Movie review: Gulabi Gang sets a high benchmark for Gulaab Gang

Sohum Shah, Sampat Pal Devi, Nishtha Jain and Anand Gandhi at the screening of their movie Gulabi Gang.

Film: Gulabi Gang (documentary)

Direction: Nishtha Jain

Rating: 3

The film opens with a shock of pink saris, and women’s faces you’d readily slot under the rural Indian stereotype; yet with lathis in hand and assured smiles that defy the meek, submissive popular portrayal.

The rural Indian woman is rising against years of patriarchal torture. And these particular women in pink – the Gulabi Gang of Bundelkhand – might be its most dramatic and intriguing example.

Naturally, the gang of women vigilantes and its feisty leader, Sampat Pal, has caught the attention of the media, and of filmmakers. Kim Longinotto made the acclaimed documentary, Pink Saris, in 2010. A Bollywood version starring Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla –promising more masala – will also be out soon.

Nishtha Jain’s documentary, Gulabi Gang, couldn’t have been timed better. Jain reportedly spent five months following Pal and her gang around the Banda district of UP.

She tracks a case that is shocking yet commonplace here – a girl has been burnt to death, and everyone is rallying to save the criminal husband.

Jain also captures the gang’s recruitment drives, the lathi-wielding practice sessions, its more recent political aspirations and, above all, Pal’s charismatic leadership, that binds its 1.5 lakh members (according to the documentary) together.

The years of media focus has made Pal a natural before the camera. Like any effective public leader, she not only revels in the attention, but values it. Though the film, unfortunately, does not address the question, 'Why pink?', the choice is clearly of a woman looking to stand out and be noticed. But the camera doesn’t just follow Pal.

After a member has a falling out with Pal, Jain stays back to interview her. In her vehement justification of her brother’s act – accused of killing one of her own sisters over a love affair – there’s proof of what Pal says at the outset: "Nari nari ki dushman hai"

There are obvious limitations a documentary faces – since it cannot extrapolate, you cannot tell how an uncooperative policeman reacts after he asks for the camera to be turned off?

Would Pal herself be more aggressive if she wasn’t being filmed?

Yet, far from the common perception of documentaries as tedious, Jain manages to create an engaging 90 minute film.

She also sets the benchmark high for next month’s Bollywood version to follow.

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