The Rich, the Poor, the Heroines

in 14th Mumbai International Film Festival for Documentary, Short and Animation Films

by Carlos Alberto Mattos

A single festival isn’t enough to provide great conclusions, but it may give some clues as to how a theme or character can be handled in contemporary cinema. During the 12th Mumbai International Film Festival I focused my attention on the images of Indian women emerging from documentaries in the various sections of the festival.

A variety of characters and of approaches were covered, from a Rajasthan ex-princess filmed by a Belgian filmmaker, up to boxing girls of Uttar Pradesh documented by a young female director recently graduated from a school of cinema inCalcutta, passing by surrogate mothers in a “babies farm” of Gujarat, and including contemporary heroines involved with the helping of mistreated young girls and with political protests against the caste system. A broad spectrum of Indian society and its problems passed by the saris and jeans ofthose women.

Memoirs of a Hindu Princess puts into contrast images of Faustfrom the era of the maharajahs and the ruin of their heritage through the reminiscences and archive images of Gayatri Devi, the last Maharani (wife of Maharaja) of India. Still a beautiful and elegant woman when filmed by Françoise Levi in 1996, Gayatri in herdays of greatest glory was a friend of Kings and Presidents, once compared to Jacqueline Onassis. She founded the first school for girls from Rajasthan and led a politicalparty of opposition to Indira Gandhi. She died in 2010, as always revered by all castes — especially by the humble “untouchable” women who then inhabited her old and huge Palace in Jaipur. The images of Gayatri revisiting their crumbling palaces are among the most potent inthe film. Much of the history of modern India is represented by its particular history: the loss of power and privilege by maharajahs and the ongoingmaintenance ofcertain grandeur, almost fictional, in the attitudes and ideals. “Nothing influences me,” is how she responds to a question from the filmmaker about herupbringing.

If Gayatri Devi, in her later years, practiced charity as a way to link to herpast opulence, the protagonist of Pink Saris, Sampat Pal Devi, is a woman of the people who devoted herlife to helping other women. She leads a certain Pink Gang, allegedly dedicated to defend and host women victims of violence and abandonment in an impoverished region of Northern India. We don’t see the gang’s action — which can be a weakness inthe film — or the insinuation of a strategy of character. Witnessed only is Sampat’s individual commitment to addressing issues surrounding irresponsible husbands and violent in-laws, protecting girls fleeing arranged marriages and advocating for lovers of different castes who wish to realise their romance.

The motherly relationship with one of these girls forms the emotional core of the film, with repercussions on herown backstory of a strong and apparently invulnerable woman. But the set of situations involving her own family also shows acomplexity to Sampat, a megalomaniacal, contradictory character, possibly a fraud, but for the good. The informal “sues” embraced by Sampat unveil most retrograde conventions of Indian society. There is place for astonishment, good humor and moments of such commotion that could have belonged to an Ingmar Bergman film.

Pink Saris is one more investigation from Kim Longinotto regarding the condition of women in disparate countries. An interesting aspectofher work is that she still uses large cameras, instead of the “digital intimacy” in vogue. According to Kim, what counts is not the size of the equipment, but the trust that is established with the characters. That’s why it is common in her films for people to break with the pact of invisibility of the camera and talk to her. One of the young women shot in Pink Saris tells her a secret that not even Sampat, her protector, should know.

Acting in a different sphere to Sampat Pal Devi, but in an even more risky front, is Sheetal Sathe, the young singer of political protest who dominates the final moments of Jai Bhim Comrade, by veteran helmer Anand Patwardhan. A large panel of the struggle against discrimination of the “untouchables”, this long and detailed documentary reveals an increasing participation of women in the Ambedkarite Dalits. This movement draws on the legacy of anti-segregationist D.R. Ambedkar, a rare successful dalitwhom Gandhi called for drafting the Constitution of independent India. Currently living in hiding after the companions of her musical group were arrested on charges of “Maoism”, Sheetal Sathequickly turns out to be a heroine in the struggle of the dalits against the social and religious taboos that sustain the atrocious caste system. More interesting than Sheetal however, is the process of awareness of her mother as depicted in the film. At first a devout and fearful woman in face of the activities of her daughter; at the end she becomes some kind of Gorkian mother, preaching openly by the same cause.

One of the most dramatic aspects of the global North-South relations is the provision of bodily resources of Indian women for the European and North American purchase market. Other documentaries have focused on international trade of organ transplants and hair. Womb of the World, directed by Rajendra Kondapalli Srivathsa, discusses the hiring of surrogate mothers to meet the demand of couples from richer countries. The film focuses ona clinic in Anand, state of Gujarat, where the surrogates spend the nine months while carrying someone else’s fertilised egg. For these women, the contract represents the ability to pay off debts, buy a home and pay for the education of their own children. For contracting parents, it represents the chance to fulfillan otherwise impossible dream.

Womb of the World presents its themes with emphases on a very televised style and sometimes sounds like a clinic’s institutional view, insofar as it quickly disposes of the arguments against this disputed practice. But there is no denying the effectiveness with which the film follows the process of a Canadian couple in their thrilled relationship with the pregnancy sold by a humble Indian surrogate. A case study like this, even if conducted in a somewhat biased and overly dramatized way, might be more instructive than a generic panel full of stats and testimonials of experts.

At the other end of the submission represented by the wombs for rent lie the fair play and self-confidence of the three sisters portrayed in The Boxing Ladies. Coming out of adolescence and a Calcutta slum, three sisters defy conventions of genre and of Muslim behavior by embracing boxing, at first as fun and later as a profession. By means of great synthesis, the short film of Anusha Nandakumar manages to emphasize both the similarities and differences between Zainab, Bushra and Sughra. Each has herown perception of what it is to be feminine, though all equal in the resolute and playful way they face punches and prejudices.

In these five very different films, some directed by foreign film makers, pulse pictures that are able to punctuate the dynamics of the feminine condition in a country where such an issue is still crucial. The intersection of religious traditions, cultural, social and economic circumstances make of Indian women a current laboratory where everything is happening: from nobility to profound humiliation, from precariousness to heroism.