Family Discord in Jag Parmar’s “Dowry”

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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.”

Dowry_430x240Ultimately 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.”

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The Film

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. ”

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Screening Details

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.

For more details, go to: www.reelworld.ca or www.inseyetfilms.com

You can also view the trailer at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dg5ftdMigXc&feature=youtu.be

 

Published in Fusia magazine March 2015

After the Fall: A Breath of Life

After the Fall: A Breath of Life is a documentary project that depicts a young woman’s (Shilpa) day-to-day struggles with life-saving decisions and navigating through differing cultural and religious notions of healing.

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A Summary of the Documentary

Shilpa struggled through two bouts of cancer and an adverse reaction to the chemo that scarred her lungs irreparably so that she required a double lung transplant. While on the waiting list to receive a transplant, she had to deal with conflict within her social support network. Even after the transplant she experienced many ups and downs in her recovery, landing her in and out of the ICU, and had to learn to walk again. The struggle remains a reality even today as she relies on a series of anti-rejection drugs that don’t always work. Despite her very difficult struggle, Shilpa remains positive and optimistic as well as vibrant and energetic and surrounds herself with friends and loved ones.

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The documentary goes over what Shilpa’s life used to be like before the transplant and now after the transplant. It documents her sister and mother’s struggle with her illness. It also touches on Shipla’s experience, coming very close to death, how she felt and how she feels now about life and her purpose and what’s meaningful to her. It also possesses a central conflict: Her mother didn’t agree with her getting the transplant and didn’t believe in modern medicine in general, but instead relied heavily on a support system that consisted of her religious beliefs and the conviction that her daughter would be saved through prayer. Shilpa, however, doesn’t think that it has to be one or the other, but that true healing can come from a combination of the two.

Interview with the Production Team

The brilliant minds behind this touching documentary are Pam Sethi and Rose D’Souza, who jointly wrote, produced, and directed this entire project.

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Pam has a background in nursing and epidemiology and is currently in policy work while Rose has a background in Journalism and public health. Rose was interested in being involved with this documentary because she felt that “it was a really great story to tell,” while one of Pam’s primary concerns was figuring out a way to actually create change and start a movement. Pam concluded that change is often initiated through powerful stories. Combining their intentions for the project, they were able to create a creative piece that does both.

Pam explained that “it was supposed to be a 10-15 minute doc, but the project became larger than what we expected it to be.” Both Pam and Rose have full-time jobs, and, as Rose notes, spent “many late nights after work making this [documentary] together.”

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Themes of this documentary touch on philosophies and views on transplant, cultural variances, death and dying. “The intent of this doc was twofold,” mentioned Pam, “to not only share Shilpa’s beautiful story and to raise awareness in Shilpa’s community and the public, but also to impact providers and policy makers around the patient experience and impact those in positions of decision making.”

The percentage of the eligible population registered as organ donors in Ontario is 25%, many of which are from the GTA. In the GTA alone, 15% of the eligible population are registered organ donors. This 25% is 3.1 million out of an eligible 11.8 million. As of December 31st 2014, 1,581 Ontarians are currently waiting for an organ transplant.

“With an entire crown ward dedicated to raising awareness on issues of donation,” said Pam, “we are questioning why our statistics haven’t grown or gotten any higher.”

The documentary served as a good opportunity for Shilpa to show others what a new set of lungs has done for her and to raise awareness around the realities of organ donation. She hoped that her story could touch people and perhaps even elicit a response from the community to register as organ donors and get involved.

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Pam also mentioned that this was a long, drawn-out process for Shilpa because of the disagreement around her treatment within her household. Pam would like to see policy makers become more informed about cultural differences regarding the beliefs and impressions of organ donations and be able to integrate and address some of these concerns in the counseling period before a transplant.

Pam and Rose both expressed how amazed they were at Shilpa’s willingness to share her story and how expressive she was, because “she is ordinarily a very private person and to share something so personal publically is very unusual for Shilpa.” Rose describes Shilpa as “always having a smile on her face, regardless of what she’s going through; she doesn’t like to share any of the bad experiences.” Rose explains that having had to be strong and pull through for the past 8 years, Shilpa always put on a happy, positive, and strong demeanor; however, she was finally able to express in this documentary some of the hurt, fear, and negative feelings that she has had which most of her closest friends and family never heard her utter before. Ultimately the documentary works to help Shilpa voice her struggle, and as Pam mentions, “where she was before the documentary a year ago and where she is now, I feel like she is completely empowered.”

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After the Fall: A Breath of Life has been submitted to Canadian and International film festivals throughout 2015. Keep your eyes open for your chance to see it.

 

Read more about the project here: https://www.facebook.com/Afterthefall.abreathoflife

See the documentary teaser here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUWpjN2Pmfs&feature=youtu.be

Statistics on Organ Donation in Ontario were sourced from the Trillium Gift of Life Network: http://www.giftoflife.on.ca/en/

 

Published in Fusia magazine February 2015

Fandry: Falling in Love and Flailing in Caste

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Fandry is, on the surface, a coming-of-age film about love; however, it delves into the perpetual deep social issues regarding caste conflict and inter-caste relations in India.

“For over 1,500 years, anyone born a Hindu was right at the centre of the caste system. If one was born among the lower castes – the Dalits or the Sudra (Untouchables), a life of struggle and torment began. But life is the exact opposite if one is born a Brahmin. Rape, torture, and killings continue to take place in the name of caste. Dalit massacres have been committed since 1947 and still continue” (Shaka)

The Canadian premier of Fandry was this past Tuesday, Nov 11th, as part of the Toronto Reel Asian Film Festival. This film was powerful, very moving, and worked well to expose a prevalent issue that needs to be addressed. Every once in a while you walk away from a film that makes you think deeply, question everything, and it somehow changes you; Fandry is one of these films. The political and social agenda is beautifully conveyed through the films excellent use of affect. You can feel the frustration of the lead, Jabya (Somnath Awghade), who is madly in love with a girl out of his reach and is harassed mercilessly by the higher-caste village boys. You feel his sadness when his dreams are constantly ripped away from him as he is forced into demeaning work. You feel the shame he feels when he is set apart and embarrassed in front of his peers, and you feel the hope that is always just out of reach in his quest for the black sparrow with the tail like a kite. The effect is as overwhelming at times and the film is constructed in such a way that it is nearly impossible to leave unaffected.

The director very masterfully draws the audience into this world, but it is a world where the audience quite obviously doesn’t belong. The audience is made aware that we are voyeurs; we are observing this family’s pain and struggle, like many of the other villagers, and for most, this is a struggle that we cannot identify with as we are observing from positions of privilege. At the end of the film, the director chooses to very powerfully break down the fourth wall, having Jabya throw a rock at his nemesis, but it essentially ‘smacks the audience in the face’ with its message and the act literally becomes a ‘light’s out’ moment for the audience. It was a particularly jarring way to end the film, which was precisely the point. The ending offers an incredibly symbolic message, at least in my interpretation, that being a passive observer to another human being’s suffering is the same as being a participant in his or her disenfranchisement. Put another way, if you do not actively question and work to change an ongoing issue, then you are allowing that issue to persist and are in fact part of the problem.

Fandry is a film that has started a much needed social dialogue in India and, much to its credit, has incited the creation of Project Fandry, a social group encouraging discussion and advocating for change: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Project-Fandry/711562668909315.

In spite of the sensitive topic, Fandry, released in 2013 in India, has been received very well and with high acclaim. It has won Best Film at the Mumbai International Film Festival, Best Film, Best Film(Audience), Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Actor at the Pune International Film Festival, Best Film of the year 2013 by the International Federation of Film Critics, Best Indian feature film at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, Best Film, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Child Artist, Best Script, Best Editor by Mata Sanman, Best Director at the New York Indian Film Festival, and won a National Award for Best Debut (Director) and Best Child Actor. I’m sure it is a shoe-in for the Toronto Reel Asian Film Festival Audience Choice award as well.

Source:

Shaka, Jack. “India’s Caste System: A Panacea for Peace or Conflict? An Interview with Dr. Kshemendra Kumar Upadhyay,” Journal or Conflictology, Vol 3, Issue 1, 2012. pp.3-6.

Published Nov 2014 in Fusia magazine