The Untouchables Push Back in ‘Pink Saris’

“If girls spoke up, the world would change. Be brave.” As Sampat Pal apprises a girl newly arrived at her doorstep, she offers the advice for which she has become famous in India. The founder of the Gulabi Gang, an all-female organization known for their signature pink saris and dedicated to educating and empowering women, Sampat is a daunting figure in most every situation. “Speak up child,” she tells the girl Rekha, whose first inclination is to keep her head down and her mouth shut. “If you’re shy, you’ll die.”

Sampat makes this case again and again in Pink Saris, underlining that in India, domestic abuse of women is traditional and persistent, even after the passage of laws against it. Domestic violence has been the focus of a lifelong struggle for Sampat, herself a former child bride and abuse victim who resisted her seeming fate and left her husband, and was forced out of her village as a result. Now, 15 years later, she lives in Uttar Pradesh in Northern India with another man, Babuji, both supported by donations to the Gulabi Gang.

Babuji is introduced in Kim Longinotto’s superb documentary — premiering 30 November on HBO — as he watches Sampat in action, exhorting Rekha to marry the boy who has made her pregnant, despite his father’s opposition (“Rekha must get married,” a title card informs you, “Unmarried girls who get pregnant are often killed by their own families”). The scene — which centers Sampat as a crowd of listeners stand by — is complicated from the start, and as such, typical of Longinotto’s work, which seems observational but is also interrogative and revealing. When Babuji, positioned to Sampat’s right, wonders whether the girl has “anything in writing” regarding the relationship, Sampat dismisses him: “Go away,” she advises, “Babuji knows nothing. It’s a woman’s problem.”

As he dutifully exits the frame, you become aware that what they’re talking about is in fact not only a woman’s problem, though it affects women most deeply and immediately. For what Sampat is talking about is not only women’s duties to fathers and husbands and in-laws, but also the caste system that still ordains the experiences of many Indians. While she notes that those who are “educated” know better, a belief lingers that Untouchables and other low caste individuals will “ruin” families if they do indeed come in contact with those stationed above. This is one of the concerns for Rekha and her beau, as it is for Sampat and Babuji (as her caste is lower than his), a concern rooted in ancient beliefs.

When Sampat goes to speak with the boy’s father, the older man threatens her with his godlike powers, at which point she speaks loudly and forcefully, apparently well aware of the effects of such self-presentation (for the camera and local observers): “This is why I started the Gulabi Gang,” she asserts, “-I don’t believe in gods. If you have the power, turn me to dust.” He sputters, insisting that he can make such a choice. “Gods,” sums up Sampat, “can go to hell. Is there a greater goddess than this girl? There’s no higher power than woman.”

Sampat is repeatedly impressive as she stands up to a series of intransigent families: “You’re an adult,” she criticizes one father-in-law accused of raping his son’s wife. “Don’t fight like a child.” She threatens to call the police, she brings abuse victims to sign official complaints, and she takes in girls who have nowhere else to go, and she promises one victim, “I’ll sort those bastards out” (leaving you with little doubt that she will). At best, Sampat hopes newlyweds will be able to live together and apart from the husband’s parents, but if tradition holds sway, and new wives move in with their husband’s parents, she urges families to reconcile. If the culture insists on 12-year-old brides, they must be treated well, as individuals with rights and desires, not just subhuman servants or objects.

As virtuous and commanding as Sampat appears during confrontations with in-laws or in interviews, the film reveals that she’s also dealing with her own questions. These don’t make her any less potent as a champion of women and girls’ rights and expectations, but it does complicate her story. She visits with her much older husband (to whom she is still married, legally), arguing with him about how he’s dealing with their children and insisting that he appreciate her position in their family (“If you need money or food,” she reminds him, “I’m your provider”). He complains that she undermines his authority regarding the children, who still live with him, complaining that when he tells them to study, they don’t. Sampat nods, offers her own hard-won philosophy (“Leave the kids alone, who cares what the world thinks? It’s never helped us, we have to look after each other”), then instructs the children to study: they scamper, apparently instantly obedient, and she stands to straighten objects on a table before she exits.

The documentary doesn’t explain the scene, return to the husband, or offer either of the adults’ comments on what they’ve just shared, but still, the scene reveals the tensions that shape Sampat’s experience. In interviews where she explains herself, Sampat is both self-convincing and relentless: “Things won’t change overnight. We have to wake people up,” she estimates, noting that neighbors are still sometimes concerned that she lives with Babuji. “They still believe in untouchability. Things will change slowly.” She believes in her cause and knows better than anyone how difficult her own path has been. But, as Babuji points out, she can also be tough to live with.

The film doesn’t offer melodramatic details of their interactions or their precise history, instead leaving you to assess what’s in front of you, with occasional formal nudges. When Sampat makes a decision concerning one young girl’s situation, the documentary points out in a title card that she does so without telling Babuji, and with an eye toward reconciling with her own village, the one that turned her out so many years ago. The girl, Niranjan, reveals to the filmmakers that she has been beaten again by her in-laws, showing the marks on her legs even as she also hides her face with a veil. The voice offscreen urges her to tell Sampat, as the scene cuts to a confrontation between Sampat and Babjui, one that reveals both their frustrations, and might support either partner’s view of their relationship. He believes she’s overcome by ambition, the desire to be “a big shot,” and she thinks he means to hold her back, to control their household.

Sampat is unable to sort out her situation as plainly as she has done for others (“God knows I’m a good person,” she says, “I know what’s right, what I see, what you’re up to, who knows how you could plot my downfall?”). And she sees in the crisis confirmation of her history. Her own story is reflected in her conversation with another girl she has taken in, Renu. Even if her family has rejected her, Sampat advises, she must take to heart the lesson. Traditionally, families see girls as sources of labor or income. It’s crucial that girls see themselves differently. “When you lose your worth,” Sampat says, as both she and Renu begin to weep. “No one cares. You have to stand alone like I did.” The camera holds on them, in tears and strong too.

RATING 9 / 10