Gulabi Gang vs Gulaab Gang: Will Madhuri turn rural activists into bandits?

Sandip Roy

Feb 21, 2014 17:07:49 IST

To paraphrase Shakespeare:

What’s in a name? That which we call a gulab
By any other name would smell as sweet.

Except that is not quite the case with the Gulaab Gang. The upcoming Madhuri Dixit-Juhi Chawla starrer claims it’s not based on Sampat Pal’s famous pink sari clad Gulabi Gang. But Pal contends otherwise and says the filmmaker did not take her permission and has challenged the film.

Meanwhile the real Gulabi Gang gets a PVR release this weekend. Nishtha Jain’s award-winning documentary is unexpectedly in the eye of a storm. Or it might be more accurate to say in the ‘i’ of a storm.

 Gulabi Gang vs Gulaab Gang: Will Madhuri turn rural activists into bandits?

A scene from the documentary

Jain says the Gulaab Gang-Gulabi Gang confusion is bringing some extra publicity to both films. After Kiran Rao said the documentary “inspired” her and organized a special screening, overheated gossip was quick to speculate about an “open war” in Bollywood.

Jain says she’s just glad she’s releasing first. “Maybe people who will see my film will wonder how the fiction has turned out. I don’t know however if after seeing the Bollywood film people will want to see the real one.”

When Jain started shooting Gulabi Gang, there was no Bollywood film in the picture. There had been a lot of articles about Sampat Pal and the dramatic pictures of the women of the Gulabi Gang in their shocking pink polyester saris against the brown fields of Bundelkhand had made for arresting photo essays.

But the popular story out there was about these women in the bandlands who gave abusive men a thrashing. “The articles were mostly talking about her as a vigilante group,” says Jain. A gang, in the sense of a Robin Hood or a Bandit Queen. But in reality, Sampat Pal's gang was the older user of the word gang as in press gang, a workers’ group.

“The fact is the Gulabi Gang uses democratic means of protest,” says Jain. “There is a negative sense to this word vigilante. I think this group is somewhere between vigilante and activist. I look at it as a spontaneous people’s movement which is chaotic.”

It has certainly been effective in a region where they had no business succeeding. Pal claims some 400,000 women belong to the Gulabi Gang though not all of them are active at the same time. They tackle not just domestic violence but Dalit issues, intercaste marriages and corruption. At one time people laughed at them for their pink saris. “But now it is a symbol of power,” says Jain. “When they walk as a group they are heard. The police is a little more respectful of them.”

That respect is hard earned. Much of it is due to the sheer gumption of the founder, Sampat Pal. Married off at 12, she was a mother of five when she left her in-laws home and started a tea shop. Her husband joined her. She is a completely self-made woman. Jain says the most amazing thing about her is “she does not feel there is an officer she cannot talk to. Or someone’s office she cannot walk into. No door is closed to her. But it’s because she decided to say to herself that as a citizen of this country no door is closed to me.”

In the documentary there’s a scene where the crew comes into a hut of a family where a young woman has been killed in what is being called a kitchen accident. Jain remembers her shock in realizing there was a dead body in the room when they went in with the camera. She discussed with her crew whether showing the body would be too sensational. In the end they decided to show it. “It was important to share the reality,” says Jain. “The shock of just walking into a dead body lying there as if it was nothing. Nobody cared. It was important to share that there is a lack of value that is attached to women not only in their living form but also in their dead form.”

The documentary follows that case almost like a whodunit peeling back layers of resistance to uncovering the truth. In the process the Gulabi Gang has had to act as detective, police, lawmaker, family counselor and politician. But Jain says there is a temptation in stories like this to root for a happy ending, where the women in pink triumph against all odds and the abusers are shamed. But the reality is far more complex and does not follow any urban feminist’s handbook. “Nothing is from a book. She is not following something that exists,” says Jain. Even the pink saris are not really pink by design. Green was Islamic. Orange was BJP. Blue was BSP. And gulabi and gang kind of went together well.

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Nishtha Jain

“Sampat has a practical idea of feminism that’s rooted in rural patriarchy,” says Jain. “She might send back women who have been beaten up to violent husbands because they are not economically independent.” Husna, one of Jain’s favourite gang members, shows that when push comes to shove, all her work within the Gulabi Gang has not changed some deeply regressive beliefs about the price to be paid for family honour.

In fact, says Jain, the huge success of the Gulabi Gang is that “it does not really question the patriarchal system and the family to that extent. They are trying to make it work within the system.” So the women have to make sure their Gulabj Gang work does not mean dinner is not ready on time.

Jain says sometimes she would chafe at the hierarchical nature of the group, the lack of a coherent vision, the chaos, the absence of more opportunities for employment generation for many of the women. But she also admired their struggle. “I call myself a feminist but compared to them there’s not that much of a struggle,” admits Jain. In a city like Mumbai, a protest against gender violence is regarded as a success if it can draw a couple of hundred women, some of whom have to travel an hour or more by train to get there. “These women sometimes get up at four in the morning, travel 5-6 hours by crowded trains, bullock carts and on tractors and then still march for 7-8 hours,” marvels Jain. She remembers commiserating with women in their seventies walking all the way to protests. “But they would feel sorry for me. They would say we work in the farm. We are used to it. You are not. You are from the city.”

Jain says she has not seen the Bollywood film and she knows it’s claiming it is totally fictional. “But it hasn’t stopped them from cashing in on their concept and the name,” says Jain. She worries that for box office masala that film could spice up the Gulabi Gang and turn them into violent bandits. “Bollywood is plagiarizing all the time but this time it runs the danger of leaving a slur on the work of thousands of poor rural women struggling against gender violence, caste discrimination and corruption in extremely difficult conditions.”

And that is not pretty in pink.

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Updated Date: Feb 21, 2014 17:39:32 IST