When 15-year-old Shanta Darnal from a nondescript village in Ramachhap district of Nepal got a scholarship to study in a reputed school in Kathmandu, her family was jubilant. They felt this would end their financial problems. While they hoped for Shanta to return as a doctor, what awaited them instead was the news of her suicide a year after she went to Kathmandu.
“Shanta was a perfectionist with high expectations and no tools to reach her goals. She found herself to be below average when she came to Kathmandu, which made her angry and frustrated,” says 44-year-old Amy Benson. Her first feature film Drawing the Tiger, co-directed with husband Scott Squire, records the tribulations of the Darnal family after the suicide of their daughter Shanta.
The 92-minute film, which won the 2015 UNICEF award for Best Film on Children’s Issues at Film Southasia Festival, shows how children like Shanta, from a weak socio-economic background, find it difficult to adjust in the big city, given “the lack of mental maturity and emotional support to face the challenges life throws at them”. It was recently screened at the India International Centre in Delhi during the “Travelling Film South Asia 2016 — A Festival of South Asian Documentaries”.
It all began in 2008, when the Seattle-based husband-wife duo, owners of Non Fiction Media company, were contacted by an American NGO working with girls from poor families in Nepal. They were asked to make a promotional video featuring children the NGO worked with. This is when the filmmakers first met Shanta Darnal, a bright young girl who wanted to become a doctor and help her family. “Shanta was a very powerful individual, who stood out. We connected quite well with her,” recalls Benson, who quit her teaching job in 2001 to make films with her documentary photographer husband, Squire, 49. They shot the video and returned home.
A year later, they got the devastating news of Shanta’s suicide. They decided to investigate the reasons behind the high suicide rate among women in South Asia. However, when they interacted with the teachers and family of Shanta, they realised that she did not represent the lot. The NGO refused to assist them, as it felt that the suicide would scare away its sponsors. With the help of Kathmandu-based journalist Ramyata Limbu (translator and co-director), the duo travelled to Shanta’s village to meet her parents, Sushila and Chabbilal Darnal, and her siblings.
The film chronicles seven years in the life of the family, highlighting the pressure on Shanta to prove herself and the difficulties faced by her family living in abject poverty. One day, Shanta was found hanging from the ceiling by her sister-in-law Rubina. While the relationship between her brother and Rubina deteriorated, her mother became unwell and never recovered from the loss and her father too lost himself in dreams to escape the harsh reality.
“The film helped us understand that to help children like Shanta and their families, a proper infrastructure is required where all their mental, emotional and physical needs can be met,” says Benson, who is now working on the post-production of Elder Son, a 15-minute shot on Ram Kumar Darnal, elder brother of Shanta, which will release later this year.