenings. At press screenings, I was told they all stayed and clapped at the end. We took the hardest road possible, so it’s much more rewarding when people enjoy the film. At filmings we had people walking out saying it’s life-changing, and that’s why we set out to make it in the first place.
How did you become interested in Kiran Bedi?
I first heard about Kiran from my mother Laraine, who has spent a lot of time in India. She told me about Kiran when I was about 13. When I finished university in my 20s, I had directed two short films and was looking for a long film to do. I saw Kiran for the first time on an interview. And I was immediately intrigued by her.
Then I researched her further. I managed to track down her email. I started emailing her. And finally I had a break in my work. My mother was in Bombay, so I flew into Bombay, bought a camera at duty-free, and then we both got robbed of everything on the train ride to Delhi. We arrived with about $20 in our pockets. I had my camera because I had chained it to the train seat. We met her and I instantly thought, this is it. But I knew it was going to be terribly difficult.
Why was it terribly difficult?
It was terribly difficult because I had no external financing and no crew. I financed the entire thing myself. Also I was an Australian girl, travelling solo to a country to film a movie on a very public and controversial figure.
You spent six years making this film.
I didn’t do it full-time. I had a huge career going separately to this. Whenever I had a break, for a week, a month or a few months, I’d fly down to see her. If I hadn’t seen Kiran for a year, I’d spend three months filming around the clock. I just kept filming till I had her story.
Anything that surprised you about Bedi while filming her?
One thing that surprised me is how complex she is. Even after eight years, I’m still seeing sides I didn’t know were there. She’s living in a very complex society, and she’s an anomaly. She’s someone that shouldn’t have existed. That makes her so fascinating. I was with her from 6 in the morning until 11 at night, till she went to bed. You really get to know someone in those circumstances.
The movie does show a personal side to her that most people don’t associate with her.
Megan Doneman. India Today Images
She’s been interviewed a million times, so if I couldn’t get a personal side, I wouldn’t have done it. At the time, she told me I was the first non-family member to stay overnight in her house. That was a big thing for her. It was a huge task for me to do this film. I had a whole other career on the other side of the world, so I’ve had to revolve every choice over the last eight years on the survival of this film.
You also interviewed Bedi’s detractors. What did they have to say?
The critics have to have their say. Some of the critics raised very important points, and I did agree with them. For Tihar jail (where Bedi pushed for reforms, including the introduction of Vipassana meditation), some critics said sometimes when someone comes along with new ideas, if ideas are too far ahead of their time, they won’t be assimilated. It’ll just be dropped after they leave. It’s great to be forward-thinking, but if it’s so far ahead, it’ll never bond. Her thinking was so different from many people that it doesn’t hold. Kiran has her own vision, and she’s going to do that, no matter what she says. She once worked as part of a huge system, and if you want things in that system, you have to work with the system.