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(cover picture) Longinotto, Kim
2010 Pink Saris. New York: Women Make Movies.

Notes: DVD, 96 minutes
Reviewed 1 Jul 2011 by:
Jack David Eller <>
Community College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Film/Video
Pal, Sampat
Civil rights workers - India - Uttar Pradesh - Biography
Feminists - India - Uttar Pradesh - Biography Family violence - India
Women - Crimes against - India; Women - Violence against - India
Sex crimes - India Abused women - Legal status, laws, etc. - India Victims of family violence - Protection - India Dalits - India Women's rights - India Human rights - India Justice Women - Legal status, laws, etc. - India; Women - India - Social conditions - 20th century
India - Social life and customs - 20th century

ABSTRACT:    Sampat Pal conducts a one-woman culture-change and women’s-rights campaign in this powerful and important film, sharing tears with women young and old as they are victimized by institutions and in-laws.

Alfred Lord Tennyson is credited with describing nature as “red in tooth and claw” (In Memoriam A.H.H. 1850), and he was of course correct, and human society can be equally red in policy and practice. However, more often, the Conradian horrors of culture are slow and insidious, pervasive rather than ferocious—but leaving their victims every bit as mangled and bloodied.

These victims are, disproportionately and undeservingly, female. So many of society’s institutions seem almost tailor-made to disadvantage and injure women. In India, the low status of women, along with rules of dowry and patrilocal residence, not to mention the ubiquitous caste system, conspire to expose women to multiple dangers with very little place to turn. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, one refuge is the Pink Gang, an activist group “made up of hundreds of lower caste women who have fought tradition.” The organization’s founder Sampat Pal, who is the protagonist of the film, and as she explains—and exemplifies—“If girls spoke up, the world would change.” “If you’re shy, you’ll die,” she tells a young woman who is pregnant by a boy who has left her.

Sampat is a remarkable character, strong (verging on offensive) yet vulnerable and caring. At the police station, we see her trying to get the aforementioned boy arrested. It turns out that the girl is untouchable while he is of a higher caste. He claims that he loves her and offers to stay with her, although his father disapproves. The father, meanwhile, claims to have special spiritual power, but Sampat says she does not believe in gods (probably a courageous statement in village India). The father curses the day he saw the two youths together.

The film features Sampat helping a number of different (mostly young) women out of difficult family situations, and it also explores her own life a little. Like many in-marrying women, she had been forced out of her village of residence for disobeying her in-laws. She too is from a very low caste, and her current partner Babuji is from a very high caste (her husband is still alive and in the picture). She says, and we believe, that caste and untouchability are the major problem in India today; additionally, girls are married off very young. For instance, one of her causes is a girl who is already married with children and complains of beatings and inadequate feeding. But the girl still feels that her proper place is with her in-laws. She is justifiably scared, “but what can I do?” At the same time, we meet Sampat’s estranged husband, who lives nearby with their twelve grandchildren and argues with her about the children and money.

Her next case involves a woman who showed up at her door in the night. As with many others, her in-laws threw her out, this time for the second time. Her own mother is dead, and her father says it is her own problem; even worse, if she goes to anyone else for help, they will call her a ‘loose woman.’ Sampat goes to talk to her in-laws at their village, where the father-in-law says they “lock her up” but she still runs away. Sampat is remarkably outspoken and confrontational in this encounter, which must be a true shock in the patriarchal village and society. Perhaps the most noteworthy, and alarming, thing about this and the other instances in the film is the determination on everyone’s part, including Sampat, to reunite wives with their abusive husbands and in-laws. Reconciliation seems to be the goal, and Sampat harangues the victimized girl and her husband to stay together and take care of each other, since they are partners for life.

In the next situation, a young couple that has run off together, the girl leaving her husband for the youthful suitor. Sampat asks the girl what she would do if her new beau left her, but she has no plan. Her actual husband shows up, and she says that she wants to be with the new boy; the husband seems willing to accept her choice. But the boy’s father (on the phone) says that being with an untouchable girl will stain the family and prevent his sister from ever marrying. The married couple signs a divorce, but when the boy’s family arrives, he leaves with them, abandoning his just-divorced girlfriend to her worst possible fate. Fortunately, Sampat takes such castaways into her own home.

The final tragedy is Sampat’s own niece Niranjan, who arrives claiming that her in-laws beat her and threatened to kill her. Niranjan’s baby daughter has already died because they did not take her to the doctor, insisting there was nothing wrong. Sampat meets with Niranjan’s in-laws and warns them not to beat her, but they respond that she does not work in the household and deserves a thrashing. In the end, Sampat again sends Niranjan back to the household as a way of making peace with her own husband’s family. As Sampat rides away, she admonishes Niranjan to work.

Sampat it seems could also use some support, but her partner Babuji is growing impatient with her lifestyle. He upbraids her for being arrogant and threatens not to stay with her; he gripes that he does not want to be ignored as she pursues her fame. This leads her to a series of summary statements, as she dabs her own tears and those of her young charges. “Men are never faithful,” she asserts, and “the whole world is against” women. “If she tries to do anything, it’s a struggle. She has to suffer. I’ve had enough, I can’t take any more.”

Life is red in tooth and claw, but that is seeing things from the predator’s point of view. In the struggle for social survival, women are more often the prey, and the prey’s perspective is often not seen. “A woman’s life is cruel. They all want us to be their slaves,” Sampat entones. Nature may have its red teeth and claws, but “women have nothing but their tears, what else do they have?”

“Pink Saris” is a remarkably honest and urgent film, and Sampat is an unforgettable character. One wonders if her incredible brusqueness is typical of Indian culture—some cultures like a stronger fighter—or if it is her personality or the result of years of pounding. The viewer can almost feel the pressure that Sampat and the victimized wives experience in the tightly-bound villages, where speaking out against tradition must be a truly rare occurrence. And one also experiences the toll that the battle takes on Sampat. Indeed, one person cannot bear the entire weight of tradition. And yet, the revolution has to start somewhere.

Level/Use: Suitable for some mature high school classes and for college courses in cultural anthropology, anthropology of women/gender, anthropology of violence, and South Asian/Indian studies, as well as general audiences.