A severely-edited version of this piece was carried in today’s DNA (scroll down). Those who have worked with me know that few things give me as much joy as zapping out extra words in anyone’s copy, including mine, but I think cutting an 1100-word piece to 260 words is brutal even by my standards. So here’s the rambly version.
Salma was 12 years old when she began menstruating. Her family pulled her out of school and locked her up at home. This is standard practice in Salma’s village. Girls are hidden away the moment they ‘become women’ and are allowed out only to get married.
For nine years, Salma’s world was a room whose only comfort was a window that let in a little sunlight and looked out on to nothing. At one poing in Salma, award-winning filmmaker Kim Longinotto’s newest documentary, the Tamil poet Salma goes back to the room that had been her prison and sits by the window. “Why would you build windows that you can’t see out of? It’s crazy,” she says with a laugh. You have to wonder how anyone can laugh about being locked up in a room for nine years. Longinotto has a simple explanation: “Salma’s not normal. … I think she’s like an Indian Nelson Mandela.”
Salma is an acclaimed Tamil poet who has been praised by critics for the lyrical nuance and elegant candour of her writing. The story of how she became a poet and a politician is less well-known. Longinotto learnt about her from Urvashi Butalia, founder of Zubaan (they brought out a translation of Salma’s poetry in 2009). “I thought Salma’s one of millions of women under house arrest,” said Longinotto. “Families pick them up one by one and they just get locked up. We never hear of them because they’re women. Here’s a woman who’s survived and who’s out. I thought, I’ve got to grab a camera and make a film about it.”
The little village near Tiruchirapalli, in Tamil Nadu, where Salma was born and where much of Longinotto’s Salma was shot, doesn’t seem remarkable at first glance. It’s clean. The houses are painted in bright, pretty colours. Inside the homes are modern conveniences like washing machines, tiled walls and floors, televisions, water filters. It’s difficult to reconcile this modernity with the village’s aggressive male chauvinism.
While most girls in Salma’s village were married by the age of 15, Salma resisted until she was 17. Then when her mother convinced Salma that she was becoming seriously unwell because of the stress caused by Salma refusing to marry, Salma relented. It was much later that she realised her mother had duped her. When she recounts this in the film, a Mona Lisa smile that is neither cheerful nor sad stretches Salma’s lips.
Salma is more melancholy than Longinotto’s usual style. Longinotto never stages the action in her films, but most of her documentaries are full of drama and unfolding events. Salma, in contrast, is made up of reminiscences. “I was absolutely terrified because I thought. this isn’t how I make films,” said Longinotto. Following her editor Oliver Huddleston’s advice, Longinotto made sure she got many shots of Salma on her own — daydreaming, driving. They emphasise how solitary Salma is and also provide the space for her poems to be read out as voiceover. For Salma, who despite her efforts can’t stop young girls from being forced to abandon their studies and marry or prevent heartbreaking incidents like that of a young girl who sets herself aflame because she was locked up, the only way to make sense of the world around her is poetry. It’s a sentiment that Longinotto can probably relate to since filmmaking has played a similar role in her life. The director had a difficult relationship with her parents, a nightmare of a time in boarding school; she spent a year homeless as a teenager and almost died; she’s been raped. It’s filmmaking — hunting down stories of incredible women and making documentaries on them, in particular — that has helped Longinotto see herself and her past in perspective.
For Salma, poetry became the breadcrumb trail that led her out of her cage. Marriage to Malik initially landed Salma in a new prison. Perhaps because she had refused to marry him for years, he set out to cow her into submission with threats and violence. Afraid, angry and trapped, Salma turned to poetry. Neither Malik nor his mother approved of this. Salma realised no matter where she hid her poetry — in the cupboard, her dressing table, in the box where sanitary napkins were stored — the pages would disappear. Determined to continue writing, Salma wrote on the backs of discarded calendar pages and hid them. Ultimately, it was her mother who smuggled Salma’s writing out of Malik’s house and sent it to a small publisher in Chennai.
“Salma’s mother was her jailer, but she was also the one who helped smuggle Salma’s poems out,” said Longinotto. “What Salma’s taught me is that the people that can damage you the most – which is your family – are also the people who love you the most.” Today, Salma’s escaped the ways of the village partly on the strength of her poetry, which piqued the attention of the Tamil literary establishment and press, and partly because Malik pushed Salma to stand for panchayat elections (she won). At one point in the film, Salma asks Malik why he encouraged her to join local politics. He replies that it was the only way he knew that would allow her out of the house and be free. Not looking at Salma, Malik tells the camera that he made mistakes when he was young and he was wrong to have stopped Salma from writing. It’s almost as though making Salma first join politics and then move to Chennai, where she now spends most of her time, were Malik’s attempts to redeem himself. “I struggled with this all the time that we were there,” said Longinotto. “I found myself becoming fonder and fonder of him.”
Contradictions and arresting female figures who challenge an oppressive system are regular features of Longinotto’s filmography. In the past, she’s made powerful documentaries on a variety of subjects, including gender identity in Japan, FGM in Kenya and divorce in Iran. In 2010, she made the multiple award-winning Pink Saris, about Sampat Pal who founded the vigilante group, Gulabi Gang. (According to Longinotto, however, it’s not a gang. “It’s the Sampat Pal show.”) Along with inspiring survivors who are the protagonists of her films, the other common thread that runs through Longinotto’s work is a sense of optimism. No matter how bleak the situation, the subjects of Longinotto’s films find silver linings and hold on to them, much like Longinotto herself. When you consider what Longinotto and her band of merry heroines have survived, it’s amazing that they can cheer so readily. To Longinotto, though, the silver linings are a basic requirement. “I wouldn’t want to make a film that’s just depressing and negative. … That’s why I love making these films about these women. They’re the real rebels. I’m not. I just run along with them and film and follow them.”