Utpal Borpujari

May 2, 2014

Gulabi Gang: An Ironic, engaging documentary

By Utpal Borpujari

Four years ago, British filmmaker Kim Longinotto had made a feature length documentary titled Pink Saris. The film followed Sampat Pal Devi, the leader of the band of pink sari-clad women in the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh, and through her, had brought out Pal’s unique fight for women’s rights. The film had won quite a few international awards, and lot of critical acclaim. Sampat Pal is a compelling subject – brash, foul-mouthed, upfront, no-nonsense. And someone who has raised a battalion of civilian women to fight for the rights of the likes of themselves in a society that is appallingly patriarchal. No wonder, one film cannot do justice to the character that is Sampat Pal, who became a household name thanks to her appearance in the 2012 season of reality show Big Boss.

So, we have Nishtha Jain’s Gulabi Gang, one more film on Sampat Pal’s crusade for women’s rights, even as Soumik Sen-directed Gulaab Gang, a fictionalized account ostensibly based on the same “story” is readying for release. Here we talk about Nishtha Jain’s take on Pal’s gang of Gulabi women, but before we do that, let’s have a lowdown about Pal. She belongs to one of the backward communities, was married off young, suffered regular beatings at the hands of her in laws before she finally “rebelled” and moved out of that life. A mother of five, her experience led her to fight for the rights of others like her, which eventually led to the formation of her Gulabi Gang, even as she started an unconventional (at least in the society where she lives in) live-in relationship with a higher caste Babuji. Sampat Pal, quite clearly, is no ordinary woman. And quite clearly, she can be the subject of more than one film.

Longinotto had made her film free flowing – as she followed Sampat Pal even as she was carrying on with her movement. On the way, Longinotto had captured the lives of several women who were being helped by Pal, and also the society around them. Among the prominent threads in that film was that of a young backward community girl who was left pregnant by her upper caste boyfriend. This, combined with vignettes from Pal’s own personal life, had made it quite a compelling film.

Jain’s film also captures Sampat Pal in action, this time pursuing a case of a woman’s death by burning, claimed to be ‘accidental’ by her husband’s family, though the Gulabi Gang believes there’s more to it than meets the eye. As the Gulabi Gang’s probe into the case unravels in the film, Jain also interweaves the story of the Gang itself – its background, the story of the women that are gang members, their training sessions, and above all, the story of Pal herself. What makes the narrative of the film compelling is the fact that unlike many documentary protagonists, Pal is a complete natural in front of the camera. Perhaps it has to do with her long experience of handling the media spotlight, but her complete obliviousness of the camera’s presence means that she is a pleasure to watch with her rustic wittiness and earthy, rooted logics about life around her. Sometimes, you even feel that she knows how to manipulate the camera to her own advantage, saying what she wants to and avoiding what she does not.

While Longinotto’s film had Pal in the initial years of forming the Gulabi Gang, by the time Jain shot her documentary, Pal had got famous. That perhaps, worked as a small disadvantage for Jain, as we here see a Pal that is more measured in her comments, as compared to the unbridled raw woman that Longinotto’s film captured. A documentary captures the protagonist in the rawest form if he or she is not yet aware of the camera’s power, but once the subject knows that the camera can be manipulated, it becomes a clear disadvantage for the filmmaker.

Yes, Jain, through the five months that she is said to have followed Pal to shoot the film, manages to overcome this obstacle to a great extent, bringing out the crusader and the woman in Pal through several interestingly weave sequences. The film opens with Pal explaining her philosophy – that she’s a Dalit, but for her that does not mean a caste, but a community of the oppressed. And how girls are considered a curse in the patriarchal society, and how often women themselves are the biggest enemies of women. Her comments come as the visuals show ordinary women in ordinary situations in the rural hinterland – ordinary except that all of them are clad in pink sarees. These women finally gather beneath a huge tree amidst agriculture fields, where Pal informs them about the incident of how a young girl, who had fallen in love with a boy, was brought back by her father with the help of goons owing allegiance to a local MLA and then gang raped. And then the story unfolds.

It’s an ironic tale that unfolds – mostly tragic, and sometimes couched in ironic, rustic humour. Jain weaves the story of the larger society and that of the Gulabi Gang quite deftly, and the viewer never has a dull moment. The film brings out the contradictions in the lives of these women, who while fighting for the emancipation of others around them, are often themselves seen to lead a conservative life, some even favouring conservatism when it comes to the women in their own families. Unlike in Longinotto’s film, here Pal seems more amenable to using the system for the improving the condition of women in the society, for example by even contesting local elections if need be. But the fact remains that Pal has been able to impact the thought process of the society around her, and Jain has been able to capture it in an engaging manner. “Gulabi Gang” is without doubt a film worth viewing, sometimes even more than many of the masala flicks released every Friday.

(Published in http://www.dearcinema.com on 25-02-2014: http://dearcinema.com/review/documentary-review-nishtha-jain-gulabi-gang-sampat-pal/5351)

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