LIFF 2021 Special Review: W.O.M.B. (Women of My Billion)

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“When I started out on my journey I looked upon this big mountain. This mountain was made up of the molesters, the acid throwers, the abusers. It was scary, and it was breathing fire at me. But I decided to march towards it with one thought in mind – in order to achieve something you never had, you had to do something you never did.”

In 2016, a mother and her teenaged daughter were gang-raped on National Highway 91, not far from Delhi near the city of Bulandshahr. This was a horrific story in a series of horrific stories about attacks on Indian women, but the news reached Srishti Bakshi who, at the time was working abroad in Hong Kong, where, as she describes it, conversations about culture inevitably turned to conversations about how India was unsafe for women. These conversations, understandably, frustrated the independent and empowered Bakshi. Her frustration grew alongside news of other attacks on women, rapes or acid attacks, about issues like dowry debt (in which families over-extend themselves to provide a large dowry to try to marry their daughters into a family from a better social class). Dealing with these issues made Bakshi feel like she just needed to go for a walk to let go of her frustrations, but she didn’t do what I usually do when I feel like this, walk in circles around my neighborhood until the frustration passes. Instead, Bakshi decided to return to India, to try to “understand the reality on the ground”, to talk with the women of India, and share their stories. Her goal was to learn if her country was beyond repair, or if, perhaps, there was some kind of hope for the women of India. Her walk? 3800 kilometres, in 240 days, from Kanyakumari – the southern most tip of India in the state of Tamil Nadu – to Kashmir in the north. Along the way, she meets with groups of women, school children, and men, doing workshops, listening to their stories, challenging their views with every step she takes on her journey.

Srishti Bakshi is funny, intelligent, engaging, curious, and confident – the very image of empowerment. It’s those qualities that make the film compelling viewing, as we watch her interact with others, asking them questions that challenge the view of women in India and the expectations around their place in society. Bakshi wonders: what are the reasons why women are prevented from gaining empowerment and agency in Indian society? What are the root causes of the violence and oppression that makes India unsafe for so many women? The women she meets have answers for her – they often clearly understand what makes their own lives so challenging – and all Bakshi has to do is draw those answers out of them. The challenge, as Bakshi sees it, is not that women don’t understand the issues of poverty and safety that threaten them; rather, it’s that women often feel they are alone and cannot see how they can change their situation. As girls and young women, they are given messages that are drastically different from boys and young men. Girls are told that their main goal in life is to get married, that the best thing they can do is learn to make a good cup of tea and keep a tidy home. Even if they are educated, they must give up thoughts of any higher education when there is a good prospect for marriage. Boys, on the other hand, are never expected to do household chores. Education is a priority for them, because they will need to get a good job and earn good money. This difference in socialization means that women find themselves trapped, from a very young age, in a cycle of disempowerment that is almost impossible to break free from on their own. This requires a shift in how women’s and men’s roles are perceived, and for Bakshi, the only way to solve this is for women to work together.

Bakshi’s journey is contrasted with the stories of three women who talk about their journey from oppression to empowerment: Neha Rai, who experienced mistreatment and assault after marriage from both her husband and his family; Sangeeta Tiwari, who, after two failed marriages, made a career for herself as a doctor in the army; and Pragya Prasoon Singh, the victim of an acid attack who went on to found The Atijeevan Foundation to help other victims get the often extensive medical care they need, and help with social rehabilitation such as finding ways to earn a living. These women’s stories are all slightly different, yet they are also similar, and they echo the stories we hear from the women Bakshi meets on her journey. Education is often not a priority – though we see that it can make a huge difference in a woman’s life. Sangeeta Tiwari became a doctor, and it’s that profession – and the army – that allowed her to move beyond her failed marriages and out of her father’s house. Marriages are arranged – and in the case of Pragya Prasoon Singh, it was not the marriage arranged for her that was the issue, it was the anger of a potential marriage candidate that her mother refused that prompted him to attack her. For many of the women in the film, as it was for Neha Rai, even if they seek help or speak out, they often hear the same response: “Hota hai. (It happens)”, and you can imagine the shrug of shoulders that accompanies that heartbreaking statement.

The film’s progression parallels Bakshi’s walk: the first half of the walk requires patience and listening and learning, and although she’s talking about listening to her body in order to pace herself on the walk, she’s also listening to the people she meets and learning from them. The half-way point of the walk is a signal to Bakshi to pull out all the stops and go full speed to get to her final destination. Just as Bakshi finds the physical challenges of the second half of her journey draining her, she also finds things more emotionally draining as she meets people for whom poverty and abuse are so crushing that they cannot even imagine the concept of becoming empowered.

Director Ajitesh Sharma places Bakshi front and center in this film, but he also manages to provide moments of balance – Bakshi’s message is that no one can do this alone, and this is reinforced in the film in those moments where we see the support team surrounding her to help her on the walk. Her husband and parents are by her side, her husband speaking at events alongside her – he’s a support for the walk, and a support for the cause she’s trying to promote. There are interviews with men that confirm firmly held views of misogyny and oppression, alongside men who wonder how they can help the women in their lives to become empowered.

One of the women quotes the famous line by Simone de Beauvoir: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Our construct of what constitutes a woman is dictated by the views of society. For Bakshi, if we want to change how women are viewed, if we want to give women power and control over their lives, then we must first change the society we live in. And the emotional weight of the film comes through in the meetings with women, in the conversations with individual women, listening to the stories that are hard for them to tell, and hard for us to hear. They are stories that repeat and repeat and repeat. The stories cut across class lines. The losses are significant, and heartbreaking, and there is no way to make up for them. But the film also shows us that even if these women cannot change their pasts, they can change their futures, and they can work towards changing the futures of other women as well. It may not happen overnight, but it will happen – all it takes is one step after another, after another, on a journey that starts out with one person, but which gathers support along the way.

The film is the Gala Opening film of the London Indian Film Festival, June 17th at 17:00. To find out more and get tickets go to London Indian Film Festival

Also Showcasing in London June 22nd as well as in Birmingham Indian Film Festival on June 25th

And at the brand new Manchester Indian Film Festival on June 23rd.

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