In her latest film, Dowry, Jag Parmar delves into prevalent issues surrounding the perpetuation of the Dowry System within South Asian communities in North America. “My motive in creating this film,” said Parmar, “was to create awareness about an issue that is growing into an insidious international business. I wanted to address that the true meaning of dowry has been lost and now the ritual is performed at the expense of women.”
Ultimately the message is one criticizing the way that dowries have inhumanly evolved. When sons become commodities for financial profit and daughters become exchangeable and exploitable property within a rigid business transaction, there is something really wrong and dangerous. In the making of this film, Parmar hoped to “get people talking about something that no one really wants to talk about.”
Because there are dowry laws now in effect in India, Parmar operated originally under the assumption that the practice of dowry and its issues were in decline. When she then discovered that it was actually a growing practice, she felt compelled to address some of the prevalent issues that it poses. “Originally dowry was given to a daughter to be able to take care of herself if anything ever happened to her husband,” said Parmar, “but now it has become a matter of extortion.”
The film, Dowry, shows how this ritual unfolds within a Canadian family. It outlines the struggle of an under-privileged South Asian family to finance a dowry for their daughter Mausam (Shirin Hampton). Already struggling and coming up short for the dowry for this one wedding, Mausam’s sister, Gia (Ana Sani), becomes an additional source of contention for the family, as she falls in love with Vic (Sid Sawant) and also demands a dowry. Because Gia is confined to a wheelchair, she is never expected by the family to have a wedding of her own. The financial burden of these dowries generates extreme hostility and resentment within the family and threatens to tear the family apart.
The Social Critique
So why is this such a big problem? Unfortunately this marriage ritual has turned violent. Instead of walking away from a marriage agreement, some families of the groom have decided to enter into the marriage contract and then “shake down” the family of the bride for the financial profit they desired in the form of a dowry.
In 1995, Time Magazine reported that dowry deaths in India increased from around 400 a year in the early 1980s to around 5,800 a year by the middle of the 1990s. A year later, CNN ran a story saying that every year police receive more than 2,500 reports of bride burning.
Why has it turned violent? Dowry has evolved from a marital ritual into a hostage negotiation. Brides are mentally and emotionally abused, being pressured for more money from their family to satisfy the demands of the dowry. The bride is threatened with violence to encourage the family to come up with more money and if the family cannot pay more, the bride is often killed in a horrific way – often through a phenomena called Bride Burning – or is driven to suicide.
Bride burning has been recognized as an important public health problem in India accounting for around 2,500 deaths per year in the country.
In this context, a family trying to scrounge up the money to pay a dowry to preserve the life of their daughter is in no way different than a family trying to scrounge up the money to pay a ransom demand to a kidnaper. Therefore, the dowry becomes a hostile negotiation and the bride is a hostage in grave danger.
In India, official governments reported in 1997 that 6,500 women died from dowry related deaths. Regarding bride burning specifically, between 1947 and 1990, about 72,000 were burned to death, an average of 1,674 a year.
Unfortunately this gendercide is far from extinct. In 2012 a study put Indian Dowry Death Rates at 0.7 % of the world’s 6.2% homicide rate.
According to the Indian National Crime Record Bureau, India has by far the highest number of dowry related deaths in the world. In 2008 there were 1,948 convictions and 3,876 acquittals in dowry death cases. In 2012, 8,233 dowry death cases were reported across India, which equates to a bride being burned every 90 minutes and situates dowry related deaths at 1.4 per year per 100,000 women in India.
Insight from the Actors
Ana Sani (who plays Gia) stated that this topic only came into light for her after being involved in this film, a revelation for which she is grateful. “Being part Indian,” she explains, “I did know that dowry’s were part of our traditional past but did not imagine that they would still be occurring, let alone in Canada. We dignify ourselves as being a multicultural nation and yet there are so many secrets about our people that we either turn a blind eye against or are simply uneducated about. These issues are important for us to learn about each other, grow from one another, and aid in bettering the values our nation so strongly prides itself for.”
Shireen Hampton (who plays Mausam) also spoke on this ignorance that is prevalent in the social consciousness when it comes to this issue of dowry. “In this day and age people can often be quite oblivious of the world outside their day to day lives,” said Shireen, “Film is a wonderful vessel for learning about other cultures around the world. I’m thrilled to be a part of a film that tells a story that so many people in Canada may be unaware of. I find it fascinating how beliefs and customs of Indian culture are not only passed down through generations but also passed on to a more modern and liberal Canada. ”
The ReelWorld Film Festival screening of Dowry is tonight, Thursday, March 5th at 8:30 pm (with the Dowry team arriving at 8:00 pm) at Cineplex Scotiabank Theatre, 259 Richmond St West in Toronto.
Dowry stars Ana Sani, Shireen Hampton, Jasmine Sawant, Shruti Shah, Jason Sasha and Sid Sawant. The film was written and directed by Jag Parmar. Arun A. Mirchandani served as Executive Producer.
Aside from the ReelWorld Film Festival screening, Parmar assures me that they anticipate more festival screenings in Toronto and are submitting to festivals in the US etc.
You can also view the trailer at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dg5ftdMigXc&feature=youtu.be
Published in Fusia magazine March 2015