Teenage Girls Discover Life Through Camera Lens

There are some young, budding filmmakers in Uttar Pradesh who are capturing poignant personal stories and social realities on film. No, they are not students of some fancy film school; they are teenaged girls, who, until a few months back, had never held a camera in their hands; whose world revolved around their modest home and school; and who, as the sole earning member of their family, have been struggling daily to make ends meet.

Ever since the sudden demise of her mother, Lucknow-based Laxmi Nishad, 19, has been the sole provider for her five-member family, including her alcoholic father. “My sister was just 11 months old when my mother passed away. My father, who drinks all the time, refused to give us any money or even look after us. So the responsibility of running the household fell entirely on me. I was just 13 and all alone with no one to help or guide me. It’s then that I began to work as a housemaid, sweeping, swabbing floors and washing utensils in people’s homes to earn money. When my sister grew older she too joined me,” says the young girl.

Like all regular teenage girls, Nishad dreamt of normal life and a chance to go to school so that she could achieve something in life. She got lucky the day she heard about Prerna Girls’ School that happens to be near her locality. At this afternoon school, established by the Study Hall Educational Foundation, over 600 girls like Laxmi, from the neighbouring slums, not only gain quality education, but through regularly organised activities like theatre workshops, quizzes, creative writing and singing, they have fun as they learn.

It’s at her school that Nishad first discovered life through a camera lens. This happened last year when a special One Minutes Junior workshop was organised at Prerna Girls School in partnership with the Netherlands-based The One Minute Foundation and Unicef.

During the course of the workshop, she got to tell her story that finally took the shape of a one-minute video on her life, which she aptly called, ‘Me and My Life’. Says the youngster, “I always wanted a proper home and I found it at the Prerna Girls School where I study now. So I wanted to tell people my story and I did that through the film I made at the One Minute’s Junior workshop.”

Laxmi’s friend, Preeti Rawat, 18, chose to talk about the unfair practice of dowry that many families of young girls like her face. Through her one-minute film, ‘Dowry’ Rawat made the powerful point that women are more valuable than the dowry they bring. Elaborates Rawat, “When we were asked to think about an idea on which we would like to make a film, I instantly chose to capture the evils of dowry. By scripting and shooting for my one-minute film I was able to speak my mind, tell everyone that dowry was wrong. It was a wonderful feeling.”

For Karen Cirillo, Executive Producer – Children’s Section, Unicef New York, who oversaw the workshop, these confident voices are priceless. She says, “The workshops we organise with The One Minute Foundation create an opportunity for young people’s voices to be heard. This is what we have taught the 14 girls here in Lucknow. They have learnt to give voice to their thoughts. Each one of them has gone through an experience that they wanted to not only talk about but show the world.”

Even Olivia Glebbeek and Arnar Ageirson of The One Minute Foundation found the girls to be fiercely independent when it came to expressing themselves. Says Glebbeek, “We visit many countries and work with children, helping them to make their one-minute movies. Usually the issues that are touched upon are those that broadly affect children on the whole. Working with the girls from Prerna School gave me a chance to understand the life of an Indian girl child. Every minute of her existence is a struggle to survive, express herself and make a place for herself, in spite of all the restrictions put on her right from birth. All the 14 films made had a pinch of personal experience added to the script, which I thought was very unique.”

For their films, the students came up with their own ideas, created the drawing boards, went on location and shot their whole movie by themselves – just like all the other children who have been part of the One Minute’s workshops held across the globe. “We have conducted over 100 such workshops in different parts of the world and twice in India. These films when done are put out for everyone to see on YouTube, on TV programmes, in conferences and seminars around the world and they are screened at Unicef events that focus on the young children and the issues concerning them in different parts of the world,” adds Cirillo.

Apart from fighting for their survival and identity, these young girls are also the only earning hands for their family. Most double up as salesgirls at the Prerna canteen; others take up some odd jobs within the school to earn a living. Some even work as housemaids in the posh houses near the slums they live in, coming to class in the afternoon.

Of course, all this hard work hasn’t dampened their desire to be normal teenagers. Take Arti Gupta, 17, who describes herself as a “new age” girl. She certainly represents the youth of today, firmly believing that the first step towards leading a life on her own terms would involve becoming economically independent. Elaborates Gupta, “When I came to Prerna School, I was not sure how I could begin earning right away. Then I got to know about the part-time work opportunities that we can take up while studying and for me it was a god sent opportunity.” Today, she does shift duty at the school boutique and earns Rs 2000 (US$1=Rs 51) a month.

Predictably, Gupta chose to call her movie ‘Stepping Out’, which talks about the much-coveted freedom that girls are being deprived of today. She has showcased her own fight for liberation and how she became a role model for girls in her community.

Renu Soni, a chirpy 17-year-old, named her film, ‘Beyond Fear Is Winning’, which is about adolescent girls being afraid to participate in activities in society and school being constantly suppressed by their family. Quips Soni, “I never thought there would be so many people watching what I wanted to say. I was always afraid of going on stage but now with my film I have taken the centre-stage. I am so much more confident than I was before; I too can be an achiever.”

In fact, all the 14 debutante filmmakers got to feel like super achievers at the special screening of their films, where special invitees, Shashank Shekhar Tripathi, Editor-in-Chief of ‘Dainik Jagran’, a prominent Hindi daily newspaper, Sunita Aron, Resident Editor of the ‘Hindustan Times’ and Gulab Chand, Additional Director General, All India Radio Uttar Pradesh,sat through with rapt attention.

For the young women, this is just the beginning. Brimming with confidence and courage, they are ready to not only face life’s tough challenges, they are no longer hesitant to show the world their world.