Gulabi Gang review: The story of a woman who embodies hope
In a country swaddled in conservatism and regressive patriarchy, Pal is an inspiring figure and Jain's Gulabi Gang is testament to this.
In Kim Longinotto's documentary Pink Saris, about Sampat Pal and her all-woman vigilante posse called Gulabi Gang, Pal says to a young woman, "If you're shy, you die." The Sampat Pal in Nishtha Jain's Gulabi Gang is older, more measured and diplomatic. She knows she has to negotiate her way through an intensely conservative Bundelkhand, tempering her anger with smiles and understanding nods. In Longinotto's documentary, Pal is a legend in the making, a woman working her way towards becoming an icon. In Jain's documentary, which was shot a few years later, Pal's become a hero, one whom villagers call in times of crises, and a potent mix of sleuth and saviour.
Back in 2006, Pal began a women's collective that took the law into its own hands. It came to be known as Gulabi Gang because all the members wore pink saris and carried pink lathis. If a woman or her parents complained to the Gulabi Gang that a woman was being mistreated, the ladies in their uniform of pink saris and wielding pink lathis attacked the accused. They became well known in the Bundelkhand area. By the time Jain and her camera started following Pal around, she was famous and revered. Gulabi Gang had grown to a sizeable number and had 'branches' in different villages, each headed up by a "commander". "Long live Sampat Pal" is a chant that's heard repeatedly in Jain's documentary and it's testament to both Pal's popularity and the faith that is placed in her ability to set things right.
In a country swaddled in conservatism and regressive patriarchy, Pal is an inspiring figure and Jain's Gulabi Gang is testament to this. Some ridicule the women in pink saris. Many of the gang members are, for all their fandom for Pal, intensely conservative themselves, which is evident from how they keep their faces covered. But there's no mistaking the anger that the Gulabi Gang feels at violence being inflicted upon other women.
Jain's documentary suggests that Pal is bringing change to Bundelkhand, albeit very tentatively and delicately. By the time we see Pal in this documentary, she is less eager to follow the vigilante's path and instead urges victims' families to use the law to their advantage and for justice. Pal also encourages members of the Gulabi Gang to stand for local elections, which is perhaps the ultimate sign of Gulabi Gang becoming part of the system rather than countering it. It's heartening that some of the pink-clad candidates win. But it's telling that at least one of the winners that Jain shows is illiterate (despite having a supposedly well-educated husband) and is more comfortable conforming to the practice of covering her face in public.
At different points in the film, it seems many of the women in Gulabi Gang are ready to fight injustice as long as it doesn't show up in their own families and lives. When it does, as in one member named Husna Jahan's case, then the pro-woman and pro-victim principles are abandoned. When Jahan's brother kills their sister for marrying a man of her own choosing, Jahan sides with her brother. This is their way, she tells Jain and Pal. Family and society are more important than a socio-political movement. This is particularly ironic because earlier in the film, Jahan is shown actively campaigning for Gulabi Gang. It is to Jain's credit that she's able to capture Jahan's contradictory convictions. Jahan's commitment to Gulabi Gang is as solid as is her loyalty towards her brother. When she has to choose between the two, however, she picks her family.
For many in Gulabi Gang, feminism and pro-woman stances are an elaborate and satisfying performance. Jain is able to point this out with eloquent subtlety in her documentary. Women like Jahan accuse others of the weakness that they themselves exhibit when their own family members are implicated in violence against women. The sense of Gulabi Gang's public campaigns being a performance is perhaps most evident in the scenes where members are seen practicing combat using lathis. There's no gusto as the sticks strike. Instead the moves are lackadaisical, as though the two 'fighting' women are dancing a lacklustre garba. Yet when the same women speak at meetings, their words are fiery and heartfelt.
Gulabi Gang is more about what Sampat Pal stands for in Bundelkhand, rather than an introduction to the group that is on its way to becoming a political party. Jain spends no time on Pal's own story, focussing instead on showing Pal's importance in present times. For many, including the local police, Pal is a troublemaker. To some, like Soondhi whose daughter Rajrani is killed by at her in-laws' home, Pal embodies hope. While Rajrani's father and brother are easily convinced to sign documents that state Rajrani committed suicide, Soondhi wants justice for her daughter. Realising the men in the family will not pick a fight with Rajrani's husband or in-laws, Soondhi turns to Pal for help. Pal doesn't just listen to Soondhi, she also champions the mother's cause and files a case against Rajrani's husband.
Soonidhi is a remarkable woman. She's blind, but the detail with which she describes her daughter's dead body and the room in which her daughter's charred corpse was kept is heartbreaking and astonishing. She's candid when she speaks to Sampat, pointing out what her husband couldn't — that Rajrani's husband probably killed her; that despite the claims that the young woman died of a kitchen accident, Rajrani's bodywas in a room that wasn't a kitchen, which had no signs of having seen a terrible fire. There were cobwebs, Soondhi tells Pal. How could a fire kill her daughter but leave the cobwebs untouched?
The hero worship lavished upon Pal seems well-placed when Pal helps Soondhi register a case against Rajrani's husband. When she bluntly and logically shreds Rajrani's in-laws' contention that girl killed herself, it's easy to see why Pal is a hero in Bundelkhand and that her feisty spirit has inspired the film Gulaab Gang, which is due to release in a few weeks. And yet, the silences remain and the crimes continue in Bundelkhand. For all of Pal's celebrity stature, she cannot prevent these crimes from taking place and she cannot inspire her followers to hold feminist principles over ties of blood.
Gulabi Gang is a documentary that you should watch with Google at hand. It's not comprehensive because Jain doesn't delve into either Pal's own history or the beginnings of Gulabi Gang. Neither does it provide a particularly in-depth understand of Bundelkhand's social hierarchies. The villages in the documentary could have been in any part of north or central India. But Gulabi Gang does an offer a glimpse into why Pal, with her ego and her confidence, is such a hero to those who commit to the pink sari: she's one of the few women who are committed to fighting for other women and the oppressed.
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