Friday, February 21, 2014

Pink Saris and Gulabi Gang: two films about Sampat Pal and her movement

Nishtha Jain’s documentary Gulabi Gang, completed in 2012 and released in theatres this week, has many aesthetically pleasing scenes. The first few minutes give us beautiful nature shots, vistas of the fields surrounding Bundelkhand, and the vivid fuchsia of the saris worn by the Gulabi Gang group, founded by Sampat Pal Devi to tackle injustice against women. Sampat banters with other members, the newer recruits joke amongst themselves, a little awkward at first but slowly opening up; the mood is convivial. Yet ugliness is soon revealed beneath the surface of this setting, and the film doesn’t flinch from it.

The camera follows Sampat into a hut containing the charred body of a young girl, limbs spread out in rigor mortis, and then we see the first steps in an amateur investigation as Sampat questions the victim’s in-laws, picks holes in their account, wonders how roof and walls have remained undamaged after such a fierce “accidental” fire. Other viscerally disturbing scenes follow: a conversation with the dead girl’s husband, who might be a murderer; the faces of men standing outside a car, looking in through the window, offering explanations and rationalisations, changing stories as per convenience; children at the scene of the crime, staring at the camera, primed to grow into adults who will keep this cycle of violence and concealment going. The contrast between how the film began and the bleakness of these scenes is telling – here is a “simple”, “God-fearing” community that closes ranks in the face of a terrible crime.

At this point Gulabi Gang also has the texture of a busy investigative thriller, driven by Sampat’s determination to see justice done. But as if to remind us of the true pace of life in this setting, and that this isn’t a story where loose ends will neatly be tied together, things slow down. The case becomes entangled in local politics and taken over by apathetic policemen, the justice-seekers have to make numerous trips on rough roads to courts and police stations, the girl’s own family invokes divine inscrutability (“Kya hua Ishwar hee jaanat”), one gets the sense that nothing can ever really change in a place so mired in patriarchy and feudalism. (Indeed, Jain mentioned after a preview screening yesterday that this particular case was never satisfactorily resolved.)

And yet, this group has been an agent of change in the past decade – its influence has spread, it has won small battles and the woman at its centre is a strong, magnetic presence. Gulabi Gang makes for a good double bill with another documentary, Kim Longinotto’s 2010 Pink Saris – together they present a well-rounded picture of Sampat Pal and her movement. Jain's film examines the larger picture – the promotional campaigns, the participation in grassroots politics, the work being done by the group’s other leaders such as the robustly likable Suman Singh – while Pink Saris employs an intimate, worm’s eye perspective, focuses on relatively common problems (a pregnant girl being deserted by her husband, a married woman wanting to run off with another man) and uses the particular to illuminate the general, by setting the facts of Sampat Pal’s life against the situations of the people she is helping. We are told that Sampat left her husband, whom she was forcibly married to at age 12, and shortly afterwards we see a young girl who looks into the camera and asks, how can I stay at my parents’ house? That isn’t what girls are born for. What choice do I have?


Though Sampat is more of a central figure in Pink Saris – present in every scene – in both films the camera seems drawn to her, and who can fault it. Whether she is yelling at people who cross her with religious mumbo-jumbo (“Main devtaa ko nahin maanti hoon, insaan ko maanti hoon […] Aisi ki taisi ho devtaa ki. Naari se badhke koi shakti nahin hoti”) or softly consoling a weeping man who says his brothers were killed for trying to do social service, she has the poise of a minor-key movie star who knows the precise emotional register required in each scene. The qualities that got her where she is – strength mingled with empathy,
the ability to be caring yet profane yet practical – often shine through. Young girls today won’t unquestioningly do all the house-work “jaise hum karte thay”, she tells another middle-aged woman, showing a rare quality – the ability to rise above the resentment that comes with knowing that the next generation has more freedoms than you did.

Some of the most interesting bits in Pink Saris are about her personal life, including things that aren’t clearly spelled out. She lives and works with her “partner” Babuji, an educated man who was originally employed to do the group’s paperwork – but one of his first appearances here has him massaging her back as she lies on a table. Soon after this she is shown in conversation with her estranged, “angootha-chaap” husband, who is dependent on her (“Main tumhaar thekedaar hoon,” she tells him [“I’m your provider”]), and then arguing with Babuji, who accuses her of being “ghamandi” (I am just a small scorpion, he says sullenly, while you get famous in the three worlds).

In these latter scenes two things are in evidence: the insecure man unable to deal with challenges to an order that he has taken for granted all his life, uncomfortable about being dependent on, or second-in-command to, a woman; but we are also reminded that anyone who acquires power and respect, no matter how well-intentioned to begin with, might walk a tightrope between genuine philanthropy and self-righteousness of the sort that goes “I am doing so much good, living not for myself but for others – therefore I am above the law and answerable to no one.”

Without casting aspersions on Sampat’s motives, it is possible to feel ambivalent about her as an individual. There are traces of hubris in her behaviour. “Main police se zyaada hoon,” she often says, and refers to herself in the third person. (“Log Sampat Pal ko auraton ki messiyah bulaate hain.”) Her Bigg Boss appearance can be seen as an effort to draw wider public attention to a worthy cause, but can also be interpreted in terms of a personal need for publicity. That she is very conscious of the need to control her image can be seen in her reaction when she learnt about the fictional film Gulaab Gang (to be released next month). Her autobiography, as told to a French journalist, was published in 2008 with the delightful title Moi Sampat Pal: Chef de Gang en Sari Rose, and only translated into English a few years later; in the Introduction, Zubaan’s Shweta Vachani writes of travelling with Sampat as an interpreter to Stockholm and there finding that “she would expect us to do everything for her, including make her tea, clear up after her and wash her dishes. It wasn’t hard to infer that she was unused to doing anything in her own house or village.”

None of this lessens the value of the work done by the Gulabi Gang over the years, shaking up the status quo and striking fear, even encouraging introspection, in the hearts of people who were used to having everything their own way. At one point in Pink Saris someone suggests that things have really worsened since the group was formed, but one can conjecture that this is only because many ugly things – hitherto hidden behind closed doors and given social sanction – are now coming into public view. And an achievement of both these films is that despite Sampat’s forcefulness, we never lose sight of just how hard it is for real change to happen. Looked at from a distance, the Gulabi Gang may seem like laathi-wielding avengers, efficiently cleaning up the world, but up close things are more complicated and murky. Compromises are necessary: the shock of a casually spoken sentence like “Sasur isski izzat loot raha hai, aur yeh isse pasand nahin hai” (“This girl’s father-in-law has been raping her, and she doesn’t like it”) is augmented by the realisation that Sampat is arranging for the girl to return to her husband’s home (and for her in-laws’ actions to be closely monitored and reported on), because that is the only realistic solution in the given circumstances.

Jain’s film offers a bitter pill near the end, through a woman named Husna who has been asked to temporarily disassociate herself from the group because she is trying to shield her brother, a murderer. Sampat and Suman tell Husna – in a friendly, sympathetic tone – that she should stay away for her own safety. But after they leave, in a long, unbroken shot, Husna – who prides herself on having worked with the Gulabi Gang for years – speaks to the filmmaker, defiantly justifying the “honour killing” and revealing an attitude that is the very antithesis of “Change begins at home”. On the one hand, she says it is her duty to protect her brothers and sons no matter what, even if they do something wrong; on the other hand, she insists that brothers are entitled to kill their sisters if they feel they have transgressed. It is a chilling scene, made more so by Husna’s self-assuredness, and our realisation that she isn’t the stereotype of the illiterate woman hopelessly insulated from the outside world; that she has been out there, seen terrible things, even battled some of them…and then returned home to preserve “tradition”. It is such betrayals from within that, more than anything else, point to the magnitude of the challenges facing Sampat Pal and her group.


  1. I've yet to see either of these, so I'm curious about your impression based on the viewings -
    Given the attitudes of people, and even volunteers like Husna, does GG come across as one whose entire survival and ethos and direction is irrevocably linked to the personality of Sampat, or does it have scope to outgrow her 'celebrity' and continue as a genuine wide-spread movement?

    1. Good question, and I have no real idea (partly because I still don't know enough about the extent of the group's functioning - which in itself may be a sort of answer). It was very much a personality-centred group in its initial stages, don't know how far that's still the case.

    2. There have been developments since this article was posted, that may answer the question:

  2. Man I felt like someone had dropped a ton of bricks on my chest after reading that last section. The type of perseverance and strength of will someone would need to have to operate in that kind of environment is beyond me. I can't even fault Sampat Pal's badly concealed hubris. That's a pretty minor flaw if that's what her and the group are fighting against.