India is everywhere at the moment! Even pre-last night’s Oscars smash, you could barely turn on your television or open the newspaper without seeing something about Danny Boyle’s wild card hit of the awards season, Slumdog Millionaire. Like it for its feel good factor and rags to riches storyline or loath it because of the negative image of the slum inhabitants of Mumbai, you can’t deny that this is a visually stunning film and through it Bollywood, and more importantly, India is seeping into the mainstream.
But what about the women in the film? To me the women lose out, the love interest is unconvincing and never fully explained and the only other strong female character is the stereotypical traditional mother.
Leena Manimakalai’s award winning documentary Goddesses gives an entirely different perspective of Indian women and one that if you’ve been inspired to learn more about Indian culture you should definitely go and see. This documentary looks at the lives of three women; Lakshmi, a professional funeral singer and canny businesswoman; Krishnaveni, a grave digger who is given the abysmal task of taking unclaimed bodies in whatever state and burying them with her own bare hands; and sea-going fisherwoman, Sethuraku, who was given a man’s profession by her uncle in order to survive and support her family. These women are incredible: hilarious, cunning and strong. They each display power in their own self awareness and assertiveness.
Moments to watch out for: Lakshmi singing loudly through the streets about her ‘m*ther f*cker’ husband who tried to ruin her life, Krishnaveni telling another (male) interviewee to shut up and stop crying and Sethuraku snapping at her husband for spending her earned money on alcohol and playing up to the camera. The role reversals in this documentary are fantastic. These women know they live on the periphery of society, yet they work and have dignity and pride in their professional choices.
The position of women in Indian society has always been both wonderfully complex and mysterious to me. The Goddess Shakti represents power, force and cosmic energy and yet women are still treated as second class citizens.
This documentary grapples with this contradiction. Perhaps what Leena Manimakalai is trying to portray is the power of these ordinary women, elevating them in her title to the position of ‘Goddess’ through their ability to survive.
Goddesses by Leena Manimakalai was awarded the Golden Conch award in Mumbai International Film Festival.