Pink Saris

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.

by Katie Presley
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Katie Presley is a writer and editor currently based on the East Coast (help, how did this happen??). She's been with Bitch in one form or another since 2010, when she started as a New Media Intern, and most recently served as Bitch's first and only Music Editor, from 2016-2017. Past resume lines include Assistant Producer for All Songs Considered at NPR Music, panelist on Pop Culture Happy Hour, and bylines at NPR and Ms. Katie is also a doula and herbalist, and writes a blog on herbal medicine, "The Herbal Apprentice." She also co-founded the first full-spectrum doula organization in Texas, The Bridge Collective. She is also a late-comer to being a Dog Person, but currently lives with four cats. 

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1 Comment Has Been Posted

Pink Saris film review

They do not have "honor killings" in India. You are thinking of the Middle East. There is a different name and different concept at work in India. It is not the same as the Middle East. In Asia they believe in "face" AKA reputation. If a female leaves her husband in search of a new life free from terror, free from physical abuse, free from rape, free mental and emotional abuse he has the RIGHT to drag her home by her hair as she is "chattel." Chattel = property. He has the right to murder her as she has caused him to "lose face" in the community. The neighbors, his friends, his family have all seen her run off so it is acceptable for him to find her and murder her. No one will complain and everyone will feel has done the right thing to "regain his face."

Face is unique to Asia and not limited to India. It is not seen outside of Asia. It is hard for Westerners to grasp what face means until you are the person who is being hunted to be I was.

Indians practice dowry even though Indira Gandhi outlawed it in the 1970s. Dowry is a practice that is over 5,000 years old and they people have no intention of letting it go. They practice what is called "bride burning" when the groom or his family feels the dowry that was given by the bride's family is too small. They do not have stoves, ovens or built in ranges like in the West. You use a camping Coleman style cook-top that sits on top of the counter-top. There is a hole in the counter-top where the hose to the gas canister that sits on the floor. The gas man comes around and sells you a new gas tank (like a propane tank for your barbecue grille) every couple of weeks. This can be emptied on the female along with kerosene and gasoline. A match is thrown on her and she is set on fire to burn to death. This is what is called "bride burning." I knew people who died this way. You can tell who will be killed as the family is grumbling and complaining non-stop about the money and property the bride's family gave. They say, "It is not enough." She is is going to die soon.

After a bride burning the family says, "She reached across the flame and her sari caught on fire. It was an accident." Really? Two days after the wedding? I find this suspicious. The man quickly remarries to a new female looking for a new bigger dowry. If the dowry is not big enough that female is burned as well. He just keeps burning them until the gets a dowry he feels is large enough and befitting him and his status.

The cops do nothing about bride burnings. They do not care. The cops are beating this own wives, like they give a crap about another man's wife? I think not.

In the documentary you probably missed a lot of nuances to the culture and country as you are not from there. If you had lived there you would understand what is happening. For instance: at one point Devi says, "I can not go to the police. I have no money to pay them." Did you catch that? The reason she says this is because you can NOT, I repeat NOT go to the police UNLESS you have money to pay them to write a police report and file it. Unless you have you have money to pay "bakshesh" (a bride) you can not walk into a police station for any reason. This is why the men are not afraid of her she when she threatens them with jail time. They know she can't do anything because she needs money to pay the police (1) to write a report (2) to drive to that man's house (3) to talk to the man (4) to bring the man in for questioning (5) to make an arrest (6) to not let the man go before a trial (7) to put the man on trial (8) to not let the man go before he sent to do his time for his sentence. She has to pay for each and every step or they cops will not work. India is not like the US. You pay for everything and even then the cops may or may not do their job. They may take your money and do nothing.

If the men felt she had power, money and pull with the cops they would be afraid. In India there is no such things as a right to a speedy trial. You sit in jail until they get to you. The men are only allowed to wear their underwear and no other clothing. The jailer cane them on a regular basis as a way to deter them from returning to jail. Men do NOT like to go to jail and be caned on the soles of their feet, their back, their legs, their arms, their hands, etc. so they can turn violent in order to avoid jail time. It is a very dangerous thing to threaten a man with jail time in India. He could decide to kill you in order to avoid you turning him in. I am surprised Devi is still alive after threatening so many men with jail time. I think the only reason she is alive is they know she has no pull with the cops and no money to pay the cops to do their damn job.

When you look at India and Indian society nothing is as it seems at first glance, ever. Things are hidden from view for fear of being mocked, ridiculed and criticized by Westerners. Things are secretive to hide them from Westerners. Things are coded so Westerns do not understand what is being said and what is happening. You have to keep looking, scratch the surface and look for what lies beneath to understand what is REALLY GOING ON. You have to also completely chuck out the window you Western value system and view of the world if you want to fully understand what happens in India. You can NOT hold onto your Western values, morals, scruples and ideas while evaluating India. It doesn't work that way.

You must see with an Eastern mind. There is nothing wrong with cutting short the life of another person as they will be reborn into another life anyway, so what does it matter? The belief in reincarnation allows them to think murder is acceptable as long as think their karma can withstand the punishment. People who commit murder are generally not religious or worried about their karma in the next life. They rationalize it away that Vishnu, Ganesh, Rama, Krishna, etc. would be fine with it.

India is a male dominated society. A female can not freely move around and do anything without a man. She needs a husband, father, brother or some male family member escorting or she is subject to "eve teasing" (being groped, mauled, pinched black and blue until you can not sit down, having your breast grabbed so hard it breaks your bra strap, you end up covered in bruises) and attempted rapes or actual rapes. The cops can be standing right there while the woman is molested and they put their hands in their pockets and just watch. That happened to me multiple times. The thinking of the men is, "If you are out alone you are a loose woman and fair game because good girls have an escort and slutty girls do not and females that can be easily victimized are alone.." This is true in major metropolitan cities and small villages. Women MUST BE with a man. I learned to take my servant boy with me as protection. I couldn't go anywhere alone as it was too dangerous.

India runs on baksheesh. Nothing gets done without baksheesh. Nothing. You can not get a phone line, TV service, gas service, electricity, water delivery, trash pick up, etc. You can't get a damn thing without paying baksheesh. Devi will have a hard time getting any help from the politicians and cops if she does not pay them baksheesh. They all expect payment. She has an uphill battle.

In India "battered woman's shelters" is an oxymoron. They hardly exist. I only heard of one in all of the South of India. The need is great. The resources are lacking. The funding is lacking. The situation is very sad. The cities are bad enough, but you go out into the villages and things get really ugly, really fast. Young girls being forced into arranged marriages with men old enough to be their father or grandfather raping and beating them is no life at all.

The suicide rate for young women is very high in India because they are so unhappy with being beaten, raped, mentally and emotionally tortured by their husband and in-laws that life becomes unbearable. They set themselves on fire. Some survive and end up in a burn ward with a long recovery and skin grafts. Most do not survive. In the cities, they jump from bridges and buildings or throw themselves in front of a train. This is the dirty little secret the government does not talk about.

The press is censored in India. The newspapers and TV news must submit their stories to the government. The censor takes 24 hours to turn around the story for approval or cutting it up. The newspapers and TV news is always 24 hours delayed due to the censors and their office. Nothing that is unflattering to the government, the state or the country is allowed to be printed or broadcast. The suppression of negative views is very heavy. I am surprised this film was made at all and the filmmaker was not jailed. That is very shocking!

There is so much layered in this film. It would take me hours to explain to you what it all means. This short bit is not even everything that is there. She says a lot with only sentence, but you have to know the culture to understand what she is saying and what it means. The film is very complex if you are familiar with India, Indian culture, Indian society, Indian marriage, Indian social issues, Indian legal issues, Indian political issues, Indian family issues (the wife of the eldest male must care for her husband, his unmarried siblings, his parents, his grandparents and anyone else he deems fit. no one cares for her, but her. she does not have only a husband and child to care for. she has a whole family of people who do not appreciate her, pick on her, bully and hit her. she is treated like a servant girl and not like a member of the family. this is seen in the film repeatedly.), Indian historical issues (caste issues for one), Indian religious issues, Indian police (corruption, baksheesh), Indian male domination (macho, domineering, bullies, physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, mental/emotional abuse, intimidation, etc.), superstitions (Devi makes use of the superstitious beliefs to scare the men)

If you ever go to India and are raped while in India DO NOT under any circumstances go to the police station to file a police report. The police will rape you as they will think, "What is 20 more times if you already did it once?" The police officers will line up and gang rape you. There were two French tourist who were unaware of this. They were raped. They went to the police to file a report. They were locked in a police cell for three days and raped around the clock by every officer that came on duty. They were finally released at the end of three days of brutality. They went to their Embassy. The French Embassy lodged a complaint with the Indian government. The Indian government shrugged and said, "What do you expect? They walked in the police station! Everyone knows not to do that!" The police officers kept their jobs and didn't even get reprimanded. All the cops participated in that particular precinct and they thought they were rather slick. Everyone just said, "That is how it is." and went about their business. It is accepted that cops will do this. No one complains. No one moans. Everyone accepts it. If you want to keep your number of rapes to a minimum NEVER EVER go to the cops in India or you will take your number of rapes from one to twenty in a heartbeat. The reason for this is they value chastity and virginity highly. If you are raped they regard it as you are loose, a slut, a whore and giving it away so they want some. This is how sexist and backwards their thinking is. This is also why Devi has taken things into her own hands. She knows she can not rely on the police they are as they are crooked as the day is long. Anyone can pay off a cop if you have the money. Cops go with the highest bidder.

21st Century thinking has not come to India and is likely to not coming in the next several hundred years. Hell, 16th Century thinking hasn't come to India. They say, "We have done it this way for 5,000 years. We will keep doing it this way for another 5,000 years." I believe them. They are stuck in the past and can not move forward.

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