Pink Saris

Pink Saris


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Named after the striking colour worn by members of the Gulabi Gang, an all-female 'army' led by Sampat Pal, Pink Saris is the latest in a string of documentaries made by English director Kim Longinotto to address the suffering and solidarity of women around the world – although in Sampat she has found a subject so complex and compelling, so fearless and flawed, that in the end the documentary itself is drawn into her irresistible orbit no less than she dominates all the people and situations around her.

Like so many women from her area, the low-caste Sampat was forced into marriage at an early age, and suffered beatings at the hands of her in-laws – but unusually she fought back and broke free of her husband, and now enjoys an unconventional relationship of love with the much higher caste Babuji. No shrinking violet, Sampat has become a strident advocate of justice and equality for the women of Uttar Pradesh, mediating between wronged women, their abusers, and the authorities, and turning her home into a virtual shelter for the abandoned.

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Longinotto's plainly shot documentary follows Sampat as she tackles head-on the problems of local women who have come to her for help. There is Rekha, a 14-year-old Untouchable whose higher-caste boyfriend Abhey has, at his family's insistence, left her as soon as she became pregnant. Sampat railroads the pair into a tradition-defying wedding (where, tellingly, the bride never once smiles). Then there is Rampataree, beaten and allegedly raped by her father-in-law while her husband lives far away in Delhi. Sampat first suggests co-opting her into the Gulabi Gang, before negotiating a reconciliation with the returned husband. Then there is 15-year-old Renu, who has fled her husband and his family into the embrace of young Guddu. Sampat secures a divorce, but when Guddu is discouraged by his own family from marrying Renu, Sampat adopts the girl herself.

These are all difficult cases, exposing a state caught between its ancient patriarchal traditions and a hesitant modernity. "Things will change slowly," says Sampat near the film's beginning, although her firm rejection of traditional religion ("I don't believe in gods!"), of hereditary class ("caste does not matter any more"), and of just about every other value held dear by her community suggests that she has been fast to embrace the possibilities of progress – until, that is, her last intervention shown in the film, involving her own niece Niranjan, where the forceful activist is for once seen caving in to deep-seated customs and conventions against all the more enlightened principles that she otherwise champions.

Nor is this Sampat's only fault. For she is also prone to megalomaniac outbursts ("I'm the Messiah for the women", "I'm more powerful than the police!", etc.), and in one scene near the film's close, when her ever-loyal partner Babuji offers some constructive criticism of her behaviour, her absurd response is to dismiss his words as mere misogyny. Sampat is no saint, and Longinotto's film is no hagiography. Rather it sets out a number of imperfect solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems, and offsets the collective struggles of women in a state with no safety net against the burdens borne by an extraordinarily driven individual to fill in the gaps.

Reviewed on: 04 Oct 2010
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Low-caste women in Uttar Pradesh fight back against social injustice in this documentary.
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Director: Kim Longinotto

Year: 2010

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: UK, India

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