Monday, December 01, 2014

Fighting Back With Grace and Grit

Megha Ramaswamy's documentary, 'Newborns', focuses on the lives of acid victims. It won the Jury Prize for Best Short Documentary at the third Delhi Shorts International Film Festival 

Photos: A scene from 'Newborns'; Megha Ramaswamy 

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, in May, 2013, film-maker Megha Ramaswamy was reading the newspaper at her home in Mumbai when she came across a news item about a woman called Preethi Rathi.
When the Delhi-based Preethi, 23, got down from the Garib Rath Express at the Bandra station, at Mumbai, her neighbour, Ankur Panwar, 23, a hotel management graduate, threw acid on her, according to the Mumbai police. The reason: Ankur was jealous that Preethi had got a job, while he had not. 

Preethi was scheduled to join a Naval hospital as a Lieutenant Nurse. However, the acid severely damaged her lungs. On June 1, Preethi died at the Bombay Hospital. 

A distressed Megha says, “The nature of the crime was unsettling. I wanted to do something to stop this.” So she became a volunteer with the Delhi-based NGO, 'Stop Acid Attacks’.

It was then that she came across other acid victims like Sapna, Nasreen and Laxmi Agarwal. As she interacted with them, Megha felt that she should make a documentary. “A documentary is empowering,” says Megha. “It changes the way people think.” 

The Hindi film, 'Newborns' (with English subtitles), has been shot mostly in grey tones to convey the bleakness of the subject. But it was striking to see the calm look of Laxmi, when she revealed her scarred face. “Sometime, last year, I got up the courage to remove my veil and show my face in public,” says Laxmi. “So, I felt confident to be myself in 'Newborns'.” 

This confident young woman is also a fighter. In 2006, she had filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court for a ban on acid. On July 18, 2013, the Court ruled that the sale of acid should be regulated. In March, this year, US First Lady Michelle Obama presented Laxmi with the International Women of Courage Award at Washington. 

In an early scene, which is set in a bus, in which the bespectacled Laxmi is travelling, there is a clown who is sitting behind her. This is played by 'Ship of Theseus' actor Rupesh Tillu. “Megha wanted to show that, just like a clown, you don't get to see their actual faces,” says Rupesh. “I hope this film will sensitise people about the horror of acid attacks.”

The statistics are, indeed, disturbing. According to ‘Stop Acid Attacks’, there are about a thousand incidents every year, out of which 76% of the vitims are women aged between 21 and 30. The main reason is because the women have rejected men’s advances.

These women, their lives ruined, get no medical insurance or jobs. Most of the time, they are shunned by society. “There is not enough sympathy shown to them,” says Megha.

Unfortunately, the number of attacks is on the rise. But the heartening news is that victims are coming forward. “More cases are being registered with the police,” says Laxmi.

Meanwhile, when Megha premiered the documentary at the Toronto International Film Festival, in September, she was amazed at the reception it got. “The audience members hugged me, and some had tears in their eyes,” says Megha. “They wanted to know what they could do, to prevent future happenings.”

In November, ‘Newborns’ won the Jury Prize for Best Short Documentary at the third Delhi Shorts International Film Festival. 

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

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