I’m not sure how you begin to measure oppression but then I’m not sure I need to – there’s so much to go around and I guess you just have to fight it wherever you find it. The press and the politicians generally want our outrage and contempt to be turned outwards, to other countries and other people, usually poorer than us, with different customs and religions; whilst not wanting us to recognise how the Western ruling classes are up to their necks in dirty deals and dirty wars to keep the world pretty much as it is as they increase their profits and hold on to power. That shouldn’t stop us from being thankful of the democracy, the freedoms, the wealth and the infrastructure in the UK that brings obvious benefits, though nor should that make us complacent. The UK statistics for how women and girls are killed, raped, sold or forced into prostitution, physically abused, sexually abused, bullied and mentally abused – usually without any chance of justice - are horrific. Go on, have a look. I dare you.
But today I watched Nishtha Jain’s Gulabi Gang (and recently read Amana Fontanella-Khan’s Pink Sari Revolution), about Sampat Pal’s group of pink clad, lathi-wielding activists and vigilantes (now over 250,000 strong). Actually I’m not really sure how to define them or what to call them - except very, very brave. We’re in northern India, in Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh (UP). UP is pretty big - 93,933 square miles, so about the same size as the UK. It’s the fourth largest state in India (nearly 7% of its total area) and has over 200 million inhabitants. The state has huge problems with poverty – perhaps 8% of the world’s poor live in UP, and huge problems with the way its inhabitants and its institutions view and treat women.
Jain spent around five months following Pal and other members of the group and obviously had to confront two huge issues whilst making her film. First there’s Sampat Pal herself. She is a larger than life personality seemingly unafraid of anyone or anything and almost too great a force for the camera to hold in. For the first minutes of the film it’s hard to know if this is the real woman or if she is performing for the camera, or whether she’ll break the fourth wall and start challenging the viewer too. Secondly it would be easy to sensationalise the issues that the film confronts – a woman burned alive by her husband and sister-in-law, with the death covered up by the whole family (and probably, the whole village), honour killings, corruption at all levels of society matched only by lassitude and fatalism at all levels of society. Indeed this is perhaps the saddest part of Gulabi Gang: the number of blank faces - so many people that have seemingly given in to the hopelessness of their existence. ‘Fate’ and ‘God’s will’ are the watch words in their philosophy of stoicism and survival.
Jain's answer is a measured understatement. You begin to realise that this IS the real Sampat, living day to day with the imperfections of the organisation she has created and the horror of the society in which she finds herself. Moreover, you slowly realise that she has seen it all before, time and again. This isn’t the first women she has seen burned alive, the first time that she’s recognised that a woman’s life is worth nothing, or the first time one of her trusted lieutenants has used the Gang’s influence and reputation to alter evidence and save a family member. If the injustice that surrounds her is barely comprehensible and all pervasive then she meets it head on with a relentlessness of her own. Jain also gives us small pauses in the film – often beautiful tracking shots of animals and the landscape which give you a sense of its vastness and timelessness – that give the film a meditative air and allow us vital moments to reflect on what we’ve just seen.
The justice the Gulabi Gang delivers is often rough and imperfect but their persistence is remarkable and their solidarity and their faith in each other more so. Jain punctuates her film with moments of tenderness, frustration and understanding that underline all the horrible contradictions facing these brave freedom fighters. A mother decides to fight for justice against all the odds, a girl cries because she can’t bear the injustice and the hypocrisy of the elections, a women explains with equal measures of defiance and despondency why she would support honour killings in her family. Jain has made a fantastically calm film about oppression and injustice and about those fighting back as best as they can. Watch it if you can.
Also worth a look: Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay`s Dance Bars and Katherine Boo’s brilliant Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum.