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Of women and identities

R. UMA MAHESHWARI

Samina's films delve into the many identities that Indian women have to contend with.


Be it the context of poverty or that of economic prosperity; be it the Nayi Simapuri slum of New Delhi or the green-revolutionised village of Kasel in the Punjab, who is it that gets the preferential treatment, subtly or blatantly? Who gets to jump into a pond undressed or play games and learn to ride a tractor? The boy.

Statistics assume names and real faces in the series of films titled Stories of Girlhood, made by Samina Mishra, a Delhi-based independent filmmaker. The Hyderabad Film Club's Documentary Circle organised the screening of these and the latest, The House on Gulmohar Avenue, at the Birla Planetarium.

Girls in the Neighbourhood, Of Love and Land and Things I Never Did Before have one common point - that girls in India are rarely treated as children, always as girls. It is the gendered self, which becomes the quintessence. In the first film, Samina tracks Asparya, Habiba and Nazmeen of Nayi Simapuri as they take her through their basti, and their daily work as rag pickers. Much of the 20 to 30 rupees they earn from this work go to their families. The child in them, however, seeks gratification in the bubble gum they buy for themselves. The boys in the basti at least have time to play and go to school. Not so the girls. The direct link between poverty, economic distress and gender disparity is clear here.

But move to a village in Amritsar and the story is different. Here the focus is the rich Jat Sikh joint family household. The camera zooms in on two little boys and three little girls, including Pritpal. The father is teaching his little boys the basics of a tractor. The girls simply look on. In this telling shot is the obvious message. But all is not so obviously stereotypical. For Pritpal, the elder sibling goes to the most expensive school in her village, as do her sisters and brothers. And gets to play and is loved by all the members of the family. But the gender disparity figures in roles they are expected to play and expectations from the girl child.

Closer home, in a village in Telangana is an experiment called the Mahila Shikshana Kendra managed by a local organisation which brought young girls from cotton fields to the residential school. The soundtrack in the three films also enhances the frames in its own subtle way.

Gulmohar blooms big time

The highlight of the evening was The House on Gulmohar Avenue, the film, which opened this year's Open Frame Festival of Films made by the Prasar Bharati. Samina is the great grand-daughter of the former President of India, Dr. Zakir Husain and her name, she says, always evoked questions from people about her identity. As a filmmaker, a woman, and a Muslim, she looks at the house that her great-grandfather built at Gulmohar Avenue. What does it mean to the people who live there now? Her parents reminisce about their unusual marriage even as her father Mihir Mishra says, most touchingly, that he belongs where his wife does. And for his wife, Samina's mother, Ayesha, her sense of belonging comes from her own Muslim tradition. Brought up in a modern, liberal context, some choices, some roots, some parts of one's heritage one cannot wish away nor be bound within. Living in a predominantly `Muslim' area also has been a matter of choice as much as continuity with one's past.



EXISTENTIAL ANGST Documentary filmmaker Samina Mishra; (above) a scene from her film `Of Love and Land.'

The film addresses the ideas of belonging, of roots, of home and identity without being judgmental or pedantic. And it avoids the usual clichés. The idea of placing the mirror on her own family, her own self and her world to address a crucial issue, which is at once political and personal, was indeed commendable. The film is a personal journey through questions that our contemporary history has placed before people of our generation.

The film, reveals a beautiful common thread connecting the three women of the extended family of Samina's. The sense of belonging is passed on to the present generation with Samina naming her son Imran, to bring to fore a certain identity and a certain heritage. The rough edges of the film only make it easier to relate to at a very personal level. What is true for Samina is true for many other women in the many identities they are born into and the ones they choose to give themselves.

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