"Pink Saris": An Interview with Director Kim Longinotto

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Tonight the documentary Pink Saris, a film that illuminates the plight of “untouchable” girls in India, premieres on HBO . I urge you to watch this haunting and important film. Set amid the poverty of Northern India, the film profiles the indomitable Sampat Pal, the leader of the Gulapi Gang, a group fighting discrimination against women. “Gulapi” means pink, and the female members can be seen trailing along the dusty village roads in their trademark bright pink saris.

On Friday I had the privilege of interviewing Kim Longinotto, the acclaimed director of Pink Saris, from her home in London.

Mona: How did you come across Sampat Pal?

Kim: She’s becoming more and more famous. In the film you see the double side of it. On the one side it’s an important thing to protect her. She uses her fame to protect the girls. On the other side her fame is becoming a trap in itself. It’s distancing her from the people she’s closest to as she’s become more famous. She’s taken in by her whole mythology. You can see these two things played out in the film, almost like opposing tensions in who she is and what she is becoming.

There’s been a film about her by a young presenter [at Al Jazeera English] Rageh Omaar. He made Witness, a whole program about her. I think it’s very difficult because you only have a few days with her. What was interesting about his process is he went along with her whole mythology about herself. There are scenes where she’s teaching women to fight with sticks. He celebrates her. Where when I was there with her she didn’t do any stick fighting. She’s using her fame to get results.

There’s a point where she goes to the police station. They’re not looking very interested in what she’s saying, and she says, ‘Look, I’m in the papers today. You’ve got to take me seriously because otherwise I’ll talk to the press.’ She’s playing that game. That’s how she gets things done.

Mona: What made you want to do a film about her and the issue of untouchables and how it relates to the physical and sexual abuse of women in this part of India? Why as a filmmaker was it important to you?

Kim: I think there are two reasons. The first one, I like making films about people that are struggling. I don’t like to make films about victims. If I wanted to make a film about untouchables, I wanted it to be more a film where you see change. The girls come to her because they’ve reached some sort of crisis in their lives, and she’s their last chance. That links in with the fame. Really, she kind of publicizes their predicament. She brings things out into the open. That’s a protection for them. In front of all the villagers, one of the villagers says, ‘It’s shameful. You shouldn’t talk it.’

That’s the second reason. I think in the UK and also in the US we have these taboos that we can’t talk about and things we feel are somehow shameful. In my country you’re not supposed to tell people if you’ve been raped. ‘This has happened to me and I’ve survived it.’ Then it’s an empowering thing. It’s not something you should be ashamed of. The same with child abuse. I know you did have it in America with the Catholic priests. One priest I think abused 200 children. How does this happen? How do people manage to keep the secret so long? Sampat talks about everything. People lose their power, and that’s how change happens.

Mona: Is the caste system still widespread throughout India? I think many Americans have this idea of India as a rising, progressive democracy where prejudice against women is abating especially in the cities. What’s your perspective on the status of women in India?

Kim: There’s a wonderful book called The White Tiger about villages and the darkness in rural India. When I was in India I thought that was so apt. Most villages didn’t have electricity and were very cut off. There’s definitely a big difference between the cities and the villages, but the mindset of the villages ebbs into the cities. We have the honor killings, where a brother kills a sister if she’s having a boyfriend, which is this very old idea of girls carrying the honor of the family.

There’ve been all these laws in India that girls not meant to be married anymore. All the girls [in the film] had been married at age 8 or 9. This one girl said she doesn’t know how old she is, but she knew she had been married for 10 years. When we got a birth certificate for her we discovered she was 18. How is this going on in 2011? I don’t call this marriage, I call this child abuse. Girls aren’t educated. They don’t have access to school. It’s also this mindset if you have a girl child it’s a disaster, and that girls are less valuable than boys.

I find Sampat sometimes a very complicated person. I am in so awe of her, so grateful for her for attacking an old mindset with such bravery. She says, ‘Look, this is wrong.’ With her niece, they [her in-laws] killed her baby girl. The men in the village start saying that’s wrong to the mother-in-law. ‘You should go to jail for that.’ Once you let the ideas in, they start to question the old ideas.

Mona: Sampat has a very meager existence. How does she support herself?

Kim: She’s barely getting by. She now charges newspaper reporters for interviews as she becomes more famous and more newspapers want to talk to her. Now she’s gotten into politics. She’s canvassing to become the elected representative for a very very poor area. I think she was always going that way. The trouble is once that happens you do become more and more separated from the people you’re meant to be fighting for.

Mona: This is a very intimate, raw, and at times unsympathetic look at Sampat. At times she’s extremely arrogant. For instance, in a scene with that father-in-law where she’s telling him how important she is. When she’s encountering the families of girls who’ve been abused, she’s incredibly confrontational and even verbally abusive.

Kim: I would love her in the morning, I would be her furious at her in the afternoon.

Mona: What about her made you furious?

Kim: I was furious when she sent her niece back to her family. If you think about the whole film, if you think about every single girl, she looks after them awhile, then they either get married or they all go back [to their in-laws’.] She’s doing the best she can. Her real goal is to change the mindset of people. That’s all she can really do.

Mona: You take a very nonjudgmental view of her in the film. How would you describe her?

Kim: The audience can see it’s not hagiography. She says, ‘I’m the messiah for women.’ She calls herself the commander- in- chief. If it [the Gulag Gang] were a good organization it would be more democratic. When her partner Babuji says to her, ‘All you care about are the girls, you’re so arrogant, you’re changing,’ that scene was really telling for me. She says, ‘Go on, leave me!‘ Then she says, ‘I’ll be heartbroken. Nobody cares about me. People only care about you if you’re famous.’ You realize she’s an incredibly damaged person.

If you’ve grown up and you never her from your parents again, and you defy your parents- in- law, and you end up on the streets with five children and you’re starving to death, I think it’s very hard to form relationships with people. I think all these girls are very very damaged, and yet they’re all trying to change and somehow survive.

That’s how I feel about Sampat. Her heart is in the right place. She’s had hundreds of women in her home. She can’t look after all these women. She can only do what she can do. Her boyfriend loves her, but she can’t really trust him. At the end of the film, when Renu says, ‘My mother didn’t care about me,’ Sampat can only empathize with people up to a certain extent. Then she’s shut up in her own hurt.

When she sends her niece back to the village and goes off on the motor bike, she’s hardened herself. She doesn’t have anything left. I think we learn from the love we didn’t get from our childhood. If I had been married at eight to a much older man I’d be insane. The thought of it is so shocking to me, and to be handed to another family where the parents beat you and abuse you, it’s unthinkable.

Mona: How did you convince Sampat to be profiled in the film?

Kim: The first day she was kind of aware of us, but her whole focus is on getting press, on getting in the newspapers and getting people around her aware of what she’s doing. She does see herself as kind of a messiah. We would drive her around. She’d have a row, storm off, then say to us,“Come on, what are you waiting for?” She would completely forget that we were there for long periods of time, she was so wrapped up in what she was doing. The film became very shadowy for her. It didn’t really exist. At night she’d come and sleep in my room. I had electricity in my room and the fan on. She always had breakfast and dinner with us. We became a haven for her.

Mona: How did you get the cooperation of Rekha, the 14-year-old who is pregnant, and Renu, whose father-in-law was beating and sexually abusing her? What did you tell them about why you wanted to film their stories? Did they understand what they were agreeing to?

Kim: What was so extraordinary is they really do understand. After we finished the film we made sure this girl who works for Sampat went to find the girls and asked, ‘Can we have your signatures with your fingerprint?’ When we told them they were in the film, every single one of them said, ‘I’m so proud.’ It was very moving. We’re really pleased their lives are being witnessed. It’s almost as if they’re being buried.

Mona: What do you hope to accomplish with Pink Saris?

Kim: I’m hoping to accomplish with it the same as what Sampat is trying to do, to chip away at change. I don’t know how change happens. I know with Sampat it’s very much through the written word. Newspapers can get to the villagers where film can’t because there’s no electricity. But one person can read the newspaper and then talk to other people and tell them. Gradually these views can be shaken.

I’m hoping when people watch the film they’re thinking, ‘Rekha could be my daughter,’ while they’re also thinking these girls are very brave. If you see other women who’ve got nothing, who’ve never been to school, if they can have the courage to say they want to leave, maybe we can get courage from them.

Mona: What happened to the girls in the film? Do you know?

Kim: They all got sent back. They’re all back in terrible situations. Renu is the hope. Even thought that scene is very painful, the hope is that girls like Renu will get educated, and the film maybe can be part of that in a very piecemeal and quite sort of disturbing way. The laws have been in place for a long time. It’s the mindset that has to change.

My hope is that people watch the film and are inspired by the girls. And hopefully fall in love a bit with some of those girls, see them as their daughter or their sister or their mom, not see themselves as separate from them, but to actually relive some of their experiences through the film. What I’ve been really pleased about is people seem to be able to experience themselves through the film. That is really what I wanted for the film.

pink saris

Credit Image: © Press Photo

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