As you are likely to know— the documentary is named after a grassroots organization in the Banda district, UP, formed by Sampat Pal, and identifiable by the pink sarees its members wear.
We trail this gutsy woman, who formed this organization to counter the rampant violence against women, through the dusty lanes of rural India. Dressed in a pink sari, often a muffler, and steely resolve— this nondescript looking person sets off for the day’s work.
This extraordinary documentary first shows us a place full of contradictions—it’s a place where nature is abundant and glorious, where birds fly in a synchronized manner, and you can pluck a vegetable off a field and chew it. And it is in this very place where teen brides are murdered, while the entire family comes together like seasoned criminals to defend themselves.
So in effect, it’s not just that gruesome murder that shocks you—it’s the nonchalance and audacity of the killers, the attitude of the murdered girl's parents, and the villagers who gang-up to protect the remorseless, murdering family.
“Fate” is everyone’s favourite word here, and everyone is highly eager to pin down the girl’s death to this four-letter word. You see the dexterity with which Sampat Pal handles this situation.
She grills the family calmly, pulling holes in their cover-up, as if she’s been professionally tracking criminals for years. Her simple yet powerful observations—why is the roof not burnt if there was a fire; if you indeed saw the fire why did you not go and help— are incredible. The murdering family stutters to offer a defense, but Pal is not convinced.
She fears they’ll buy off the parents of the girl, which is a common occurrence around these areas.
This is just one case among so many others. At the rate with which people confess to having their daughter and sisters killed by their in-laws, you figure this is a chillingly routine occurrence there.
And you thank god for Sampat Pal! For not only does the documentary shows us her intention of fighting for justice, it also shows how Pal does it.
We see her reason out with people, coerce them, handle jaded officials, hold her ground when she and her organization are putting their support behind villagers on a hunger strike, and often caress the faces of those in need of her help.
She survives and thrives in this marshland with a wry smile and sarcastic sense of humour intact. Which is why, the documentary will also have you laugh out loud at times.
As for her leadership skills, Pal lectures like a pro, often to applause; uses folk songs to drive home her point and takes ruthless decisions when she has to. She’s addressed fondly by those who support her (and those who pretend to), as she goes ahead and defeats old hands at village elections.
In one of the film’s most interesting scenes, one of her candidates defeats a village chief who has been terrorizing the locals since years, Bollywood style. It’s a huge achievement and the new village chief, despite Pal’s encouragement, refuses to show her face and keeps it veiled.
More irony is revealed when an ex-Gulabi Gang defends her brother killing their sister because she married out of choice. This longish conversation with this single mother of seven children (she prides herself at maintaining her “honour” and not remarrying) is admirable for raising these children single-handedly. At the same time, her thoughts (she thinks it’s okay for her sons to kill any of their sisters in the future if they bring “dishonor”) are bone-chilling.
Director Nishtha Jain, who has reportedly followed Pal for months, puts in a lot for us in the documentary. Jain does try and find chinks in the armor, as you see an incident of Pal being blase about a settlement between the murderer and victim’s family.
Overall, you see the pathetic state of rural India where violence against women gets neither the support of locals, nor of the authorities (a cop shown in the documentary reminds us of the morally corrupt cops shown in Hindi films).
Then you see an extraordinary grassroots leader who is as enigmatic as she is inspiring. And you see the change that is taking place, even if gradually. As Pal coaxes one more woman to wear the pink saree and join her…you feel that there is hope after all.
Gulabi Gang is a fascinating and arresting account of an extraordinary activist who leads the meteoric rise of her organization. You must treat yourself to this one!
Rating: Four and a half stars