Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Obsession with Chastity

Priya Thuvassery's striking documentary, 'The Sacred Glass Bowl', focuses on the unspoken necessity for girls in India to remain a virgin till their marriage

Photo by Manu R Mavelil 

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, in 2010, when Priya Thuvassery was working as a junior assistant producer in a private television channel at New Delhi, she came across a news item. It was about virginity tests which were conducted by the Madhya Pradesh government before a mass marriage.

A thought came to my mind,” she says. “What was going through the minds of the women who underwent this procedure?” Thereafter, she sent a proposal to the Public Service Broadcasting Trust, a semi-governmental organisation, about making a documentary on the obsession with virginity in India. This was accepted and Priya received a grant. After a four month-shoot, Priya has made a thought-provoking 26-minute film called 'The Sacred Glass Bowl'.

The documentary begins, with a poem, set against the backdrop of a girl moving on a swing in animation style:

'When I was a little girl
my mother took me aside
and spoke in a tone I had never heard her before.
She told me about My Sacred Glass Bowl
the fragile thing entrusted to me as a woman.

'She made it clear that girls from ‘good families’
would never allow a single crack to fall
on that treasured, valuable object
before the right time comes.'

Set in Jaipur and Delhi, the film explores the concept of virginity in different communities. So, there is an interview with the Jaipur-based Mimi, a middle-aged lady, wearing earrings, bangles, a nose ring as well as a necklace. She belongs to the Sansi tribe where girls are valued more than boys and receive dowry. However, on the morning after the first night, the womenfolk will closely inspect the bride's white petticoat to see whether there are blood marks.

When that happens it is a big moment for the girl's family. “However, if she is not a virgin, it is a big blow,” says Priya. “The girl's parents will have to pay a large compensation to the boy.”

Next in focus is a Muslim woman in New Delhi, Ruhksana Talat, who worries about the tension that she undergoes because she is a mother of three girls. “Virginity is a necessity in our society, but my daughters want to live freely,” she says.

Meanwhile, a gynaecologist, Dr. Neeti Ratti, confirmed that a lot of hymenoplasty operations are taking place. “Mothers come with daughters and say, 'She made a mistake. Please repair it',” says Dr. Neethi. “In India, girls want to ensure that they are virgins on their wedding night.”

Priya, of Kozhikode origin, does add a Malayali touch. She uses a song from the Mollywood classic film, 'Chemmeen' (1965), called 'Pennale'. “The lyrics, directly or indirectly say the same thing: the necessity to be a virgin,” says Priya. There is also a reading by noted writer Sara Joseph from her short story, 'The Masculine of Virgin'.

The film has been shown on Input TV in Helsinki, the Stuttgart film festival, Open Frames film festival, Jaipur International Film Festival, and, most recently, in July, at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival at Thiruvananthapuram.

Priya plans to make more documentaries. “Funding is difficult to get,” says Priya. “But I love the medium. It enables me to tell the truth, without having to think about commercial considerations.”

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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