One of the finest movies I saw at the recent International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala was Nishtha Jain’s Gulabi Gang.
Translated into English the title of the documentary will read Pink Gang, a phrase synonymous with a band of women wearing pink coloured saris and armed with sticks taking on the villains of Bundelkhand in central India.
Interestingly, Gulabi Gang, led by Sampat Pal – a middleaged woman whose soft voice and mild mannerism hide her steely resolve – fights not just gender injustice but also oppressive caste practices and corruption. Composed of many women, the Gang travels to distant places, sometimes on carts and tractors, to dispense justice, and in the face of extremely hostile situations. There are bureaucrats who lie through their teeth, brazenly inconsiderate to a woman’s suffering. There are cops who insult their uniforms by their callous sneers and apathetic ways of dealing with crime especially against women. And then there villagers whose cowardice blocks the path of justice.
Jain presents in her 96-minute feature-length documentary several cases of women who are wronged. In one such instance, she takes us to a village where a young woman has been murdered (by her brother-in-law) and then burnt to make the whole thing look like a fire accident. The Gang finds that the family has tampered with evidences, created fresh ones to drive the police barking up the wrong tree! The cops buy all this, partly because even the father of the dead woman is not willing to testify against the culprits, her in-laws here. Obviously, he is pressured by social and other considerations.
Jain’s work -- as some of the other documentaries I saw at the Festival – had the power and the punch to shake us out of the comfortable slumber we have sunk into. In times as these, when women are abused, raped and even killed, the efforts of Gulabi Gang seem like a step in the right direction. Of course, the Gang’s commitment to social cause and fair play is to be seen to be believed, and Jain documents this with poignant realism.
She says in her directorial note that she was apprehensive about meeting Sampat Pal, even more apprehensive about the genuineness of Gulabi Gang. “Was Gulabi Gang a mere publicity stunt by Sampat Pal to enter politics? Will it fade away in the dusty and corrupt landscape of Bundelkhand?” The documentary does not answer these questions, but of course.
What it manages though is to focus on the backbreaking work the Gang puts in. Jain managed to trek along with Pal and her team, discovering fascinating aspects about her. “Pal is her own master, in control of her life and actions. And that’s such a refreshing change from the cliché of oppressed woman. She is completely self-made, with no help from her family or in-laws. She is also fairly knowledgeable despite her lack of schooling and can easily charm people with her stories, some made-up, some true – in short, a natural leader”, Jain says in the note.
“One simply has to walk with Sampat on the main streets of her town to experience her influence. Everyone seems to know her, even gun-toting moustachioed men on motorcycles stop to have a word with her. Men wave out to her from cars with dark windowpanes. In these macho and harsh surroundings, to see a woman in a pink sari becoming the centre of attraction is an interesting experience”, Jain avers.
As much as Pal deserves to be lauded for what is certainly a selfless campaign to help women in distress in the hope that her Gang’s endeavours will brighten the lives of all those who are downtrodden and voiceless, Jain must be congratulated on producing a work which sparkles and lays bare grave injustices.
Not surprisingly, Gulabi Gang won the Best Documentary Award at the Muhr/Asia Competition in the 2012 Dubai International Film Festival. The movie won other prizes, has travelled across continents and is the first Indian documentary to have had a theatrical release outside the country. It hit cinemas in Norway in January.