Q&A: Director Nishtha Jain on “Gulabi Gang”

Q&A: Director Nishtha Jain on “Gulabi Gang”
Sampat Pal, leader of the Gulabi Gang
(Nishtha Jain)

After an incredulously feel-good film such as “The Menstrual Man,” “Gulabi Gang” is certainly a reality check. On day one of the Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF), the two films followed each other. While “The Menstrual Man” documented social entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganatham’s attempts at inventing low-cost yet efficient sanitary napkin-making machines that have the potential to transform the lives of rural Indian women, “Gulabi Gang” is a more hard hitting film that explores the grit and determination of a bunch of women clad in pink saris, led by Sampat Patel, who identify as a women’s rights organization, but are in fact, a vigilante group evoking change, one case at a time, in the feudalistic society of Banda, Uttar Pradesh. The 2012 documentary, directed by Nishtha Jain, won the Amnesty International Award at 10. Planete+ Doc Film Festival in May 2013, and also was awarded Best Documentary at the 2012 Kortfilmfestivalen in Norway.

We caught the screening at DIFF and documented the Q&A session that took place between the audience and the director later. We present transcripts from the conversation where the first question was posed by us and the second-last was by fellow filmmaker Anand Patwardhan. But before we proceed, here's a look at an excerpt from the film.

You mentioned yesterday (October 24), over dinner, that one of the biggest challenges with making this documentary was that you weren’t exactly in love with your protagonist. Could you tell us more about this conflict?

For a documentarian, you have to spend several years on a film. The problem was my lack of chemistry with Sampat. I admired her, but I wasn’t in love with her. I had a lot of doubt about her, and I wondered how I was going to make a film about this woman. At the outset it was a very big question, how am I going to do this. I learned a lot from her, but I still had some concerns. It’s very interesting because before this, with all the films I’d done earlier, I was totally in love with my protagonists. In a way I suppose it was good to have that distance as well.

Towards the end, when you speak to the group at the railway platform about the title of the film, someone was pointing towards the camera. Were they pointing to you or was it someone else?

I was behind the camera. I was very interested because throughout the film, there’s a lot of sympathy for the Gang from the women, but a lot of antipathy from the men. They were always scoffing. There was this man, who you see in the last shot, who was always going for their rallies, waking up at 4am, often in order to go, but he never had a good thing to say. Also, people tend to join a group when they want immediate results. But it’s often a long-drawn battle, because the attitudes are so deep rooted. So many people leave because they think they’re not getting any results. So they speak in a derogatory tone. The guy knew I was not a part of the Gang, hence he looked at me. A lot of the villagers don’t take the Gang seriously. In some villages they do, but largely, the men just scoff at the whole thing.

Did you have doubts about including the scene with Husna, where she talks about protecting her brother, who so clearly killed her sister? Also, how have the police reacted to the portrayals of the uneven enforcement of justice?

That scene was basically Husna talking in favor of her brother. It was funny because Husna was one of my favorite characters. She was going to be made a commander. She was the most hardworking one I’d come across. We were planning to spend time with her and in her villages. However, for various reasons it would get postponed. Then we heard this incident had happened where her brother had killed her sister for choosing her husband, and doing a court marriage and we rushed there for two days. I was shocked that after all the rhetoric, there is still a deep-rooted attitude these women have towards themselves. She didn’t show any sympathy for her sister despite all her heated talk about how her brother, and she came from the same womb and why she would defend him to her dying breath. Why did I include it? I think it was because this was equally the real aspect of what is happening and not a one-off case. There are many members of the Gang like Husna, who would fall off because when there were issues related to their own family members, there would be a question mark. Also, I didn’t want to romanticize the movement and I wanted to start a dialogue about these problems. This was part of my attempt to look at it more realistically. There’s a lot we see. I could have done a hagiography, could have built it up in a certain way, but I decided from the beginning that I’m not going to do that, the reality is much more complex.

In the whole film, the case about the burnt dead woman takes up a lot of time, and the commanders of the Gulabi Gang are actually often acting as investigators and doing the legwork that the police is supposed to do. In every case they’re doing work that a law enforcement agency is supposed to do. So there’s no sympathy from the police. They become like detectives and take the investigation from one stage to the other, but they’re forced to do this to bring justice to the woman, and because it’s not their job, they can go about it in a slipshod way.

What was shocking was also how everyone had a story about the number of women who had died in their village, and I was aghast about how common it was. It’s not like the women were being killed just for dowry, sometimes the husband just didn’t want her around anymore. I knew the situation was bad, but that it was this bad was an eye-opener.

The film is rather beautifully shot, and that can be a constant struggle when it comes to budgeting. Did you choose a cinematographer or do it yourself? And was your choice made in terms of a larger public, like a film festival audience? Or is it generally becoming more important to have a certain kind of cinematographic effect?

This is the same team I’ve been working with for my last four films. We’ve developed an understanding. We can’t sit and discuss things while the filming is happening because it’s all so spontaneous, all the understanding between the camera person and the director in such a film has to happen before.

I consider the cinematography good not because it’s making beautiful images, but it’s there where it’s supposed to be at the right time. He’s able to see and he’s able to respond. That kind of response from a cameraman is amazing. He’s able to think about what I want. And this relationship has lasted almost eight years. I’m not so good with cameras, I prefer to work with a camera person. Some other films I’ve shot myself, but when it’s a much more intimate situation.

There are a lot of shots with landscape and animals. When we were there, and we were there for a long time, there’s a feeling of desolation when you’re just following death all the time—and that’s often what the Gulabi Gang was doing, dealing with cases like that. We spent a lot of time shooting the beautiful landscape and we thought it was so interesting that there are so many places that are so beautiful and that yet have so much violence going on. And also the idea of animals as observers of human nature. I’m not into making beautiful images, but we had some kind of license here with the cinematography as we had a good budget when we found a Norwegian producer, which meant we could get some lenses that could help us with our footage.

Anand Patwardhan: The violence of everyday life that women face is something I didn’t know about so graphically. In the “Pink Saris” film, Kim has the same ambivalence as about Sampat. Both the films don’t explore this ambivalence in their content. The darker side that might be in Sampat is something that both films don’t want to get into, maybe because it will take away from the main story. I, as a member of the audience, sensed a desire on Sampat’s part to hang in front of the camera. I found that more in “Pink Saris” than in this. That happens often, it’s not a major flaw. But I think that the fact that at some point the cameras become invisible to the people around; they get into their everyday life without worrying about the camera. The camera being there is not part of the story. That is something that I’m not sure how it works. Then there’s the danger that they’re playing to the camera, because they’re rarely looking into the camera, except during the interviews…

I was amazed. People just didn’t look at the camera, didn’t notice it. And I didn’t want to try to make them notice it. They were more fascinated with the boom than with the camera. We could just be there and shoot and nobody gave a damn. I think the attention was also taken by Sampat. All the attention goes to her, so nobody cares who we are and what we’re doing. There’s no self-consciousness with it at all. In the end, when I’m talking to the man, he refers to me, that’s the only place where we establish that.

I want to say, about ambivalence… it’s not just about Gulabi Gang, power corrupts anyone. Sampat is acquiring a lot of power and has political ambitions, and that’s the kind of ambivalence I feel towards her; like when she talks about compromise when she talks to the family of the burnt woman.

For me, I like a very direct approach. If there’s something I need to know or am uncomfortable with, I’ll ask then and there and in front of the camera, and not by snooping around. How do you show that ambivalence is a question I had. I felt I needed to share with the audience as much as I could. She likes to hear her own voice and doesn’t like to let other people speak.

Anand Patwardhan: And she wasn’t Dalit, right?

She’s not a Dalit. She’s an OBC [Other Backward Classes]; comes from a poor family, self-made, hasn’t been to school. For me, what was inspiring about her is that, even much more than urban feminists, she has individual agency. She takes her own decisions. That is amazing. If you look at village communities, one thing I learnt is that there is no individuality. Everything you decide is as a family or a community, they cannot make a decision about their own lives. Coming from that context, it’s amazing that commanders can emerge who assert their own individuality. These are women who’ve never stepped out of her own home. They can travel, hang around with women, and just that aspect of being able to hang out and not be bogged down by household work is liberating. But then there is confusion, because there has to be a vision for a big change.

This is a spontaneous movement, which means that women want change, so let’s look at it like that. All movements have gone through these confusions. I’d like to look at the universal questions it throws up for any movement anywhere, and in that sense, this movement should be looked at sympathetically.

Indian women are fighting for different issues in India. Why did you specifically make a documentary film on the Gulabi Gang. Why did you choose them and what kind of message do you want to send through this movie?

Maybe it’s because I’m from Bundelkhand. For every film there has to be a personal connection. Because I’m from that area, I was born there, so there was a connection. I got interested in her because my kind of filmmaking is about showing complexity. Of course there are lot of women doing work, but this had a complexity to it. Not to say this is more important, this just happened to be my point of interest when I began.

When I started the film I wanted to make a feel-good film, but I could not. In a way I feel bad about it, but I felt like it would be good to share a real story. When you take the story to the people there can be discussion. Importantly, I want to talk about something. I wanted to do this film also because it challenged my own notions as a feminist from an urban area. It presented a dialogue. I had a lot of differences with Sampat. She would send a woman back to the husband or family even though he was beating her. She would say, “What would you do, what option can you create at this point of time?” They’re illiterate and you have to create an employment situation before anything else. A lot of feminists would look at her film and maybe look down upon these things. I really started feeling that there is an arm-chair feminism that can happen from the comfort zone we come from, which is not present here. That was why I wasn’t in love with her, and there were all sorts of questions going on in my mind and I wanted to do this film to resolve those questions.