This is the last week to catch the Portland International Film Festival, which the Northwest Film Center has been running since February 10th, screening several films a day in venues around Portland. One of the films on our radar here at Bitch was Pink Saris, a British documentary about a gang of women in Uttar Pradesh, India who wear hot pink saris to demonstrate their revolt against tradition and patriarchy. Here’s the trailer:
The Gulabi Gang, or Pink Gang, was founded by Sampat Pal Devi in 2005 to combat honor killing, wife beating, child marriage, and the caste system in rural India. The scope of this mission statement is revealing of Devi’s character; she is relentless, ambitious, aggressive, and insatiable in her quest for women’s rights. She is also flawed and vulnerable, facts director Kim Longinotto weaves compellingly into an otherwise one-dimensional storyline.
Not much is explained in Pink Saris, from the frantic first scene (involving a pregnant teenager, her incarcerated, and higher-caste, boyfriend, several police officers and Devi shouting “God can go to hell!” at the boyfriend’s horrified father) to the sudden, almost arbitrary ending. Devi’s point of view is the only one we get, and her vigilante-style shouting matches with abusive families, weeping young girls, and ambivalent law officials leave any peace she achieves feeling tenuous. One reviewer called Devi a “self-appointed Judge Judy,” meaning that she does bring about change, and does dispense with her brand of justice, but operates from an unknown impetus and seems to be running on her own sense of authority. At one point, Devi refers to herself as a “messiah for women.” She is an egotistical and charismatic character; in other words, just the sort of person that would start a movement of getting in other people’s business and fighting for the perceived subaltern.
Devi herself was married at 12 and sent to work with her new family, who beat her often, according to her narrative throughout the film. It’s unclear how or when she left them, but she did eventually separate from her in-laws and strike out on her own to agitate for rights she was denied. She has since become a famous figure in India and beyond, and was living at the time of filming with a man from a much higher caste, to whom she is not married. The moment at which her veneer as leader is cracked most thoroughly comes when this man, Babuji, tells her she has become too arrogant and does not care enough for the women who seek her out for help. It’s an argument that is not resolved on camera, but it does bring into sharp relief the thin line Devi is walking on her mission: She is an advocate, an activist, an agitator, and a caretaker, but she also seems to be fairly enamored with the glory her work brings her. When she hunts down her next target, usually an errant in-law who has beaten or abandoned a girl now in Devi’s care, a crowd of gawkers inevitably forms and eggs Devi on while she shouts down whomever she faces. Upon bringing 14-year-old Renu back home with her after Renu divorces her husband and is subsequently banished from her family, Devi repeats several times that Renu has no family and is now alone in the world.
For some who see this movie, it will be easy to miss these cringe-worthy moments in favor of cheer-inducing instances where Devi insults into silence an accused rapist or pushes one woman to speak up, saying “If you’re shy, you’ll die!” As it should. Devi is an admirable and inspiring figure who continues to refuse the support of NGOs because she wants Indian women to run Indian movements, and believes her grassroots methods to be more effective than any alternative. She is also, however, a complex woman with controversial methods and equally controversial results. In other words, she’s an excellent documentary participant.
Hear what Longinotto has to say about her divisive film here, and look for Pink Saris in upcoming film festivals, or it’s available to save on Netflix.