At a time when violence against women is dominating headlines week after week, a 27-year-old Mumbai-based filmmaker is making his directorial debut with a heartening tale about a 150-year-old tradition followed in a Bihari village.
Mango Girls, a 48-minute film set for release later this month, tells the story of Dharhara village in Bhagalpur district, where, for every girl child born, the family plants a minimum of 10 mango trees, using the revenue from the sale of the fruit to finance her education and wedding.
Kunal Sharma grew up in Bhagalpur but only learned about this practice three years ago, when he read an article about it in a foreign publication online.
“I was fascinated,” he says. “Having grown up in Bihar, I have observed atrocities against the girl child at painfully close quarters, even among friends and family. I have two sisters myself, and the idea behind the film was to promote this amazing concept as an example for others to follow. My dream is to have every Indian family learn about Dharhara’s attitude to women so that they can follow suit.”
The film has been co-produced by Sharma and Robert Carr, 85, an American filmmaker who moved to Mumbai in 2000. “The practice followed in Dharhara was interesting to me because it tackles three big issues at once — female infanticide, dowry and global warming,” says Carr.
Mango Girls, which has taken two-and-a-half years to complete, traces the origins of the custom and its modern-day implications.
According to Dharhara villager Subhendu Kumar Singh, 43, whose family is believed to have started the tradition, it began because they wanted girl children to be cause for celebration, not worry.
“We’ve been doing it for generations,” says his mother, Nirmala Devi, 70. “I have two sons and two daughters, and have planted 10 trees for each of my daughters. Women are respected here in Dharhara, and celebrated too.”
As Subhendu Kumar says, the practice has also ended up tackling issues that his ancestors could not have foreseen. “The whole world is looking for a solution to global warming and deforestation. Here, every home is surrounded by mango trees,” he says.
As made evident by the documentary, the village, like others in the state, often floods in the monsoon. “The floodwaters wash away our crops, even the roofs of our homes, but the mango trees stay sturdy and profitable,” says Nirmala Devi.
The villagers are also aware of the implications of deforestation, and recognise their custom as a way to address ecological damage. “We picked the mango tree, rather than, say, a wheat or cereal crop, because this land used to be a forest in the Mughal era, which was later cut down for cultivation. We want to restore that forest,” says villager Shankar Singh.
While each mango sapling takes a few years to start yielding a full harvest, in five or six years it can generate between R5,000 and R6,000 per season. Thus each girl, if she has ten trees, has about Rs. 50,000 or Rs. 60,000 generated annually in income.
“The trees grow with our daughters,” says Nirmala Devi. “They are our fixed deposits.”
The documentary also shows a Dharhara girl’s wedding. By tradition, she is first made to marry a mango tree, then her husband. Villagers say that this started as a superstition to ward off ill luck, as it is believed that any misfortune meant for the girl will be absorbed by the tree first. In this sense, the tree remains the girl’s guardian through her life.
For Sneha, a village girl from Dharhara who married into a Jamshedpur home, this tradition is a big part of her life.
“My family has been planting 10 trees for their girls for generations,” she says. “I will make sure to do the same for my daughters, even though the custom doesn’t exist in Jamshedpur. I hold a post-graduate degree, mostly because my parents didn’t distinguish between boys and girls. I wish to bring this tradition to Jamshedpur as well, and make sure that the birth of a girl child is a happy occasion.”
Seeking to encourage others to adopt such practices too, the film ropes in celebrities such as actors Mahesh Bhatt and Pooja Bedi and retired IPS officer Kiran Bedi to advocate the cause.
“This may be a revolution in the making,” says Kiran Bedi. “It should become a national movement. If you have the land, plant the trees. If you don’t, make a similar investment that reaps benefits for the girl.”
Once the film is complete, Sharma and Carr want to release it at film festivals around the world. “With all the negative press that the state of Indian women has been getting,” says Carr, “this can be a positive message to the Western world.”
Adds Lakshmi Lingam, sociologist and deputy director of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad: “This is a great concept and a brilliant example of consistent execution, but it does need land. Wherever possible, the government should sanction wastelands for such initiatives. If trees are not possible, villagers can buy livestock too.”