Salma: More than a single story

Published by the Alternate Dream


By Kim Longinotto

UK, India | 2013 | 89 min

When approaching the latest film of a filmmaker I consider an absolute Master, I am always filled with a feeling of anxiety. I am both anxious to see another great film and worried that this one might not live up to the master’s legacy and ruin it all. We’ve all have had that moment of bitter disappointment when faced with the latest hit by some of our Masters. (Almost every film that Iranian director Masood Kimiyayi has made in the last couple of decades comes to mind.)

Longinotto’s latest, Salma, was specially source of such anxiety as in this film she has moved away from her unique and familiar style of verite cinema. However, soon after the film began, and certainly by the time it ended, I was assured that Master is still at shining at the helm. This was another great Longinotto.

Salma is a pen name for a poet in a Muslim village in Tamil Nadu, India. There is a tradition in the village to lock up girls after they hit puberty. They are then barred from school, veiled behind burkas and occasionally locked up at home until they are married off (which usually happens in their mid-teen years.) Salma was one such girl; Locked up for 25 years first by her parents and then by her husband, a state politician who still lives in the village. She, however, did the unthinkable by expressing her innermost feelings and desires in frank and shockingly explicit poems that were smuggled to a publishing house in the state capital, Chennai. Salma became famous all over South India, was able to escape from her condition and ended up as the elected head of her local village panchayat (council) and later even a minister in the state government. She now lives in Chennai and comes back to the village to revisit sites of her previous life and tell her story.

It is not hard to see how doc-worthy this story is. Any film made about it would have surely been worthy of a general adjective like ‘interesting’ or ‘watchable.’ But it is the way Longinotto tells the story that makes this not a good but a great film.

In Longinotto’s previous films, made in the traditional verite style, characters don’t talk to the camera to tell their story. There are no interviews as such. The camera simply follows their life as it happens and we are, by the virtue of great editing and directing, brought to the middle of life somewhere else, whether it is Iranian courtrooms or Uttar Pradesh villages. Salma is bound to move away from this style as it is a story about the past and not the present. The story Longinotto has chose to tell this time happened many years ago, where no camera could reach, behind the walls and windows, where Salma was locked up. This is why we have interviews with herself and others and recurrent captions that tell her story.

Longinotto has herself said that she was worried about moving from her usual style but the greatest features of her style are still here in Salma. The crew are not obnoxiously in your face (as they so annoyingly are in so many films, especially those made by white directors about brown women) and it is the story itself that comes to life and, as it were, tells itself. Salma is exciting, shocking and deep, all at the same time.

This is far from the story of a single woman. It is not a rags-to-riches-type story of triumph over adverse conditions. It is the story of the cruel fate that thousands of woman in this one unnamed village in Tamil Nadu face and how they sometimes raise against it. Yet as in other Longinottos, we are not given the social or political context, not even the village name or the name of a political party on whose ticket Salma ended up running and winning. No shallow captions with 250 words or less about how oppressive Islam is, no quick knee-jerk analysis or comment by a borrowed expert. (In fact, a shocking brief scene of a Hindu marriage between an older man and a child-girl should help the audience to know this is not simply about ‘Islam.’)

Yet Salma is a much more scathing critique of the condition of women in today’s India than hundreds of the films that feature all those academic experts put together. It is a real, living story and its greatness lies not in merely spelling the oppression out but in depicting how the women, in that village in the heart of darkness, see it as such themselves and rise up against it. Here, there are no ‘experts’ telling the brown women how and why they are oppressed and no quick, five-minute easy solutions proposed. Instead, there are poems of Salma which elaborate those shockingly universal feelings and let her become a voice for the voiceless. Instead, there is that color of fear and awe on the face of a child-girl in that scene of marriage. Instead, there is that young girl who refuses to be fed by her mother, like many other kids, and is, perhaps, getting ready to resist much more.

Make no mistake. This is no piece of cultural relativism, no ‘see it and judge for yourself’-kind of post-modern crap. Longinotto, judging by her career, is clearly a committed feminist and socialist and a fighter for the cause of women’s liberation. But precisely because of that, she lets the film to bring these conditions and the resistance against it to life. Not shallow captions or expert interviews.

Salma proves one more time a stunning reality of our time: The condition of women in rural India (which still includes vast majority of the country) are a shame for humanity.  There is no use for any complacency here. This is what the Gandhian liberal democratic state in India, so praised by all the liberals around the world, has meant for the masses of women there that constitute around one-fifth of all the world’s women. The barbarous conditions of the village life, smashed by revolutions in many other countries, have been allowed to continue and the liberal state with its ‘free and fair elections’ has no problem co-existing with that. These same women who are locked up for years behind their burkas and walls are allowed, every few years, to send ‘representatives’ to that house of billionaire and millionaire thieves and crooks that is called the Indian parliament. Let us not forget that the the spiritual founder of this state, Gandhi himself, was a big fan of this village life and its supposed ‘static’ condition. He stood against many modernizing Indian forces (Bhagat Singh, Subash Chandra Bose, M. N. Roy, Communist Party, etc.) to quell the social revolution that boiled in India in the middle of last century and for this he is the darling of the world bourgeoisie today.

Salma matters because it is the story of a tiger (women of India) that is bound to rise in the next period and play its role as an important battalion in the global social revolution. Speaking to reporters after the film’s release in Sundance festival, Longinotto spoke glowingly of the massive anti-rape movement that recently rocked India. Anybody who wants to know what is that movement up against should watch this film. That the film itself exists is a merry news that isolation of even the most isolated Indian village is no longer possible in our world. Poems of Salmas will be smuggled to the world and they will know that they are not alone. *

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