At the age of 13, a young girl was locked up in a small, dinghy and dark room with a tiny opening for a window after she hit puberty. It was the norm in her village in Thuvarankuruchi, Tamil Nadu.
Salma was kept in captivity at home for almost 25 years but her inexhaustible desire to break taboos led her to write. Her writing eventually triumphed an angry husband, disapproving in-laws and outraged village-men to eventually usher in what many Tamil litterateurs claim to be “new writing in Tamil women’s literature”.
Salma is a poet extraordinaire, one born in a Tamil Muslim household where women fuss over the food habits of the children and the men discuss politics and village affairs in the living room.
Her story has been turned into an 83-minute documentary Salma, by British filmmaker Kim Longinotto. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The documentary flits between her life in her house in Thuvarankuruchi where her in-laws and her parents live, and Chennai where she lives now.
Refusing to marry a man she was betrothed to when she was a child, Salma kept her parents at bay for nine years until one evening when her mother feigned a heart attack. After her marriage, she was again confined to her house where her writing met with staunch resistance from her husband and in-laws. Her mother would smuggle small bits of paper to a publisher in Chennai. “I had never read anything so raw and knew I had to publish it. We started a correspondence over telephone and then letters,” says Kannan, her publisher.
The documentary takes you to Salma’s bedroom where she and her husband reminisce about their conflicted past. It takes you through her bathroom where from a box used to keep sanitary napkins, Salma’s pages of poetry would continuously disappear. It takes you to her anguished nephew who frowns upon his mother going to the movies and tells her that it is “scientifically proven that men get 10 times more aroused than women” and why women should don the burqa as “service to men and society” at large.
Most of what you see across the screen is real and scarily, seen as quite normal. Salma then is not normal. “I saw writing as freedom. I saw the everyday struggles of women around me, and had no one to speak to. I wanted an identity beyond the confines of my house, and I wrote. I wanted to break the rules. “Why should anyone stop me?”, says Salma on the sidelines of the documentary’s India premiere in the Open Frames Film Festival in New Delhi.
Longinotto, who spent 10 weeks filming Salma and her family, has always worked on women-centric themes. Pink Saris documented Sampat Lal’s Gulabi Gang, Rough Aunties looked at women tending to child abuse victims in Durban and Divorce Iranian Style filmed Iranian housewives applying for a divorce.
A victim of abuse herself, Longinotto’s work brings out unresolved equations that Salma shares with her family. When you ask her mother why she smuggled Salma’s poetry, she says, “Because I wanted her to write.” You cannot help but notice that this is the same woman who duped her into marriage.
“Women in my village may be suppressed, yet they are more liberated than the men,” observes Salma, who is travelling to Berlin with the documentary. Did the documentary change anything? Salma smiles wistfully and says, “My family respects me now.”