In cities, education for girls and a certain amount of freedom is taken for granted, but go out into the Indian mofussil, and the story is very different– if girls are allowed to be born to begin with. The effects of rampant female foeticide are now being felt in states like Haryana and Rajasthan, but that’s another story.
Two films screened recently, gave a glimpse of what the life of the girl child is in north India. In Brahmanand S. Siingh’s Jhalki, the eight-year-old girl (played by Aarti Jha) is almost like a little mother to her kid brother. The boy, Babu (Goraksha Sakpal), is taken away by an agent to work in the carpet factories of Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh. There, laws against child labour are openly flouted and kids forced to work long hours to pay back loans their parents have taken. Many of them are never able to return home, unless activists like Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi are able to rescue them (he appears in the film as himself and also played by Boman Irani). Siingh’s film deals with child labour, but there are even more depressing stories of the trafficking of young girls.
Jhalki follows her brother, refusing to let go of him, till she is tricked into moving away for an instant, and in the blink of an eye Babu is whisked away. Jhalki is determined to find him, and the grown-ups who know about the racket, look away when she asks where the boys are taken. She is barely literate and does not even know the name of her village; she does, however, have the fearlessness of the truly innocent, plus the resourcefulness of an intelligent mind— it’s a pity that girls as bright and brave as her, languish in villages for lack of education and opportunity.
A folk song about a distressed bird and her appeals for help to a chain of power starting from the king, leads her to the town’s district collector (Sanjay Suri), who refuses to get involved, knowing there’s a dangerous mafia behind bonded child labour. So she decides, going by the song, that she must appeal to the queen next, and approaches his wife (Divya Dutta). Till then, she survives hunger, fatigue and a kidnap attempt. She does not care if she is speaking to an important person– she is sharp and bold, finally inspiring the town’s corrupt cop (Joy Sengupta) into taking action and inspiring a journalist (Tannishtha Chatterjee) to do an expose.
Without being aware of it, Jhalki is empowered, and would be an inspiration to any young girl, but she is a fictional character; in reality she would probably be Maida of Lubna Yusuf’s disconcerting documentary. Over eight years, in a village in Bihar, Lubna followed the story of Ujjala — nicknamed Maida, because of her fair skin.
The perky six-year-old Maida was picked from a bunch of other little girls, because she was the only one not nervous or self-conscious. She looked right into the camera, sang with abandon, and answered questions with a cheerful cuteness. “How do you go to school?” she is asked. “Wearing clothes,” she replles.
Her alcoholic father and mother busy with household tasks, were indifferent to the shoot. But over time, Lubna dropped her cameraman and shot herself, because there was a change happening that the filmmaker had perhaps not anticipated. The child grew solemn, her eyes guarded, the songs she sang now were about dowry and death. The transformation was so drastic, that one could easily mistake her for another girl.
Then, all of a sudden the door slammed, Lubna was not allowed to speak to Maida. Just as she reached puberty, she was married—obviously without her consent. The last photo of Maida the shocked viewer sees is that of a woman with a ghoonghat covering her face, and a child in her lap. Unless all the talk of women’s empowerment trickles down to Maida’s village, that infant will probably meet her mother’s fate.
The point the two films are making in their own way is that there may be laws to protect children and women—laws against child labour, child marriage, dowry, domestic violence and so on, but the implementation is so lax, that they hardly matter.
If Maida were allowed to study, to choose a career, to have a say in her marriage, who knows what she might have achieved; perhaps her daughter (or son) could have a better life too. But this remains at the level of speculation, because she was not offered a choice.
In India, 27% of girls in India are married before their 18th birthday and 7% are married before the age of 15. According to UNCIEF, India has the highest absolute number of child brides in the world – 15,509,000.
To prevent the many Jhalkis in rural India from turning into Maidas, there is a long fight ahead.
(This piece first appeared in The Free Press Journal dated September 10. 2019)