Movie: Gulabi Gang
DIRECTOR: Nishtha Jain
CAST: Sampat Pal and gang
The district is Banda, and the region, Bundelkhand, in UP. And an organization that has steadily been a media magnet for what it has managed to do: in the rural backwaters of north India, where years of heavy-handed, violent patriarchy has stunted the growth of women and killed the girl child, a woman has taken on all comers. Gulabi Gang, Nishtha Jain’s award-winning documentary gives us an up-close view of Sampat Pal and her gang, which dons pink saris, and hefts lathis, and fights against injustice where it is most needed.
The one-and-a-half-hour film is an important document. Because women, usually classified with the “other” backward classes, and dabey-kuchley varg, are for burning, and raping, and humiliating. Because anyone who takes up cudgels on their behalf is to be acknowledged and praised. And there’s the middle-aged, vocal Pal, one among them, and a natural leader, having it out with surly menfolk of a neighbouring village where a young wife has been charred. The husband claims he wasn’t there. His family says it was an accident which happened while cooking. Her father doesn’t want to take the case further. It is only when we meet the dead woman’s mother, blind and helpless, that we hear the truth.
You watch, in admiration, as Pal and her acolytes (gang-members, who, upon signing up, are given gulabi saris, and a lathi-wielding training) shout down a local thanedar. He starts off belligerent, but when Pal takes the case to his seniors, he becomes a man who may have to listen to a mere woman. And you see the uphill fight Pal has on her hands when one of her “gang” members leaves: the woman, who spent a good many years with the gang, endorses the age-old view of how, if a brother doesn’t like what a sister does (in this instance, fall in love), he is within his rights to put an end to her life. Nothing Pal nor anyone else says can shift her position.
Jain spent five months on and off with Pal, and tracked her as she goes from one village to another. And we see the solid work that has gone into the making of the film. But it did leave me asking a few questions. Why was it called the Gulabi gang? In a “q and a” after the film, Jain said that Sampat had talked about other colours being taken already: I would have liked to see that in the film, because it tells me something crucial.
Also, I wanted to know how a village woman, however feisty she may have been, became so comfortable with the knowledge she displays in the film: when did she, for example, first hear of the funds the government has earmarked for the development of districts such as hers? She is also clearly very much at ease with the camera. Was she always so? How did she turn so media savvy? Does the person wielding the camera put words into the mouth of their interviewee when they ask: “aapko gussa nahin aata (don’t you feel angry)?” Very rarely will you get a “no” for an answer, especially when this is asked in a charged situation. Why would you need to have such a leading question in circumstances where you can see the simmering anger?
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Jain does show Sampat’s other side, though, even if briefly. She appears to be quite belligerent, heckling the men in the village. And also quite an autocrat: we leave her with her hands being pressed by another pink sari-clad woman sitting next to her, which Sampat seems to enjoy and accept as her right.
Clearly, Sampat is a remarkable woman, and a remarkable story.