Documentary film “Pink Saris” offers a glimpse into day-to-day life for low caste and Untouchable women in Northern India. Following the leader of the Gulabi (Pink) Gang, director Kim Longinotto opens our eyes to a very different India from what many of us can imagine. A democratic republic, India is the second most populous country in the world. Child marriage is illegal in India yet almost half of the country’s women are married before the legal age of 18.
The lower castes and Untouchable women in Northern India are treated like property or cattle. They’re poked, prodded, beaten, and often raped by their in-laws. They are given no basic education or training. Once a girl is married, her parents cease all responsibility for her, and if she should want a divorce, assistance is very scarce. The police readily take bribes–the law sways depending on the thickness of their wallets.
“Pink Saris” follows Sampat Pal, a former child bride who founded her vigilante women’s group in 2006. The gang’s women wear bright pink saris and carry long bamboo sticks.
Based in Uttar Pradesh, the unflinching Pal has devoted her entire life to her cause. After a harsh marriage that included constant beatings, Pal left her husband and in-laws. While uneducated, she recognizes that women get the short stick in society, and she attempts, in her own brash way, to fight for the women around her. Pal scrapes by, sometimes begging for food to feed her menagerie of family and orphans.
Pal’s goal isn’t to gain equality or recognition that women are not property. From listening to her and recognizing that her experience and knowledge is limited, I’m not even sure if this concept has crossed her mind.
But her goals are nonetheless commendable: to lessen the beatings, the rapes, and the abuses put upon these women. They have no voice in their society, and the idea that they belong to someone else or that they should hide their faces in shame is gut-wrenching. Yet for many women of Northern India, this is their reality.
Day to day, Pal may mediate with disparate families, help a couple get married (or divorced), berate an abusive father-in-law, or on occasion, take in a girl who has no other options but the streets. One young girl, Rekha, 14, is pregnant with her fiance’s child, but his parents force him to leave her because she’s Untouchable.
Often families will kill unwed mothers, and Pal intercedes and convinces the parents to let them marry. Yet Rekha isn’t overjoyed. During the wedding ceremony, her face is blank, detached. There are no tears of joy or brief smiles of happiness. Later, to the camera, her quiet voice says it all, “Marriage is better than death.”
And so the name of the game is survival–how to live whatever life you’re given without getting killed or broken to the point of no return.
Pal’s efforts rise to admirable heights, yet it’s obvious that she isn’t perfect. She refers to herself as “the messiah for women”, and understandably, her revered status often gets to her head. She berates her boyfriend, and yearns for press and stature. Yet her main efforts aren’t pursued in vain.
The documentary doesn’t say much about the group as a whole, but a quick Google search shows they often swarm those who abuse women and beat them with sticks and axes until they repent and agree to change their ways.
The documentary feels unfinished and somewhat rough. Background material is somewhat lacking, and the subtitles are hard to see–white text often against lighter images. But there’s promise in “Pink Saris.”
“Pink Saris” plays tonight at 6:15PM at the Kabuki. Tickets are currently at rush.