Twenty-four-year-old Vimlesh Devi has been a surrogate mother for two years. A mother of three and a homemaker, she lives in south west Delhi’s Kapashera colony. For Delhi-based documentary filmmaker Ishani K Dutta, it was the impulse to bear children for money that became the focus for her documentary Womb On Rent.
“It is almost a tragic comedy when you look at how easily women can be exploited for the lure of money,” says Dutta, whose latest documentary looks at the organised business of commercial surrogacy in India through the eyes of a surrogate mother in Delhi. She also examines the current medical laws. “Behind all the donors, the statistics and the commissioning parents, there is a human side of the story that is ignored,” says the 46-year-old-filmmaker.
Womb On Rent was screened at the Mumbai International Film Festival in February and also during the recently concluded 10th IAWRT Asian Women’s Film Festival in Delhi. The 52-minute film begins with the journey of Devi and her husband, who works as a security guard, in their one-room apartment. We see the cramped living conditions for her family of five and how Devi struggles to make ends meet. The film follows her through her periodical visits to the fertility clinic during pregnancy and the emotional strain of it all until she conceives twins for unseen commissioning parents.
The documentary raises ethical questions about surrogacy and its unchecked practice in India. “When I read a news report on the death of a 17-year-old egg donor in Mumbai, I started researching about surrogacy in India. I decided to look at the issue from the viewpoint of a surrogate mother,” says Dutta, who has been making documentaries for 22 years.
Her film, The Lost Forest, in 2012, looked at deforestation of a green belt in Haryana and a short film, Breaking the Silence, captured the sexual harassment rampant in the transport sector.
In Womb On Rent, Devi goes on to become a “middleman” for young women in her locality convincing them about the merits of surrogacy. “The current ICMR guidelines state that women below 18 years cannot donate their eggs. But I saw girls below 18 at fertility clinics. The more frightening consequence is how daughters after attaining puberty are becoming cash cows,”
Devi is shown as a victim of the lax medical laws that govern surrogacy and how she is not paid her dues by the fertility clinic even two months after delivery. With interviews with doctors from fertility clinics across the city and the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR), Dutta reveals that the surrogacy market in India is worth “Rs 50,000 crores”. “Fertility clinics brainwash surrogate mothers and they are held hostage to their whims, without any timely contracts which outline their rights. It can be very traumatic from a woman’s perspective, when your body is gearing up for a baby and then the baby is taken away from you. We are selling wombs and commodifying women,” says Dutta.
For this film, she received a grant from Asian Pitch in 2012, a film funding body comprising Media Corp, KBS (Korean Broadcasting System) and NHK (Japan’s public broadcaster), which supports independent filmmakers. Dutta is currently working on a documentary about the contribution of Indian soldiers in WW I, which has been commissioned by Ministry of External Affairs