Director: Nishtha Jain
Dressed in pink sarees and wielding lathis to dispense justice, the Gulabi Gang, a vigilante group of women in Bundelkhand in Northern India, have fascinated filmmakers ever since the group was founded in 2006 by Sampat Pal. Nishtha Jain's Gulabi Gang comes on the heels of British documentarian Kim Longinotto 2010 film Pink Saris, and only weeks from now we'll see Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla in Gulab Gang, a Bollywood feature reportedly inspired by the crime-fighting crusader group.
Jain's film is a deeply affecting work that reminds us of the vulnerability of women in rural India, and shines a light on the efforts of this group to protect, educate, and empower their gender against cruel husbands, corrupt politicians, and an orthodox, regressive mindset.
Sampat Pal is an enigmatic figure, comfortable in the spotlight, empathetic to the helpless, and tough when she needs to be. The camera follows her closely as she is summoned to a village where a family claims their daughter-in-law set herself on fire. The teenage girl's charred body is revealed only fleetingly, and while Sampat is evidently sad, she isn't shocked. This is not the first time she's seen something like this.
Within moments, she has figured out that there are no signs of a fire having broken out in the hut; the roof and the walls are in perfect condition. The girl's tongue, sticking out of her mouth, and her posture suggest that she struggled before dying. Sampat openly accuses the family of lying, and insists that a police investigation will find the husband guilty of murder. She approaches the police herself, urging them to look into the case. She also tries to persuade the dead girl's father and uncle to file a complaint and demand a probe, but the men are unwilling. "It had to be in her destiny to die," they tell Sampat. In a poignant scene later, the dead girl's blind mother calls Sampat home and decides to lodge a complaint.
A woman's life isn't worth very much in these parts. It's a truth that's reiterated again, when Husna, a member of the Gulabi Gang, is revealed to be shielding her brother after he stabbed their sister to death for remarrying. Sampat, who has dropped in to visit Husna with another member, asks her politely but firmly to disassociate herself with the gang. In an exchange with Jain (who remains off-camera) after Sampat has left, Husna says she cannot condemn her brother - women who bring dishonor to their families by marrying for love must be prepared to face the consequences.
In another village, local Gulabi Gang members are staging a hunger strike outside a police station, demanding that the authorities take the village leader to task for murdering an activist. Suman Chauhan, a senior Gulabi Gang member from that district, campaigns for the women in her gang who will contest local elections. When one of the women loses in an important constituency, Suman chides villagers who promised to vote for her, but voted for the oppressive leader instead. "You shouldn't have lied," she tells them disappointedly.
Not everything about the film is grim and hopeless, however. Jain reveals a keen eye for humor when she captures Sampat and other members practicing self-defence. Or the time Sampat is recruiting new members to the gang. None of the women have birth certificates, and although their faces reveal wisdom and maturity of many years, each insists she's 40 or younger.
Sampat's efforts to seek justice for the girl who was burnt to death yield positive results. It's clear she has a voice, and the authorities take her seriously. But in a telling scene at the very end of the film, Jain makes a case for more awareness. As Gulabi Gang members huddled together at a railway platform prepare to head to their village, a man, oblivious of who they are or what they do, his curiosity piqued by their pink sarees and the lathis they carry around, enquires about the group from another passenger. On being told, he asks dismissively: "But have they achieved anything?"
The film, which I strongly recommend that you watch, is a testament to their courageous work and the difference they have made.