I teach a course on postcolonial literature and film and recently showed students the documentary Pink Saris by award-winning British filmmaker Kim Longinotto. The film enables us to follow Sampath Pal, the leader of the Gulabi gang, around several districts in Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh. The group, which began in 2006, has become well known for standing up to abusive men. They seek to improve the lives of women who are receiving abuse, whether it takes the form of beatings, sexual assaults, coerced marriage, extortion or other injustices. There is always greater strength in numbers: the gang members appear in their pink saris and verbally challenge the abusers; if this does not work, they may return, armed with laathis (long bamboo sticks) to carry out their own form of vigilante justice as a warning or a way of extracting a new situation for the woman.
According to Amana Fontanella-Khan, 20,000 people now call themselves members of the gang. Their leader, Sampath Pal, has been charged for a number of acts including unlawful assembly and rioting, but these are momentary episodes in an enduring campaign to decrease abuse against women. Recently Sampath Pal ran for office in Uttar Pradesh, hoping to be the voice of the underrepresented and neglected in the legislative assembly. She lost, but the decision shows her ambitions. Despite having experienced severely debilitating conditions – married off (and thus repeatedly raped in marriage, as she states) at age twelve and starving in the streets with her five children by age twenty – Sampath Pal has great reserves of energy and spirit. Many of her words stay with the listener, ringing out beyond a narrow frame: “Marriage can go to hell.” “When a man does wrong, give him a beating.” “Is there a greater goddess in existence than the girl before you?”
The film excels at conveying Pal’s multi-faceted personality. On the one hand, she cares deeply about the suffering of children and women, and although she has very limited space, she houses people in urgent need, sometimes indefinitely. On the other hand, Pal is brutally honest and even self-centered, unselfconsciously saying, “I am the Messiah for women.” Her desire to be the sole commander reaches a crisis near the end of the film, when the man she lives with, the quiet and gentle Babu-ji who shares a long and close history with her, asks her why she is unable to collaborate with him or others anymore. He remarks that fame seems to have given her delusions of grandeur. Later he departs out of frustration with her inability to even discuss any compromise regarding the gang’s operations or organization. To his face Pal sharply dismisses his criticism, but later we see her sitting listlessly against a wall, her feisty, curse-filled mouth drawing itself up in doubt and sadness.
While I am grateful for the filmmaker’s achievement, I confess I was also disappointed by its narrow focus. There are no scenes showing the members using actual violence, and this reflects reality since the gang is now able to extract promises or change a situation simply by showing up. However, the title Pink Saris is quite misleading. Where are the rest of the gang members? Aren’t some of them younger Sampath-Pals in their own right? We see them file in for a meeting and a wedding, but we learn nothing of them. They become a rose-colored backdrop, as if their loyalty, commitment and courage were not essential to Pal’s mission. While journalist Mona Gable praises the director for Longinotto’s “nonjudgmental view” of Pal in the film, I would argue that the sole focus on Sampath Pal does express a decisive judgment. While ultimately the film lets viewers draw its own conclusions, Pink Saris’ exclusion of interviews with gang members inadvertently perpetuates the “Great One” view of history. This view stems from ancient Greek thinkers who saw human history as a series of outstanding events achieved by extraordinarily talented men. I deeply admire the Sampath Pals who live amongst us and am grateful to know about this change-maker, but leaders gain emotional and material strength from other actors, and often gradually create other agents. I, for one, desire to know more about the other women who have enabled Sampath Pal to become the woman she is today.
Photo credit: Sanjit Das, The Pixel Project’s “16 for 16” Campaign