There is a trend in Hindi mainstream cinema of making fictionalised versions of the lives of real heroes. Bhag Milkha Bhag is the most recent example, being an account of the life of Olympic athlete Milkha Singh. However, besides targeting the mass audience with its three-pronged focus on education, information and entertainment, the film has a fourth dimension . to inspire and influence our youngsters nourished on a generous diet of Heavy Metal, McDonalds, PSPs, mobile apps, Bluetooth and the works.
Bhag Milkha Bhag is a glamorised fictional account of one of the greatest athletes India has produced. Fair enough, if a director wants to attempt a celluloid fictionalisation of an achiever like Milkha Singh or Mary Kom. But what happens when he decides to piggy-back on a different kind of real-life story - of oppression and injustice?
Producer Anubhav Sinha and debutant director Shoumik Sen find themselves having to answer this question. Are they trying to capitalise on the real rural movement by women's group Gulabi Gang through their film Gulab Gang? What happens to the truth and understanding when film-makers pick up the outline of a real 'movement' to make a film? Does the glamorisation of a flesh-and-blood struggle by women against violation of human rights through a mainstream masala film add to the cause of these women? Or does it detract from their struggle by trivializing it in film?
Let us look at the real Gulabi Gang. Founded by Sampat Pal Devi, 43, an unlettered mother of five in 2006, Gulabi Gang now has a strength of thousands of rural women. Clad in pink saris, these women journey from one town to another in Bundelkhand district of Uttar Pradesh to create awareness among the poor and neglected about their rights and to fight for rights that have been violated or ensure justice for victims who are no more.
The news of five women beating up one man spread like wildfire and women from neighbouring villages soon came to her asking for help. She asked most of them to join in and Gulabi Gang was born. "The colour pink does not have either a religious or a political association and is neutral in every way. Therefore, we chose pink and even named our ever-expanding group after it," says Sampat.
To date, Gulabi Gang has stopped several child marriages, forced the police to register domestic violence cases, and marked out the dowry death of a young woman which the in-laws, with the connivance of the police, had been passed off as 'suicide.' The families of the gang members initially did not like the idea of their women taking to social activism in a real sense, but they came around in course of time. There have been a few exceptions when a woman has dropped out because a family member is a part of the investigation.
Gulabi Gang was reported to have 20,000 members as of 2008, as well as a chapter in Paris, France. It has inspired several documentary film-makers to make a film on their grassroots activism that has moved from one success to another.
The real Gulabi Gang. Photo by Nishtha Jain.
Documentary filmmaker Nishtha Jain, whose Gulabi Gang won the Best Film Award in the Muhr Asia Africa documentary section at the 9th Dubai Film Festival (followed by a string of awards and nominations) says, "I found Sampat Pal amazing. She is completely self-taught and had the courage to break away from her in-laws to do the work she's doing now. I thought if these women, despite all their disadvantages can rise against injustice, so can anyone. It would be an inspiring tale to tell. So I decided to go and meet Sampat Pal." Within days of observing her at work, Nishtha realised that the reality was more complicated than she had imagined and that it would make for a more nuanced film.
On the other side of the coin is Gulab Gang, a feature film in the making with Madhuri Dixit portraying the leader of a woman's group. The casting seems to have been done with the thought of imposing a beautiful face on the ordinary and rustic but gutsy Sampat Pal. This rakes up the issue of the ethics of such celluloid 'imitation'. Questions can be raised about the ethics in hijacking and appropriating real life stories for feature films and capitalizing on important and positive social movements by diverting attention from the real cause to synthetic glamour.
Gulabi Gang is a collective movement spearheaded by Sampat Pal. Gulab Gang is a commercial film. According to one media report, "Madhuri Dixit portrays the character of Rajjo who heads Gulabi Gang, a group of "women dacoits" dressed in pink saris that operates in the Bundelkhand region. The audience will get to see Madhuri in a rough, abusive and action packed performance unlike her other roles that have been very feminine and demure in nature." Another says, "She (Madhuri Dixit) has worked with a team of professionals with whom she has learnt kick-boxing and high kicks moves for the film." She reportedly trained under Shaolin master Shifu Kanishka Sharma.
So, a group of gutsy women have been turned into 'dacoits' with a single twist of the scriptwriter's pen! What kind of justice will this bring to Sampat Pal and her Gulabi Gang? Moreover, with a star cast ranging from Madhuri Dixit at one end of the continuum to Juhi Chawla at the other, and the middle filled with names like Mahi Gill and Tannishtha Chatterjee, one can hazard a rough guess about the likely steaming song-and-dance numbers that would be inducted to keep the male adrenalin flowing.
Perhaps wary of reprisals from the media, and especially of the people of Bundelkhand in general and the women of Gulabi Gang in particular, the producer-director duo of Anubhav Sinha and Shoumik Sen have now retracted their earlier stories in the media about the film being a celluloid representation of Gulabi Gang. Earlier this month, in a news report, Anubhav Sinha said that his debut production venture is not based on any real-life character, contradicting all earlier stories about it being loosely based on activist Sampat Pal and her Gulabi Gang. Sinha cleared the air through his tweet and wrote: "For the record, Gulab Gang is fiction. Not based on anyone's life, loosely or tightly."
The film is scheduled for theatrical release to coincide with International Women's Day on 8 March next year. But the question that remains is that if the film indeed has nothing to do with anyone's life or anything real, as professed by Anubhav Sinha, then why call it Gulab Gang at all and why make the women wear pink? And why is it set against the backdrop of Bundelkhand, where the Gulabi Gang was born and which is still the base of this very real movement?
Using the name and the colour of the group and placing the story in Bundelkhand to tell a different tale not only appears unfair and unethical, it also goes
against the morals that guide creative artistic expression through a mass medium of entertainment like cinema. Instead of contributing to the real movement, it
could well send across the wrong message to the right people every time! Will Gulab Gang be a tribute to the real Gulabi Gang? Or will it be a travesty of
faith in cinema's ability to tell real stories in fictionalised form?