"Documentary filmmakers are the Dalits in Indian Cinema hierarchy”

Published: April 3, 2014 - 14:15 Updated: April 3, 2014 - 15:45

Face to face: Nishtha Jain

A militant woman outfit, wielding lathis, fighting against the male patriarchs and the defunct government machinery in Bundelkhand is tough to imagine. And yet, it exists, and continues to expand its reach. Nishtha Jain’s Gulabi Gang is a documentary on Sampat Pal and her group, who continue to defy the deeply entrenched anti-women notions. This wonderfully shot and scripted film is also about the confusions that these women face in their daily lives. Hardnews spoke to Jain about Gulabi Gang and the difficulties she faced to ensure that the documentary reaches
maximum audience.

Tell us a little about how you came across Sampat Pal and the idea of making a film on the Gulabi Gang?

I first heard about her from a friend in 2008. I read about her on the net and went to meet her in January 2009. After meeting her I decided to make the film; it took me six months to garner some small funds but when I was about to go, I learnt she had said yes to a UK team. I had to defer my shoot. In 2010 I was approached by a Norwegian producer who knew I was working on the film. He offered to produce the film so we signed a co-production agreement. We began shooting in September 2010. We shot for five months and the post production took almost two years and we premiered in 2012. 

How is the Gulabi Gang different from other women’s rights groups active in other parts of the country?

Most of the other women’s rights groups that I know are NGOs. While this is registered as an NGO it doesn’t function as one. It’s more of a spontaneous, loosely defined movement that has evolved over the years. Sampat herself was quite different from what she was in 2009. 

At one point in the film when a woman is killed and later burnt, it seemed that Sampat suggested a compromise (that the families resolve it among themselves) but changed her stance when you put that question to her. Tell us a little about that incident... 

I’d like to correct you – in the film you don’t see a woman being killed or burnt, only a charred dead body. Sampat had been invited by her distant relatives to help them. They said a young woman in the family had committed suicide by burning herself. When Sampat reached there she was shocked to find a dead body just lying there. She was sharp enough to know that it wasn’t a body that was burnt a few hours ago as the family was suggesting. She was confused – on the one hand she said they (the family) had killed her and on the other she offered to help reach a ‘compromise.’ She knew the camera was on all the time. But all I can say is that while it was clear that it was not a case of suicide from cursory evidence, how could one be sure it’s a murder? After all, these conclusions can only be reached only after a thorough investigation. When I asked her about the compromise, she said that in any case the compromise would take place whether she was there or not. She went on to explain that this is what happens all the time. And that for me is the most interesting thing. The majority of these cases are not reported; instead the police is bribed and helps the families reach a compromise. Whether Sampat would have helped her distant family cover up the murder, we will never know. Because she also found out while she was there that the mother of the dead girl was her cousin. All I know is that it was a very shocking moment for Sampat and her associate Jaiprakash as it was for us. She realized that she’d been called there actually to preside over a murder cover-up. Her extended family and the villagers asked her help cover up in front of our camera and to our shock they even asked us to help them. It just goes to show the kind of immunity the people have. Women are killed in these areas and hardly anyone is ever punished. We will bring out the detailed footage of this scene, hopefully as extras in the DVD.  

Even later in the film, one of the members of the Gulabi Gang seemed to have mobilized other members to frame the spouse of her sister instead of the brother who seemed to be the killer of the sister according to one of the versions. [s1] Such tactics are otherwise associated with members of political parties....

So much is hearsay and we don’t know exactly what happened. We were not there. We see in the film that Husna and Suman have contrary versions of what happened that evening.

The corruption in these parts is widespread and people lie all the time. Even victims lie about their victimization. Everybody is tainted here. However, I don’t understand the urban puritanical reaction to corruption in these parts as if urban areas are any better. The difference here is that people haven’t learnt that women are supposed to be equal. That’s quite an alien notion. They are very honest about the fact that in their society women are quite dispensable, literally speaking. 

The woman later leaves the Gang, seemingly distraught as to how the senior leaders of the Gulabi Gang refused to recognize the fact that the man who did the killing was her brother[s2]  and how she supports what the brother did to her sister in the name of honour. Has the Gulabi Gang not been able to change this outlook?  

The Gulabi Gang has been able to change the attitudes to quite an extent. But we are talking about 150,000 gang members and deep-rooted patriarchy. And let’s not forget that blood ties fail almost hundred percent of the people in any part of the world. That’s universal human nature. And Husna could be operating out of fear. But aren’t we putting the huge burden of bringing change on one woman? Sampat Pal and her band of 13 commanders are all poor women and they are doing what they can do within the limits of their visions and means.My question is where is the government? Where are the NGOs? Where is the media? This area, like many others in our country, suffers from neglect not only from the government but from all of us. 

Tell us about the difficulties you faced in promoting the film? 

Even while it was getting all these big awards in international film festivals, it was rejected by most of the important film festivals in India. I had had only three screenings in the period of one year. Festivals are a documentary filmmakers primary source of distribution so I missed out on this account. Fortunately, a small festival in Dharamshala (DIFF) screened the film. Even though it was small festival, there was a lot of media presence and quite a few wrote about the film in great detail. That really helped and led to more screenings in other cities which were well attended. Then finally, the selection of the film at MIFF, Mumbai brought a lot of attention, especially as I got the best director award for the film. 

Is the space for independent cinema shrinking further? 

Things have been improving in the last five years or so. But it’s not like what it was in the 60s and 70s or even pre-cable days. The National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) has revived and so has the Films Division of India. [s3] But documentary filmmakers are the dalits in the cinema hierarchy in India and they still have a long struggle ahead.   

This story is from print issue of HardNews