‘Gulabi Gang’ and The Many Genres of a Documentary

Posted: March 1, 2014 by moifightclub in cinema, Documentary, film, Guest Post, Indie, Movie Recco, Must Watch, reviews
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It’s a great time for desi documentaries. In the recent past we have seen some pretty terrific ones- Malegaon Ka Superman, The World Before Her and Katiyabaaz to name just a few. Which is why it’s a pity that Nishtha Jain’s powerful documentary Gulabi Gang hasn’t quite got the audience it deserves- yet.

Perhaps the makers ought to have employed the Gulabi Gang themselves to whack our lazy, torrent-savvy audiences into theaters.😉   The film is now running in its second week in a select few theaters/cities with ticket rates further slashed. There’s no good excuse to miss this one, really.

Anyway, here we have an interesting post by Prashant Parvatneni on Gulabi Gang and how genres usually associated with (fiction) cinema can find their way into the documentary format as well. Over to him:

Gulabi Gang by Nishtha Jain is undoubtedly a rigorous study of a women’s movement in the deep interiors of Bundelkhand where a group of women networked between several villages have formed a ‘gang’ to fight against the oppression of women and dalits. They drape themselves in Pink sarees and carry pink lathis that becomes an image of the identity that binds these women. There are complex issues that these women are dealing with and fighting. Young brides are being burnt, dalit activists murdered and certain high-caste Choudharies have concentrated all power in their hands suppressing any and every dissent using gun and muscle power. It is this nexus of power and oppression that the Gulabi Gang is trying to tear apart under their feisty leader Sampat Pal.

Sampat Pal inevitably becomes the ‘hero’ of this film, her infectious zest and fearlessness naturally grabs the attention and it’s hard not to root for her like we would for the angry underdog taking on the system in a Bollywood film. It only helps that Jain adopts a form of narrative that is simple in structure but quite inventive. It follows 2-3 cases that Gulabi Gang encounters and as it does so, quite curiously these cases turn to a kind of whodunit with the Gang acting as detectives trying to uncover the truth behind the violence inflicted on women.


Like in one of the cases, a young wife is found burnt inside the house. When Sampat reaches the spot, the in laws of the woman claim that she got burnt while making rotis but Sampat in true detective spirit, deduces that it cannot be a mere mishap. There wasn’t any stove at the spot, nor was any other part of the house burnt or even charred. Sitting in the audience even we also could start the process of knitting the clues together and deducing while also being acutely aware of entire machinery which includes the panchayat and the police trying to push this crime under the carpet. Sampat Pal’s own relative burns his wife but she wants the truth to come out. When the director’s voice asks her will you fight against your kin as well, she replies inspiringly ‘I just want to find out the truth’. Quite fittingly then, Anand Gandhi (director, Ship of Theseus) called this film a ‘reinvention of detective genre’.

This is a welcome change as the problem with most documentary films dealing with social evils, people’s movements, subaltern issues etc. is that they have sort of reached a saturation of form. While they do deal with a variety of issues, they follow the same old form – interview of key players, a bit of commentary, a bit of field action all merged seamlessly to ‘illustrate’ and ‘explain’ and thereby ‘document’ the problem. Such a form has turned even more uninteresting with its derivatives populating news channels through their ‘human stories’.

Thankfully the film doesn’t stop short of also pointing towards the limits of such genres that evidently end with a resolution a climax arrived at through carefully plotted series of events. Unlike in a detective genre film, we do not get to know whether the culprit was caught or not. Often the battles are lost and the guilty gets away. But like the truest of detective stories, the importance lies in questioning what one gets on face value rather than solving the puzzle and Gulabi Gang does point our attention towards the need to inquire and shakes up the static status quo.

Instead of a gradual convergence towards a resolution of problem, the film starts to spread in and out of such inquiries of cases and looks at the varied other forms of struggle that a people’s movement engages in – organization, activism, mobilization, planning etc. One of the most charming and equally thought provoking sequences involves the meetings and the practice sessions of the Gulabi Gang. As a ritual Gulabi Gang practices lathi fights with a playful zest as two women take on each other while others on the periphery cheer and clap. It quite casually points towards a ritual- even a ritual of violence (though more for protection in this case) that is involved in any people’s movement.

The entire movement also resembles a theatrical performance. There is backstage practice and rituals and there are costumes and props – the pink sarees and pink lathis juxtaposed against the dry, arid brown and gray landscape is an image that gives tremendous gravitas to the Gang and binds them into a community. In fact the saree and the lathi are the first things that are given to the women who join Gulabi Gang and they have to change into the ‘costume’ right away. There is a slightly comic cut in the film where we see Sampat Pal encouraging the mother of the burnt bride to fight her case and in the next shot the frail creature of the mother is draped in bright new pink saree as she is on her way to the court with the Gang. It’s a terrific reminder of how a bit of theatre and performance is a part of every movement or revolution. It also reminds us how such performativity can be appropriated for contradictory causes – for assertion of justice or for religious or political fanaticism.

Gulabi Gang ends with tragic human drama as the documentary manages to trace a character arc of sorts of one of the Gang’s members – Husna. Husna, a hardworking and passionate activist and member of Gulabi Gang takes a position completely contradictory to the movement when her own brother kills her sister for marrying out of love. When she supports him instead of condemning in the name of culture and tradition, one is hit by the extent to which such fundamental, patriarchal ideas can deride compassion and human justice and what a difficult battle Gulabi Gang is fighting – not just externally but internally. For me, the film was special because it shows how certain genres – like detective, political, social drama, human drama genres – can seep into documentary also; in-fact they come from the reality that the documentary often deals with. But, it also shows how cinema can avoid using genre as a trope and move in an out of genres to question the complexity instead of using such genre games to manipulate sentiment and to take an easy position of a sympathizer. The last sequence shows Gulabi Gang members waiting for a train on the platform and few men looking at these women clad in Pink Sarees with contemptuous humor. For them they look nothing short of fancy dress. One of the men asks the man who moves around with the Gang – ‘kuch milta hai issse’. The director shows amazing empathy here as she cuts to the image of Sampat Pal staring into the camera or perhaps into the far horizon, sitting amidst other women with eyes filled with acceptance of difficulty but shining with a rare honest hope. All the contempt of the scene just washes away and we are filled not with sentiment but with emotion – an unsaid but urgently felt hope and a desire at least to think.


(This post was originally published here.)


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