No country for young girls?

BY sevanti ninan| IN Opinion | 12/09/2008
Focusing on foeticide and child marriage, a documentary and a TV serial find imaginative ways to explore still-grim gender realities in India.
SEVANTI NINAN reviews both


Sevanti Ninan




Some gender realities in India in remain grim but an emerging economy that is frequently toasted by the globalising world has little patience with reminders of what holds it back.  It is a challenge for the media to keep some issues alive, to present them with enough imagination to hook viewers who do not want to be reminded of the grimmer half.


Foeticide is an issue which continues to shame the country. Its visual narrative on television has usually been presented through sting operations done at abortion clinics, or ghastly repeat visuals of foetuses bobbing in a water body on an India TV news telecast, or through panel discussions with experts. But a couple of weeks ago BBC World aired a TVE film by an Indian filmmaker which humanises the dilemma that sex selection presents young mothers with. It will be telecast again this coming weekend as part of  the channel¿s Living on the Edge series.


"No Country for Young Girls?" is an imaginative take on a scourge which, according to the film, accounts for a million female foetuses annually in India. (That is quite a statistic, and one would have liked to know where it came from.)  It tells the story of sex selection through a young woman, who has had to flee her husband¿s home to avoid yet another abortion. She lives in Agra, which allows for the film to be pegged to the Taj Mahal, monument of love, for the BBC¿s international audiences. It begins with something similar to the famous Princess Diana shot: sitting wistfully alone on a bench in front of the Taj. That is where Vaijanti begins to recount her story. And the film ends with a shot of this young woman walking with her daughter on the sandy stretch behind the Taj. 


What¿s different about the treatment is that the protagonist goes beyond being a case study.  The filmmaker takes her out of her milieu and travels with her to other cities so that she can meet other women like herself, see her country, and  discover whether a girl in India really can make it on her own. She travels to Delhi and visits both an abortion clinic and a discotheque, apart from meeting Minister for Women And Child Development, Renuka Choudhury. She goes to a village near Ganganagar in Rajasthan and meets a nurse who refused to abort her female triplets, and is now bringing them up on her own. Fresh-faced teenage girls in long plaits who attend school, and have ambitions.


Finally, filmmaker Nupur Basu, formerly NDTV correspondent in Karnataka, takes Vaijanti  to Bangalore to meet women in the IT industry. They talk about where they have got, as well as about things which do not change. IT engineers demanding dowries, for instance.


"No Country for Young Girls?" makes it point without melodrama or hyperbole.  It allows in voices from women in different parts of the country, women who like Vaijanti are victims of marital cruelty because Indian families in the 21st century continue to prefer boys. It leaves you with the image of a woman who has had her eyes opened for her, and must now take hard decisions. Should she return to her husband or bring up her children on her own and help them find a place in the sun?


I would like to juxtapose this documentary on a news channel with a serial running on the new entertainment channel, Colours, a Viacom-TV 18 venture. Simply to show that changing mindsets on gender needs  a concerted onslaught using  different  television formats.


"Balika Vadhu", or child bride is also about young girls. It is a daily 8 pm fiction series, set in rural Rajasthan and intended to confront the continuing practice of child marriage. It is evocatively visualised, has a recognisable story line, and features some stellar performances by Surekha Sikri as the tough, sometimes cruel matriarch, and by Vaibhavi Raichura  who plays the child bride¿s mother. Both women play their roles with finesse, as do the supporting cast of characters. Good acting is nowadays a rare commodity on Indian television.


The 8 to 10 pm band on Hindi general entertainment channels is aimed at small town India, rather than metro audiences. Across channels it is replete with overdone family sagas of  marriage and intrigue. A new channel that bucked the trend to put on an imaginative serial that tackles a social issue, deserves to be congratulated.


Each episode ends with a one-line comment on why child marriage is hard on young girls—a throwback to the didactism of the development soaps of the 1980s. There is however some ambiguity about whom the message is reaching and in what shape. Because "Balika Vadhu" also appeals commercially. It meets all the entertainment expectations of the upwardly mobile tv viewer, and more important, of advertisers. The haveli in which the story is set is supposed to belong to a wealthy rural family, so it has  the same improbable dimensions as the cavernous houses in which the other family soap operas are set.


All the women including the little bahu of the house are always bejewelled and dressed up, but in odhnis and lehengas and costume jewellery which blend in with the setting. For a Mumbai TV serial, the aesthetics are unusually well done. Nobody is slathered with  make up, the ethnicity of the interiors is subtle. There is enough realism to make the story credible, and an intelligent writer has summoned a series of small daily catastrophes and confrontations that bring out the inherent cruelty of dumping the weight of tradition on the tender heads of young children.


The eight-year-old bride is plucked from her home before puberty, unlike the norm, because her mother panics when another child bride in her village is widowed even before her ¿gona.¿ A naturally sunny  child, she is bewildered, forlorn, and adjusting by turn. The nicest bits of this many faceted serial are the evolving relationship between the children who have been wed, and the interplay between ritual observances and bursts of childhood effervescence.   


The family matriarch rules with an iron fist, her sons do not have the gumption to stand up to her. For "Masa", as the old woman is called, the surbordination of a child bride so that she knows her place and purpose in the family is a relentless pursuit. If it involves locking up the terrified child in a store room as punishment, so be it. Much of the drama and tension in the serial comes from this friction. Meanwhile the smouldering older son of this joint family, whose wife has died in childbirth, is waiting for his mother to find him a second bride. It could be another child, and "Balika Vadhu" will have more opportunity to underscore its message.




"No Country for Young Girls" will be telecast on Saturday, Sept. 13, at 9 pm and Sunday Sept. 14 at 4 pm. "Balika Vadhu" runs on Colours at 2pm, 8 pm and 11.30 pm, Monday to Friday.  


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