It was worth the wait. But Megan Mylan is finally pleased with the results. The American documentary filmmaker bagged the Oscar for Smile Pinki in 2008, a film on girls suffering from cleft lip in Varanasi. This time she has found her “pinki” in rural West Bengal. “Ever since Smile Pinki was made I have been warmly embraced by Indian audiences. So I was hoping that before that charm fades, I should capitalise on my storytelling to focus on other good work happening in India,” says the 45-year-old, based in New York, whose latest 10-minute documentary After My Garden Grows, looks at how young girls are taking to farming on small plots of land as a means of self-assertion and independence.
“I wanted my next film to focus on issues around girls empowerment and I knew that India would be a rich platform,” says Mylan, who shot in the Cooch Behar district of West Bengal for a year. In the film, Monika Barman is not like the other 15-year-old girls shown in her village. Born to migrant labourers, she wants to study rather than get married. So Barman converts her rooftop shelter into a makeshift garden to grow vegetables such as gourd, cabbage and other seasonal produce and encourages other girls to do the same. The meagre profit from selling the produce at the village market finances her studies and keeps her from being a burden on her family.
“This is a classic example of how girls can drastically reverse their fortunes. Who could have thought that growing vegetables like that would go a long way in shaping their future?,” says Mylan, whose last short film, My Little Friends (2013), looked at the community intervention in America for elderly Alzeimers’ patients.
After My… won a grant from the Sundance Institute and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which looks to make “solution-driven films” on overcoming poverty. On the basis of a newspaper report, Mylan visited Landesa, an international institute that works with the West Bengal government on issues of “land rights” in Cooch Behar. “We are working with 50,000 girls across 1,000 villages in this district alone. It is about access to and control of land for the girls and thereby empowering them. This helps them become educated about their rights,” says Anisa Draboo, Director Communications, Landesa. The film will be released on November 14 across nine cities by PVR Cinemas, for a week, as a “combo movie” (complimentary with another movie).
Mylan will be in India for a two-week tour to generate corporate sponsorship for rural empowerment of girls. It will also be screened at the Kolkata International film festival and IFFI, Goa, later this month. Can this match the success of Smile Pinki?