New Internationalist

Kim Longinotto

Issue 445

The award-winning documentary filmmaker is passionate about using her work to promote women’s rights. She talks to New Internationalist about her latest film, Pink Saris, and its unlikely hero Sampat Pal, whose Gulabi Gang of pink-sari-clad women take on men and misogyny in India.

How did your first meeting with Sampat Pal (the formidable women’s rights activist at the centre of Pink Saris) go?

The meeting went fine! Sampat is very clear that publicity protects her and also enables her to pressure the police and local authorities to get things done. You can see throughout the film that she uses press articles about her as a way of showing her power. For example, in one case, she leans over the counter and shows the police officer the previous day’s paper, saying ‘Look, I’m in the paper!’ – meaning ‘I’m someone important now, you have to take me seriously’.

At first she asked me what we wanted her to do for the film but when we said we just wanted to follow her work, she stopped worrying about us. We were useful because we would drive her everywhere. In fact, she was much more interested in being in the papers than in what we were filming. At the end of the film she berates [her partner] Babuji, saying ‘It’s only because I go out and get things done that we get in the newspapers, you don’t help at all!’ You can see that in the villages where there is no electricity, newspapers and magazines are far more likely to reach people than films.

If you’re shy, you’ll die,’ Sampat tells a frightened young woman in the film. How true is this for women in rural Uttar Pradesh, where the film is set?

Sampat’s genius is that she brings hidden beliefs and corrosive practices out into the open where people can’t deny them. For example, she tells the neighbours how Rampayaree’s father-in-law has been raping her when her husband is away. All the villagers gather round and Rampayaree, transformed, tells everyone about the abuse she has suffered for over 10 years. When a man tells her to ‘stop speaking, this is shameful’, Sampat says that the shame is all with the father-in-law, not the young woman he has abused. She tries to give the women strength so that they can become survivors, like her, not victims.

What was your first impression of Sampat’s style of instant brash justice?

I could understand it totally. She can’t really change people’s lives, apart from by publicizing what’s happening to them and urging them to take a stand. After all, she’s trying to confront an ancient mind-set and deeply held values. She mostly works alone; when we were there, she never consulted the Gulabi Gang members or worked democratically with them. When she is criticized for this in the film she replies: ‘I don’t take advice from anyone!’

The film is a deeply human portrait of activism which reveals the flaws in Sampat’s character, as well as her heroic bravery. How have audiences handled such ambivalence?

Some people have criticized the film for not portraying Sampat as a positive role model. Other people think we haven’t noticed her flaws and that we are trying to show her as a kind of ideal activist. But luckily, most people have been able to cope with the shifts in the film. One minute Sampat is bravely denouncing all gods; the next she is proclaiming herself the ‘messiah for women’. Audiences seem comfortable with the fact that they’re not following the story of a one-dimensional hero but a damaged, rather desperate, person who was married at 10 and never went to school.

What was Sampat’s reaction to the finished film?

She seemed to like it and immediately wanted to have more screenings of the film in her village, Atarra. The woman who showed her the film had to dissuade her – she thought the local people might be upset about Sampat living with Babuji.

Kim Longinotto and New Internationalist are supporting Take One Action (from 22 September to 2 October at Edinburgh Filmhouse and Glasgow Film Theatre), Britain’s leading internationalist film festival, where Pink Saris will be screened alongside a host of new feature films about issues of global concern. For the full programme, visit takeoneaction.org.uk

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