The road for a documentary filmmaker is long, arduous and uncertain. Often people ask us ‘what keeps you going?’ The hardship and risks are all ‘givens’ in the field of documentary. What’s difficult to accept is that the film may never reach the larger audience. My film Gulabi Gang is to be released in India through PVR Cinemas on February 21. The film is being presented by Recyclewalas, of Ship of Theseus fame. But today we’re asking a different question: Is there an audience for serious cinema in India?
My journey with the film started in January 2009 when I first met Sampat Pal, the founder-leader of the Gulabi Gang. Welcoming us to the dusty, small town called Attara near Banda in Uttar Pradesh was this rough and tough woman with a commanding voice. Her speech, splashed with idioms and wise-sayings, immediately captivated us. She’s a feminist with her own home-grown brand. How did she grow to be so independent in an area where most women still remained behind veils? She’s completely self-made. She was born in an Ahir family, married off at the age of 12 while studying in grade 3 to a man 20 years older than her. However, the rebellious streak in her led her to join a women’s NGO. When her in-laws protested against her activism, she packed her bags and left home with her five children and opened a teashop in Attara. Her husband followed in her footsteps. In 2006 she started the Gulabi Gang and soon became a local celebrity. Soon she got international fame.
But what really impressed me was her relationship with her male colleague Jaiprakash with whom she shared an office-cum-home space away. He was her translator, writer, bouncing board, punching bag, escort and friend all rolled into one. When they went to villages to mobilize women, the rural women were shocked to see them sit and eat together, considering he is neither her husband nor relative. ‘It’s a shock tactic’, she explained, ‘to make the women understand’.
She was still euphoric from her recent visit to Paris where she had gone for the release of her biography. ‘Bonjoo’, ‘messy’… she was trying to recall some French words she had learnt. She was upset that a French journalist had compared her with Phoolan Devi, “She never empowered herself. She used the same language of retaliation as her perpetrators”. When we walked with Sampat in the main streets of Attara, everyone seemed to know her and respect her and a crowd formed as soon as she stopped to talk to someone. Even gun-toting mustachioed men on motorcycles stopped for a word with her. Men waved out from cars with dark windowpanes. In these macho and harsh surroundings, to see a woman in a pink sari becoming the centre of attraction was such an interesting experience. We spent a few days following her. A big part of her work was to arbitrate in marital conflicts, helping families reach a settlement to avoid long, expensive legal battles. She handled these cases efficiently. Had Sampat Pal not been an activist she would have been a successful detective or a lawyer.
My relationship with Sampat was rocky — difficult to tell when she would fly off the handle. In a way she still hadn’t become suave in handling the media but that’s the quality I liked. No feature documentary had been made on her so I decided to make a film. She agreed. It took me six months to get a small grant from the IDFA Fund. I was about to set out for the shoot when I learnt that a foreign team had arrived at Sampat’s place and secured an exclusivity contract to shoot with her. I suddenly realized that I had lost out in a race I wasn’t aware I was part of. I had to cancel my shoot. Six months later, I entered into a co-production deal with Torstein Grude of Piraya Films, Norway. By the time we began shooting there were more films on the gang but most of them were done in a hurry by foreign crew trying to cash on the newsworthiness of the subject largely centred on Sampat Pal. I took a different route. My film would be a study of power. The hostile social milieu would be a character in the film along with the beautiful nature, birds and animals who would appear as silent witnesses to human brutality.
We shot for about 45 days over five months. On one occasion we escaped being lynched by a mob, at other times successfully dodging goons sent by the local legislator. Most importantly, we managed to keep our wits about us in a place which had become desensitized to violence. The editing and post-production took almost a year through which we were still writing to gather funds. Finally we premiered in Norway in June 2012 and won the best documentary award. A year and half later the film is still doing the international festival rounds. We have won many prestigious awards including the best documentary at Dubai and two Amnesty International awards in South Africa and Poland. Many festivals and events have opened with our film.
But now we are facing our biggest challenge — Bollywood! People have already begun to confuse our film with the similar sounding name of the Bollywood flick. But it’s right here, between the extra A and the missing I, wherein lies the story of Gulaab Gang — the story of appropriation, misrepresentation and money power. The makers of Gulaab Gang haven’t consulted the Gulabi Gang leader Sampat Pal or found out what they are about. When challenged by Sampat Pal, they denied that their movie had anything to do with the real gang. But that did not stop them from stealing the concept, colour, uniform and stories.
This is not the first time that Bollywood has plagiarised, nor will it be the last. But this time it runs the danger of leaving a slur on the work and struggles of thousands of poor rural women struggling against gender violence, caste discrimination and corruption in extremely difficult conditions. Would these women want to be seen as abusive bandits? I’m sure it’ll be ‘entertaining’ to see women beat up men but isn’t it time we asked the questions: When will we be required to carry our minds to the theatres? When will we as a nation stop escaping from reality?
The author is a film director and producer, best known for her documentary films