By Nandini Krishnan
Having been nominated for several international film awards, and won awards at the Dubai International Film Festival, Tri-Continental Film Festival in South Africa and a Polish film festival, the documentary Gulabi Gang has now won filmmaker Nishtha Jain the Best Director award at the recently-concluded Mumbai International Film Festival. As the director looks forward to her film’s release on February 21, ahead of the Bollywood film Gulaab Gang starring Madhuri Dixit, Sify.com brings you an exclusive interview with Nishtha Jain.
Nishtha Jain, whose family is from the Bundelkhand region, is not the first or the last person to document the incredible story of Sampat Pal’s Gulabi Gang, a women’s rights group formed in 2006 in Bundelkhand. I met the director as her film was being screened at the Dharamshala International Film Festival. Before watching the film, I had asked her about the group’s reputation as a vigilante brigade. Patiently, but in a manner that would indicate she had answered the question too many times, Nishtha said, “You know, there are several misperceptions about them. That’s not who they are. You’ll see when you watch the film.”
The film turned out to be riveting. Far from glorifying Sampat Pal and the Gulabi Gang, it takes us into the harsh climate that they must deal with. We go to their villages, travel with them as they go about recruiting members for their group, educating women about their rights as human beings – their right not to be beaten up and burned alive, for instance – and investigating crimes. In one sequence, we visit the home of the group’s leader Sampat Pal’s relatives, where the daughter-in-law of the house has been burnt to death in what is claimed to be a kitchen accident. The girl’s father is unwilling to contradict the story, and mentions in passing that another of his daughters is married into the same family.
We see the difficulties involved in controlling and channelling a 400,000-member strong group. We see what happens when one of the women decides to stand for elections. We see how the brand name that the group has created for itself can be abused, when one of its members goes rogue and tries to cover up the murder of her own sister, an ‘honour killing’.
Throughout, Nishtha is careful not to force a judgement on us. The film makes us feel awed, horrified, helpless and grateful at the same time.
I know you’ve been asked about the whole Bundelkhand connection, and why you got interested in Sampat Pal, and all of that, but there’s usually one point where you decide that okay, you know that this is going to make a good story, that you want this person in your film, even if you have different points of view, or even if you don’t immediately take to each other. What was the trigger for you?
Sampat challenges my very set notions of, you know, what is everything. And I like it when a film can start a debate, rather than present an agenda. So, for me, it is more interesting to explore an idea in a film than to know from the beginning what it is I’m going to say. I haven’t done films which go, ‘Here, I’m showing the oppression of so-and-so. I already know what I want to say, so everything else is a kind of elaboration of that.’ So I like films which challenge me, which question me, which push me.
And with her, on the very second meeting, we started having arguments. She had thrown me out of her jeep, and she didn’t want to talk to me because I was all like, “What are you doing here?!” and that continues through the film. (Laughs) And I like that. I like people with whom I’m not agreeing, but there is something that I find fascinating about them. It’s like a kida (insect), you know? If I already know what it’s going to be all about, then I get bored.
My whole philosophy is anti-dualism. It’s not all about good and bad, good and ugly. I like the greys. It makes me question myself. So, with her, I knew it was going to be really interesting. We were having all these fights, and it continues till now. I remember when she got into Bigg Boss, she called me up very excitedly, and I told her, “Come on, you can’t do this. You’ll lose your dignity. They rip your clothes off, literally – nanga kar detay hain.” And she heard me out, and then she said, “But who are you to tell me whether I should do this or not?” I said, “Well, I know what this show is all about, and it’s all about exposing people in a certain light, and I just thought I should share it with you.” She said, “Look, I make my own decisions. I don’t lead my life by what anyone tells me – not my husband, not my family. Do you really think I’m going to listen to you?” (Laughs) That’s her, you know – it’s like, even if it’s jumping into the well, she’ll make her own decisions.
When you look at us urban, feminist, educated, independent women, I think we live under so much social pressure. We don’t really make our own decisions in a free way. To me, whatever differences I may have with her intellectually, I think she is a true feminist, in the sense of having individual agency. So, this aspect of her – she’s a leader, she wants to be heard, she’s fiery, she won’t listen – made the chemistry volatile. I wasn’t in love with her, but it attracted me in a way, because she was an original thinker.
I should say, though, that Gulabi Gang challenged my notions of what a documentary could be. Because many documentaries with a particular subject tend to be almost infomercials for that person, or what he or she stands for. But you have a very long interaction with one of the gang members who tries to use her clout to cover up what seems to be an honour killing. And that allows the viewer to question the idea of power.
Yeah, as I said, when you have an agenda that you have to promote this person or this idea, it can become difficult. My agenda is beyond –isms. It’s about people, and about life. As a documentarian, I have access – you are in positions where everyone cannot be. So, how do I share that access with people? The truer that access is, the better I would feel about sharing it. And if I have seen something, an aspect of a person, I wouldn’t want to suppress it. And there’s always a danger with sharing it – there are pitfalls because people can be very narrow-minded and judgmental. There are advantages to making a feel-good film, because people want to feel good. But there are also advantages to making a film which sees it from all sides as well. I think people kind of embraced it.
But the purpose of art is to push you to uncomfortable places, right? And it’s even more powerful in a non-fiction setting.
Totally. Like, The Act of Killing. It takes you so close to a perpetrator. And then you see that evil is in all of us, not just in some people. Under certain circumstances, we too can do what they did. And I think that’s the important message today. It’s not to just see good-good-good-good-good, and to suppress everything else. It is to see that good and evil is in all of us, and the decisions that we make. And the other thing is, what lies beyond –isms? –Isms tau chale jaate hain. One day I may be a Communist, and then I may become a Capitalist. (Laughs) But what is a person? What is his or her character? Those are universal things. Beyond all those standpoints that we view life from, can we look at people and see them? That, I think, is an important thing.
That came through for me with Husna in your documentary, who speaks about whether you would hand over your own child or brother to the police when you know he’s done something wrong. It’s a question one asks oneself – if someone you love commits a crime, would you support them and suppress it? If driven to it, would you commit a crime yourself? And that’s something we don’t usually want to think about.
Yeah. I’ve actually seen a lot of films of late, where people look at this aspect. And it’s very interesting that people are looking at this nowadays. What would I do in this situation, when my son or my father or my daughter or somebody related to me does something wrong? Criminals are not just someone else. I think we need to start thinking about that.
There was a sort of turning point in your documentary, where you go with Sampat Pal to visit the house of her relative, where a woman has been burnt to death, and they say it’s a kitchen accident. When you ask what will happen now, Sampat says, “There will be some sort of compromise”, and then you ask, “What sort of compromise?” and her face changes. Then, she gets all activist-like, and goes to the police. Do you think she would have helped them cover up if you had not been there?
Yeah, but we have to look at it in a much more informed context. Which is, what is this compromise? As people living in a city, we would not make such a compromise, you know – if someone in our family was killed, there would be law to protect us, and there would be a system that is more accessible to a middle-class person, say, than a poor person. Now, for a poor person in a rural area, where they don’t even have money, there are hardly any options.
To give you a background to the story of the girl who was burned to death – the blind mother of that girl borrowed Rs 1700 just to visit the dead daughter. And the patriarchal system is so deep that she borrowed the money, not her husband, not her sons, who could at least work – this blind woman had to work for three months to pay off that loan, like bonded labour. So, she didn’t even have the money to visit her daughter, because traveling between these remote parts is so difficult, and so expensive. So, these families are not even in a position to do a court case because they have no money to go to courts, to reach on those dates. There are corrupt policemen, there is no reliable means of transport. Though the law is there on paper, it is not accessible to them.
What do people do in such cases? Sampat does a lot of these marital compromises, because about 90 percent of the cases she gets are to do with marital conflicts. So, she sits the families down, and then she gives her own personal bond, saying, “If this man beats you again, then you come to me. Don’t go to the court. Because if you go to the courts, you will have to take time off work, you’ll wipe out all your savings.” So, she is becoming the court. Why is this happening? Because there are no facilities. There is no alternative. And it’s questionable. But it’s coming up as a need in an area which is lacking something. So, you have to look at it in that context.
When I showed my film in rural areas, people were not surprised by the ‘compromise’. There are NGOs which make people sit down and talk and arrive at a compromise. And they make people reach certain kinds of compromise – not in the sense, “You killed my daughter, I’ll kill yours”, but you make people come together, in lieu of going to a court, which will anyway be bribed off. In rural communities, social activists don’t look at compromise as a dirty thing, necessarily. It is a system that they have evolved, because they know that they have no other means. It was quite a revelation for me.
And it was very tricky for Sampat, because she was called in as a family member to help them. So they were thinking, “Oh, she’s such a famous person, she has power, she will be able to help us.” But she was divided, because first she goes to this place, without any background to what the case is. The eyes can see how her mind is working, and that’s amazing. She can see that it’s a set-up, that they have killed the girl. But she can’t be a hundred percent sure, because there is no proof. And, yet, she’s also thinking these are her relatives. At the time, when she said “compromise”, maybe she meant just sit down and figure out what happened. I can’t say for sure what she would have done. But I wanted to ask her, on camera, what she meant by “compromise”. And then she turns around, and realises that she has said something which could be inferred differently. So she says, “This is what happens. Even if I’m not there, they’re going to reach a compromise.” And we see that they already had, when we meet the families the next day.
But how she would have reacted without the camera is hard to say, because later on, she realises that she is also related to the girl’s blind mother. That’s another thing. In villages, a lot of these people are related to each other. And there, the community is such an important thing. In cities, our social communities are more important than our families. In villages, community is the most important thing. People are bound by it. Why do women want to move away from villages to cities? They want that anonymity. They can lead their own lives in a city. For men, the village can be an idyll, but for women, they need to cater to a huge extended family, and what it wants them to do.
I had the sense that scales were falling off my eyes, because we as the educated elite think we know everything, but then we see what life is really about in these villages. And you have these women who say they stand for liberation, who teach women to stand up to their husbands, and it’s about survival in a sense. Often, they come across as man-haters. But then you also have them wearing their sindoor and covering their heads.
Well, we have to look at it in the context of the village – women’s rights doesn’t mean you can’t wear sindoor, or you can’t be in a family. Because then you’ll have no one, in the village. They don’t leave their families even when they’re being [ill-treated]. You know, my brother works with one of the biggest self-help groups in Madhya Pradesh, and the women are very religion-bound, very family-bound, they live in patriarchal societies, but within that, they’re making changes.
We have to understand that it’s step-by-step. We wouldn’t have had the freedoms we have if our parents hadn’t moved out of villages and brought us up in cities. Why do we expect that suddenly this village, which has fifteenth century morality, will think the way we think? Sampat is like that. But she’s one in a million. How many of us are like Sampat? I couldn’t have done what Sampat has done.
She’s built this organisation of 400,000 women, and the Commanders are all very strong-willed – they’re like her to an extent, but they are also very family-bound and custom-bound.
You can’t live like a single woman in the city – you need a community, and the city provides you with an alternative one. But you can’t have that in the village. So, they live within these boundaries, but at the same time, they’re pushing it, and they’re pushing it in a way that’s comfortable for them, and I think that’s good. If you’re so radical, you can end up alone. Sampat is very radical, far more than urban feminists, I feel. Her DNA is in a certain manner, she cannot live in any other way, but she understands that not everyone can be like her.
What she’s doing is sowing the seeds of rebellion. Some may get there in 20 years, some may drop out, and some may reflect it in other small ways in their families. It may not happen for them, but it may happen for their daughters.
I wanted to share this aspect in the film, of how difficult it is for them. Because I was shocked, you know, walking into a room and finding a dead body. And children are there, going about their regular business. You’re like, ‘Hello, this is a dead body!’ And it’s still lying there, the next day. It’s very, very disturbing. We couldn’t comprehend the amount of killing in these areas.
It isn’t an everyday thing for Sampat to encounter a dead body either, and you can see she’s horrified, she’s not in control, people are screaming at each other and arguing. But then the way they speak about these dowry deaths, so casually, it’s disturbing – they just say things like, “Haan, pichle saal hamare gaon mein paanch ladkiyaan jali thhi, paanch ladkiyaan mari thhi” [Last year, five women were set on fire in our village, five women died]. You know, in that tone, they’re used to it.
I’m also interested in how making the documentary affected you. I’m sure you must have felt really naive going into it, and then there must have been a point where you saw that this was their context, different from yours, and you have your own context where your views are a better fit than theirs. Was there a sort of self-exploration?
Yeah, first of all, I saw this tendency of mine to judge too quickly and dismiss and reject certain points of view. One of the things that was really important for me was that I liked Husna, even when I don’t agree with her views – because there’s a certain honesty in her character, which I’m very attracted to. And that was such a precious thing, that the people in the film were so honest.
Sampat has learnt a few things, become more street-smart, but even she doesn’t have dishonesty built in her. She can’t lie very convincingly. People in urban areas have become very sophisticated. We have practised that art, not to say certain things, and to appear in a certain way, we’re conscious of the camera, of the impact of the media. So, this honesty was very precious to me.
And I had a lot of arguments with my crew about Husna. Because first I rejected Husna because of her views, just from hearing this story about her going and pressurising people to hush up this murder. The fact that she stood up for her brother and not for her sister made me reject her, in my mind. I was feeling very dejected by her views. But my crew was not. They really liked Husna. So, after speaking to my crew, I decided I have to go and talk to Husna. That was a real eye-opener. She’s saying what she’s saying, but I respect her for her honesty, and I feel that there are two kinds of views – an intellectual view and an emotional one. She’s only talking about her feelings.
What was also happening during the making of the film was that all of us in the crew had different points of view, and we took a liking to different people. So these discussions and arguments we would have were very enriching. There are so many ways to look at a person, you know?
I was thinking about how Sampat in a way reminds me of Malala – in the sense that there is something disingenuous about her. When you become a celebrity, you have a certain position and a public image. I get the feeling that, though your film was made before Gulaab Gang and even before Bigg Boss, Sampat has sort of sold into her image. You see her raising slogans. You see her enjoying the adulation. I wonder whether, when you’re doing some great work, it can become dangerous to buy into your celebrity status.
Yeah. But, you know, the amount of media coverage she’s had, it’s bound to turn your head. Within a couple of years of her work starting, she’s had a book written about her, she’s being invited all over the world, international crews are turning up to interview her. The same thing that’s happening with Malala, in a way. She’s learnt to say the right things, the right lines.
I think that’s a danger with the excess of media, and how much importance the media gives you. That danger can be faced by anyone. And it’s very rarely that people don’t give in to that. You don’t have to be a tribal to get carried away; it can happen to someone even from an urban area, when you’re suddenly given this attention. It can confuse you, it can seduce you.
That’s why I didn’t do any interviews with Sampat, because she knows what to say, she knows what will please me, she knows what will induce laughter, what will make people go wow. I wanted to look at what she did when she wasn’t thinking about it.
You spoke earlier about how you want to stay away from –isms. But in the art world, whether it’s literature or cinema or theatre or the fine arts, it’s hard to find people who don’t have strong views or who don’t subscribe to a certain agenda. So, do you have a circle of people who subscribe to ...
Different –isms? (Laughs)
Well, or no –isms?
(Laughs) Unfortunately, very few. Sadly. I do meet a lot of people, but I think we tend to politicise certain things. (Laughs) –Isms, and the didactic approach that comes with –isms is something I try to avoid, and I like to be with people who are much more open. I have a more spiritual leaning, so I do have friends of all kinds.
At the screening of your film at the Dharamshala International Film Festival, you spoke about how these people would often forget that there was a camera filming it all. How long did it take them to get that comfortable?
All these women were very comfortable with me to begin with. I think I have a very good rapport with people. As a documentarian, somehow I have that natural quality. So I don’t need that much time to break down a wall, you know. So people do like me, and they accept me, and I’m able to ask them questions. And I don’t ask too many questions, usually. (Laughs)
At one point in the documentary, you’re speaking to one of the Commanders in the Gulabi Gang, and she tells you about how her daughter was killed by the husband’s family. Was it difficult for you to have her talk about it?
Actually, I didn’t know that this had happened. We were just speaking about what made women join the group, and I asked her how she joined. And first she said, “No, I didn’t have any special reason”, because she thought I was asking whether she had had some personal problem. You know, women who have other problems – like, they’re having trouble getting a BPL card, let’s say – join the gang sometimes, because they feel all their problems will be solved if they do.
So, I asked her if she had any problem. First, she said, “No”, and then she immediately added, “My daughter died.” I didn’t know that earlier. It came as a complete surprise for me. We were walking somewhere and I said let’s stop here and talk, and this came out of the blue.
I guess your instinct must have kicked in there, because I felt place played a very important role, throughout the documentary. For example, when Sampat visits this little pond in the village where she grew up, she becomes contemplative and we see a softer, more feminine side of her, if I may say so.
(Laughs) The pond was the only sequence which I tried to set up. I had a feeling something would happen if we went to her village, so I told her to show me around, show me where she was born. She was having a lot of fun showing us her village, and then she hadn’t seen the pond for a long time, and she was shocked by how much it had shrunk. You know, I wanted one quiet sequence with her, but she wouldn’t stop talking. (Laughs) I think finally I got her to be quiet for about thirty seconds. But then also, she was looking around, and her mind was constantly working. So I gave up. She’s always at work, from seven in the morning to midnight. Either she’s going somewhere, or some phone call’s coming in, or something or the other.
After she left the pond, we just sat there, and it was so beautiful. The whole crew was there, and we heard these sounds coming in, from far-off villages. And I was thinking that it’s all so beautiful, but somewhere, a woman is getting killed. Later, we found out that that was the day Shaheen, Husna’s sister, was killed.
The pond did not have any narrative significance in the film. But it had personal significance for me. For the longest time, it was about to go out of the film. But I kept it, because being in that place, I could start feeling the violence around, and I couldn’t even enjoy the prettiness and beauty of that place. When we found out that Shaheen was killed at that exact time, it was really eerie. I wanted to always remember that moment. Because when you move on to your next project, these things may slip out of your mind, unless you keep it there, in the film.
We were so sad throughout this film, because it’s not even in the interior somewhere, you know. It’s not like Bastar. It’s 500 kilometres from Delhi. And I know it happens in Haryana, I know it happens in Rajasthan. To think that so many parts of a country have this feudal morality...it’s like moving to another time period. People don’t care about law. They don’t see why policemen get involved when they kill a woman. These khaps exist in their own world. It’s as if the outer world doesn’t affect them at all. There’s a scene in the documentary where a policeman is telling protesters, “This is independent India. We have a law here. Let us do our job.”
When you witness this sort of thing, you begin to question your own ideology. We go in believing our political stances are the centre of the universe, that they are the norm. But then these people have a completely different stance.
Read more by the Author:
Lessons from The Hindus: How to write a bestseller
It's not just racism, it's intolerance of difference
Open letter to India's new criminals
You and I didn't kill Sunanda Tharoor
Dear Judges, I don't want to feel guilty
Tejpal assault: Why the media reaction disgusts me
When the Prince turned King Cong
Rahul as PM? : Five years of stand-up comedy
Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. She sells herself and the book on www.nandinikrishnan.com