The gang in pink

Gulabi Gang film sheds light on gender oppression and resistance

Cinema Politica’s first screening of the year featured the 2012 documentary Gulabi Gang, written and directed by Indian director and producer Nishtha Jain. Jain is an independent filmmaker working in Bombay, known for her work on social issues through documentaries. In Gulabi Gang, she focuses on the story of the Gulabi Gang, a group of women who travel throughout India demanding gender and caste equality.

The film immediately pulls in the viewer with the investigation of a supposed kitchen accident that burned and killed a young, recently married girl. The camera does not hold back in exposing the horror inside the home: a charred figure lying on the ground, hands thrown back and legs spread apart. All the villagers claim it was an accident or suicide, but the Gulabi Gang’s leader Sampat Pal Devi sees through their lies. The next time she visits, the scene has been staged to mimic an accidental fire – a stove placed near the body like a prop. With scenes like this, the film incessantly shows us how a woman’s life can be treated as worthless.

From there, the documentary follows the gang on their journey from village to village, as they travel to wherever they are called and needed. Their assistance is sought for a range of issues, from investigating abusive incidents to negotiating how local authorities respond to such incidents. We gradually come to understand how the gang has evolved since its inception in 2006; what started out as a small group fighting against domestic violence has expanded to a women’s revolution that stands against against caste oppression and political corruption.

Beautifully shot, the segues between each scene feature the breathtaking wildlife and landscape of Bundelkhand, starkly contrasting with the themes of brutal violence. These intervals serve as a repeated reminder that cruelty and suffering can exist anywhere, even in a place that holds such mesmerizing beauty. In each moment of calm, the viewer holds their breath, waiting for the next hit of harsh reality.

What started out as a small group fighting against domestic violence has expanded to a women’s revolution that stands against against caste oppression and political corruption.

According to the BBC, an incident of domestic violence is reported in India every five minutes. Through the words of a woman named Husna, the film gives perspective as to why this behaviour is perpetuated and why men defend this abusive conduct. Husna’s sister was killed by her brother for leaving a previous husband to remarry another man she fell in love with. In a one-on-one interview, Husna explains to Jain, who is behind the camera, that if a man feels a woman has done wrong, he is entitled to do as he wishes with her, as tradition dictates that women should not be free to do as they wish. Husna explains that she would defend her male relatives for doing what they can to protect her family’s honour.

Jain highlighted this part of the movie in a Q&A session that followed the screening at McGill. She stressed the importance of understanding this mindset in order to change the very roots of India’s patriarchal system. Jain further emphasized that people should watch Gulabi Gang, for while it may not relate to everybody, it raises awareness about the extent of gender inequality in India.

While awareness is certainly important, the film does in fact relate to the society we live in half a world away. The failure to question misogynistic beliefs and actions embedded in daily life is a universal quality that allows for oppression to flourish everywhere. One only has to look at the recent case in Montreal, where, according to the Montreal Gazette, the police’s response to cases of sexual assault by taxi drivers was to advise women to “limit their alcohol consumption and stay in control.” Instead of acting to ensure the safety of taxi passengers, the police have put the responsibility on women. The incident mirrors Husna’s message that if women act as they wish, the abuse they may face is their own fault. Misogynistic norms are a transnational problem that needs to be addressed and reflected on critically.

Gulabi Gang ends on a train platform, brightened with the pink saris of the gang. A bystander asks a member of the gang, “Do you get anything from all this in return?” She shakes her head in response. This subtle ending is one of the only snippets we get of the gang’s exhaustion from their often thankless work. But their courage has not gone without reward. According to Jain, regional policing authorities now recognize the gang as an influential force, and are more likely to respond to their requests.

Both the implicit and explicit messages this documentary carries are powerfully thought-provoking. Though the context of the film is upsetting, the awe-inspiring work of the Gulabi Gang, and its brutally honest portrayal by Jain, become a source of inspiration both for women in India and the rest of the world.