review: “I am Sindhutai Sapkal” a young Indian woman’s remarkable journey out of abuse and into a life of mothering orphans
3rd i’s 9th annual San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival (SFISAFF), began this Wednesday, November 9, 2011, and runs through Sunday, November 12, 2011, showcasing 10 new independent films from India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, USA, and the South Asian Diaspora (Read ARThound’s coverage here). As an adoptee who continues to process my own mothering and attachment issues and a fan of Indian cinema, particularly films steeped in history, I couldn’t wait to see Anant Mahadevan’s bio-pic I am Sindhutai Sapkal (Mee Sindhutai Sapkal)(2010) about internationally-known Maharashtrian social worker Sindhutai Sapkal’s life. The film had its world premiere as an official selection for the 54th BFI (British Film Institute) London Film Festival (2010) and has its Bay Area premiere at SFISAFF.
We first encounter Sindhutai Sapkal as a 60 year old woman (Jyoti Chandekar) on a plane travelling to America for her first time to attend a Marathi Literature Conference in the Bay Area where she is being honored. The co-passenger sitting next to her is the film’s director, Anant Mahadevan, whom she soon instructs to call her “Mai” (mother). As they fall into conversation, and little things happen in the course of the flight that trigger memories, her life story unfolds through flashbacks. Mahadevan’s non-linear narrative works well; the shifts back and forth in time seem plausible and enforce the character’s remarkable life journey. During the film’s second half, Sindhutai continues her story but is addressing an audience in the Bay Area. Mahadevan has wisely made a human drama that uses this singular woman’s story of true grit and compassion to comment on some of India’s most topical and historically vexing issues: poverty, rural education, status of women, tenant worker’s rights, homeless children and traditional family life. The rural India of the 1950’s where young Chindi’s story transpires, the interiors of Vidarbha in eastern Mahatashtra state, is a cinematographer’s dream–a ruined paradise overtaken by poverty. It is especially harsh for women in the time period depicted, because being born female means the cards are already stacked against them.
Twelve-year-old Chindi (Pranjal Shetye), wide-eyed and impish, spends her days grazing buffaloes and whenever the opportunity arises, she herds them into the water, instructs them to stay put, and rushes to the nearby school, where she studies in the fourth standard (grade). She is one of a few girls in a sea of boys. Her father, a simple man who from th very start seems human and loving, sees education as her ticket for a better life but her mother (Charusheela Sable) sees no point. Before Chindi even reaches puberty, her family, urged on by her mother, arranges her marriage to a 30-year-old farmhand, Shrihari Sapkal (Upendra Limaye) whose household is slightly more prosperous but the atmosphere is treacherous for young Chindi. She is treated like a slave by her in-laws and lives in fear and isolation. Her one solace, her love of reading, infuriates her husband who accuses her of trying to show-off and he punishes her with beatings. A visit from her father who tells her that he regrets her not pursuing her education is pivotal for Chindi who senses that he is the only one who truly loves her and she listens to his advice. Tragically he dies shortly after this visit, leaving her completely alone.
The final blow comes when Chindi at age 26 (Tejaswini Pandit) is pregnant and the local landlord Damdaji Asatkar (Ganesh Yadav) tells Chindi’s husband that she had been sleeping with him. Without hearing a word from Chindi, he throws her out of the house and she gives birth to a daughter in a cow-shed surrounded by animals. Desperate, she leaves with her newborn for her mother’s home but her mother (Charusheela Sable) turns her away, fearing her village’s reprisal. The sting of abandonment by her own mother leads Chindi to attempt suicide but she cannot go through with it because her daughter’s cries awaken her nurturing instincts. It is then that her life takes a turn, she wanders from place to place and, with pure grit, she survives because she has to. She not only scrounges enough food for her child but she begins to feed and care for street orphans. She abandons her image of Chindi and becomes Sindhutai, a social reformer and mother to all.
The film is carried by the exceptional and fully committed performance of Tejaswini Pandit, who plays Chindi as from age 20 through her 40’s and masters a full range of emotions as she enacts the defining moments of her existance. Everything in Chindi’s brutal life prepares her for misery but somehow, she refuses to turn over her power to others and once she makes that decision, she cannot fail. Mahadeven manages to throw light on the spiritual foundation of ethical behavior. Here is a woman with nothing, who has been told she is nothing, but she understands that unconditional love is healing and empowering and seeks to give a mother’s unconditional love to all those she comes in contact with. K. Rajkumar’s cinematography takes full advantage of the breathtaking nature and colorful depictions of village life.
In Marathi with English subtitles. Running time: 110 minutes. This film is not rated.
Cast and Crew: Directed by Ananth Narayan Mahadeven; Produced by Bindiya Khanolkar and Sachin Khanolkar; written by Sanjay Pawar; Cinematography by K. Rajkumar; Sound Design by Parikshit Lalwani and Kunal Mehta; Music by Ashokpati.
With Tejaswini Pandit as Sindhu at ages 23-40; Jyoti Chandekar as Sindhutai at age 60; Upendra Limaye as Srihari Sapkal; Neena Kulkarni as Bai, who mistakes Sindhu for her own daughter; Pranjal Shetye as Chindi at age 12 years and Chatushila Sable as Chindi’s mother.
I am Sindhutai Sapkal screens Saturday, November 12, 2011 at 2:30 p.m. at the Castro Theatre. The film will be followed by a panel discussion.
Part of The 9th annual San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival (SFISAFF), sponsored by 3rd i. Tickets: $10 to $11. For a full description of SFISAFF programming and schedule, click here.