By V. Radhika, Womens Feature Service
The motley crowd squirms as Sampat Pal reveals a well concealed family secret: The veiled woman standing beside her refuses to stay in the marital home because of being repeatedly raped by her father-in-law. The family members attempt to shush Pal, imploring her not to publicise the “shameful” incident and Pal’s instant retort is “Where was the shame when he was raping her?”
“That is what Sampat does well: bring out things in the open. If there were more people like her all these taboos would be broken,” says Kim Longinotto, acclaimed documentary filmmaker, whose latest feature ‘Pink Saris’ follows Pal, and five women whose paths intersect with her in the dusty backyard of India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh (UP).
The firebrand that she is, Pal doesn’t flinch in laying open the issues that her patriarchal society tries to keep under warps. She is the founder-leader of Gulabi Gang that takes up cudgels for dalit women (the lowest in the caste hierarchy) in UP. Be it inter-caste marriages, domestic violence or child marriages, the all-women vigilante group gets on to the street to reason/argue and fight if necessary.
‘Pink Saris’ was one of the 339 features that were screened at the 35th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and Longinotto’s latest offering is a continuation of her interest in women-oriented issues.
The award-winning filmmaker’s documentaries have taken viewers to different corners of the world and into the lives of women/girls and their struggles and triumphs against odds. From the Iranian teenage girls, who flee abusive families (‘Runway’), to the cross-dressing Japanese women who train for stylised theatricals in ‘Dream Girls’, or the genital mutilation drama being played out in Kenyan villages (‘The Day I Will Never Forget’), Longinotto’s work has been acknowledged for its incisiveness and empathy for its subjects.
The filmmaker’s oeuvre also includes documentaries that have provided “never-seen-before” images from society’s secret spaces – ‘Divorce Iranian Style’, for instance, showcases the rarely-seen interplay of warring husbands and wives inside an Islamic family court; ‘Shinjuku Boys’ explores a hidden world of female-to-male transsexuals and transvestites who cater to lovelorn straight women at the “New Marilyn Club” in Tokyo. The ‘Day I Will Never Forget’ takes an unflinching look at the problem of clitoridectomies in African villages, including an operation on a screaming nine-year-old girl.
Talking about her subjects, Longinotto says she empathises with “the outsiders, the people struggling. If women have no rights, if they are completely powerless, then they’re the ones that you’re going to want to make films about. Women are more interesting maybe because they have less powers.”
For ‘Pink Saris’ Longinotto set her foot – and camera – for the very first time in India and that too in UP, with temperatures of 42 degrees centigrade and electricity yet to make an appearance. She got there after being approached by a company inquiring if she would be interested in making a film about Sampat Pal. “They asked me if I would do it and I immediately said yes. I like making films about strong women, and particularly women who are brave outsiders. We see them too rarely on our screens and yet, wherever I go, I meet them. I want the audience to feel close to the people in my films, to identify with them in some way, to think, ‘That could be my sister, my daughter’. And I said yes also because the films I like watching and making are films about change,” says the London-based filmmaker, who was in Toronto for the film’s screening.
It is this interest in change that makes Longinotto focus on the human stories rather than the demonstration and lathi fights that the Gulabi Gang has been in the news for. The result is a multilayered portrayal not only of Pal and the women who approach her in hope of justice but also of the times they live in. While Pal is the binding force of Pink Saris, the nucleus is the five women who land at her doorstep in their search for justice. There is Rekha Paswan, a young dalit in love with an upper caste boy, who is now pregnant; Renu Devi, who seeks divorce from her husband so she can marry the boy she is in love with; Niranjan Pal, who is routinely beaten up by husband and in-laws; Rampyari Yadav whose father-in-law rapes her at will while her husband works in the city; and Kunni who is also subjected to domestic violence but has no place to seek refuge in.
For all these women, Pal holds hope. Married at 12, Pal was forced out of her marital home. Alone, illiterate and out on the street with five children to support, she rose from the brink of starvation. Today she takes up cudgels for her ilk. Outspoken and confrontational, she is ever ready for a fight, but it is a tough battle. Pal loses more than she wins, but she wields enough clout to be heard – by the people, local media and the police. She manages to get Rekha married, secures a divorce for Renu and confronts Rampyari’s in-laws.
But the forces she is battling are far more powerful than she or her Gulabi Gang. And some victories, like Renu’s, turn out to be pyrrhic. Renu gets a divorce but her upper caste lover abandons her under family pressure. In Niranjan’s case, there is family dynamics involved. Pal’s initial belligerence at the girl’s in-laws softens and she persuades Niranjan (who is related to Sampat’s husband) to return home in an attempt to buy peace with her husband’s family.
The documentary doesn’t fail to capture the complexities of Pal’s character. There is a hint of arrogance, a dash of histrionics and flashes of an uncompromising attitude. On more than one occasion she seems to transfuse her own experiences into those of others. But it is also clear that the woman, who spends a lot of her waking hours fighting for others, has her own festering inner wounds and has no one to turn to. Longinotto captures all of it. As she put it, “What I hope is in its very small way it makes a difference. Films don’t change the world, and we all know that, but it can be part of a change that other people can achieve, which is changing consciousness.”
The making of this film has forged a bond between the filmmaker and the five women whom she focused on. Says Longinotto, “I am haunted by them and wanted to sort out their lives. You can’t completely sort somebody’s life out but you can give them a chance, give them a springboard. We owe them that at the least.” It is an involvement that has never happened before in any of her work. “My responsibility and love is for those girls,” asserts the film maker quietly.
She is now trying to get those women a passport: “We want to get them away from families for couple of weeks, set up bank accounts for them, photograph them in England and do whatever we can. All I can do is help our five girls. My job is getting the film out and hope people will pick it up.”