Gulabi Gang: Truth tales re-told

BY Geeta Seshu| IN Media Practice | 07/03/2014
While Bollywood appropriates the story and releases it as a feminist film for March 8, other film makers feel it does the original Gulabi Gang a disservice.
GEETA SESHU examines the issues involved. Pix: a poster for the documentary

Apart from defamation and copyright violations, what are the other issues at stake in the fracas over the making and release of the Hindi film Gulaab Gang?

Activist Sampat Pal who founded the original Gulabi Gang in Bundelkhand in central Uttar Pradesh has contended that the Bollywood film would discredit her. She secured a stay on the film’s release from the Delhi High Court on March 5 only to have it overturned the next day.

Yesterday, a divison bench of Acting Chief Justice B D Ahmed and Justice S Mridul of the Delhi High Court decided to permit the release of the Bollywood film Gulaab Gang on the eve of International Women’s Day, with a disclaimer that it bore no resemblance to the life and work of Sampat Pal.

 

The film, which was in a making for a couple of years, is directed by Soumik Sen and produced by Sahara One Media and Entertainment Ltd. While undoubtedly fictionalised, it is the latest attempt to tell the Gulabi Gang story – from a number of news reports, two books, two documentaries and a website to boot! 

 

The film’s producers maintained that Pal had approached the court on the eve of the release with a view to stall it. She was aware of the film’s making and had sent a cease and desist notice in June last year, after which she approached the court only at the eleventh hour.

Earlier, on March 5, Justice Sanjeev Sachdeva stayed the film’s release till May 8, on grounds that "irreparable damage and injury" would be caused to Pal if it was released. The latter had contended that her copyright over Gulabi Gang was used without her permission and she would face a loss of reputation as the film contained defamatory and inaccurate content.

The film's promos showed the lead actress playing her character as an anti-social element who used arms and violence, which she did not subscribe to, she said.

In earlier interviews at the very start of the film’s making, the director said he clearly drew inspiration from the original group, including using the colour they used and the name. One of its main characters, actor Juhi Chawla, did mention in a interview back in April last year that the film was ‘sort of’ inspired by the Gulabi Gang and by Pal.

 

For reasons unstated, the film’s producers changed the name to ‘Gulaab’ Gang. 

Defamation, copyright and privacy violations

Interestingly, Pal’s argument against the release of the film focused on fears of reputation and defamation, apart from stating that the copyright to the ‘Gulabi Gang’ rested with her.

While the single judge bench upheld her contention and stayed the release, the division bench maintained that a disclaimer could deal with any allegations of disrepute or defamation.

Unlike in the Bandit Queen controversy, issues of privacy violation do not appear to figure in this case. In the long drawn-out court battle on Bandit Queen, a film on the now deceased bandit Phoolan Devi, apart from the aspect of whether her consent was taken or not, the cinematic depiction of the rape scenes and the Behmai massacre, were major points of contention.

In other instances, there is always the question of how much creative licence can be given (or if a limit must be placed at all) for drawing from true stories, whether of historical figures or events (the three contemporary Bhagat Singh films or Jodha Akbar, or two of the Oscar winners this year – 12 Years A Slave or Dallas Buyers Club).

There is also the ethics of dealing with true-life stories and the people who have lived them. 

The re-telling of truth

Documentary film-maker Nishtha Jain made a gritty film following the gang as they went from village to village and investigate the death of a woman and won the Director’s award at the Mumbai International Film Festival recently.

Half-way through the making of the documentary, Jain learnt about the Bollywood film with the same name and was worried about how the Gulabi Gang story would be re-told.

As she told this writer then, “Gulabi Gang is a very interesting group of women who function like a pressure group in the area. They, coming from a backward region, are non-literate and socially and economically disadvantaged”. Yet, they took up a number of issues, travelling from village to village, in their trademark pink sarees, wielding lathis and demanding that action is taken against perpetuators of violence against women.

There are books written about them and a documentary (Pink Saris by Kim Longinetto) already made on them. Nishtha was worried that each process of translating their work into another medium would re-tell and perhaps even alter their story.

For her, the primary concern was to keep the documentary she was making as true to the subject as possible, always working with the consent of the women she shot. In a powerful scene in the documentary, her camera follows Sampat Pal as the latter walks into a home where a woman died of burns.

Entering a darkened room, they stumbled on the woman’s burnt body, lying casually in a corner. Neither she nor Sampat had any idea that the woman’s body was still there. Nishtha had to take an ethical call about continuing to shoot the scene (which she did, though not directly focusing on the body, to show the brutality of the death).

For her associate and scriptwriter, Smriti Nevatia, the making of the Bollywood film was also fraught with similar ethical issues, which the film-makers clearly did not care to address.

“I think its ironic - this kind of appropriation of a subject like the Gulabi Gang and then calling it a ‘feminist’ film and a film about women’s power and releasing it for March 8,” she said.

The promos show fairly violent scenes but for the real Gulabi Gang, the lathis were symbolic. Though in Bundelkhand region, they were famous as the ‘lathiwaali aurate’, this was more folklore, as they probably actually used the lathi only in one or two instances in the very early years of their formation.

“The Bollywood film does do them a disservice. I am also upset at this urban, commercialised sense of entitlement even in a creative field like film-making. This is a movement of rural, non-literate women of middle and lower  castes. Its so easily co-opted,” she rued.

The producers’ protestations that inspiration for the film was not taken from the Bundelkhand women also rankled with her. “If that’s the case, why  didn’t they use another colour? Maybe called the film ‘Neeli Naari’ or some such thing? This pretence that the Bollywood film has nothing to do with the Gulabi Gang is unfair to them," she said.

But fairness and accuracy doesn’t sell at the box-office and it will take a long while, and much more discerning audiences, to demand it. 

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