A tribute to a fighter

Print edition : May 23, 2003

In Swaraj, Leelavathi (Alka Amin) and colleagues. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Film-maker Anwar Jamal's powerful portrayal of the protagonist in the film 'Swaraj' is a fitting tribute to the martyred woman councillor Leelavathi of Madurai.

AT a time when mainstream cinema treats women as mere objects of sex, or as personifications of patience and tolerance, or as symbols of consumerist culture, it is heartening to note that there are a few film-makers who attempt to portray them in a totally different light. That the award-winning documentary-maker Anwar Jamal is one among them is established by his debut feature film, in Hindi, Swaraj (The Little Republic).

Swaraj tells the real-life story, though in a setting different from the one the protagonist lived in, of a woman who has come to symbolise indomitable courage and uncompromising spirit of service - K. Leelavathi, the Corporation councillor of Madurai who, six years ago, won a heroic battle against the exploitation of the poor by a tanker mafia in the matter of the supply of water in her ward but was done to death by a gang of six in her moment of glory.

Anwar Jamal and his wife Sehjo Singh, who is also the executive producer of Swaraj, read about Leelavathi in a newspaper article. "Her crusading zeal made a deep impression on us," said Sehjo Singh, who is also a documentary-maker and has several awards to her credit, in an interview later. When George Mathew, Director, Indian Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi, came up with a proposal to do a story on women in village panchayat councils, the couple seized the opportunity. After two years of research on the subject, they found that there were numerous newly empowered women crusaders like Leelavathi across the country fighting various forms of injustice. When Anwar suggested that a feature film would serve better the purpose of taking the message to larger sections of people, Mathew agreed. The project, funded by the National Film Development Corporation, was completed in 35 days a year ago at a total cost of Rs.30 lakhs, against the budgeted Rs.40 lakhs. "The team was wholly committed; all of us worked for an ideal, money came only second," said Anwar Jamal. The film was well received by the viewers and selected for screening at 17 international film festivals.

The film has been set in rural Rajasthan, though Leelavathi waged her battle in urban Madurai. It was perhaps done to portray the water scarcity with greater intensity. "It is difficult to demonstrate the lack of water elsewhere,'' said Sehjo, who penned the script.

There are also two other significant variations. Unlike Leelavathi of Madurai, the film's heroine (also named Leelavathi) belongs to an oppressed caste. Also, she is not a lone fighter; she has three friends to help her in her venture, though she is shown as the sole martyr. (The real Leelavathi had the backing of a political party which she represented in the Corporation Council.)

While the first change helps to highlight the plight of women in Indian society as victims of casteist oppression as well as class-based and gender-based discrimination, the second is a tribute to the collective power of women in the democratic reconstruction of rural India.

The storyline of Swaraj is simple and devoid of contrived twists and turns. ("I could not create complexity where it did not exist," Jamal said.) The village panchayat of which Leelavathi is a member, looks like any one of its kind elsewhere in India - dominated by "upper caste", chauvinistic men. Conflicts arise between the men and the newly empowered women members, who have different perceptions about development priorities. When the women members want water supply to be given top priority, the male members, obviously under pressure from water tanker owners, insist that the existing system of supply through tankers be continued. The men also say that there is no source of water around the village and the bureaucracy endorses their stand, stating that it did three "surveys" in the area and found no trace of water.

Leelavathi does not believe it and refuses to budge. She and her three friends set about the task of proving the male councillors and their collaborators wrong. They consult a water diviner and locate a possible source. And after eight long months of non-stop digging under hazardous conditions, they strike water.

But the problem is not over yet. They follow it up with a strenuous trek through the long desert towards the district headquarters to convince the bureaucrats that water has been found and that now it is for them to lay the pipeline as promised. After a few hurdles, they meet the woman Collector who had assured them at an earlier meeting that she would order the laying of the pipeline if they could locate the source. She concedes their request. And soon, the pipelines are laid and water arrives at the village, to the delight of the residents, particularly women. The foursome who made the dream possible rejoice at the triumph of their collective power.

However, their happiness does not last long. In the darkness of night, the henchmen of the tanker mafia succeed in dismantling the pipeline, but not before butchering Leelavathi, who puts up a heroic last-ditch battle to save the fruits of their labour. The story does not end there. The grief-stricken women weep in silence, break their pots and turn away the tanker. They would rather wait for "the water that Leelavathi brought for us" to flow again. Their fight for survival is not yet over.

The film may mean many things to many people. There is, however, no denying that it portrays powerfully the way grassroots-level democracy has been functioning for the past 10 years under the new panchayati raj system, ushered in by the Constitution (73rd amendment) Act of 1992. The empowerment of women under the 33.33 per cent reservation system, in addition to the already existing system of reservation for Dalits, has set in motion a social transformation and a change in the existing power equations in villages and small towns. The reluctance of vested interests to facilitate a smooth change-over by sharing power with the less-privileged Dalits and women cannot be set aside as a mere teething trouble. This reality has been strikingly highlighted in the film. The resistance is there, of course. All the same the empowered sections are becoming increasingly assertive, thanks to the support from progressive sections in society. This has generated hope about the survival of these Little Republics.

Each and every frame evokes thoughts about similar real-life situations in many parts of the country. The heated discussion at the village council meeting over development priorities cannot but remind the viewers of the widely published discussions at the gram sabha meetings in Kerala not long ago under the State government's scheme of `planning from below'. Priorities had to be altered on very many issues owing to pressure from women members.

The film also highlights the practice of untouchability, which persists in its crudest forms in the villages. The victims' protest is portrayed in a subtle way. When abused by a person for attempting to drink water from a public pond, Leelavathi and her three friends walk ahead in righteous indignation, declining his offer to "pour" water for them.

The film has as its theme song a poem by the 15th century radical poet Kabir, who in his irreverent verses ridicules oppression of all sorts and glorifies the power of love and truth. The legend of the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, a grandson of Prophet Muhammad, in the Battle of Karbala against Yazid has been used as an image in the film. The Battle of Karbala reflects the universal battle between good and evil, between truth and untruth, and between right and wrong. Significantly, Imam Hussain lost the battle, mainly because his troops were denied water by Yazid. The use of Kabir's couplets and Islamic images gives a poetic touch to the film.

The splendid performance by Delhi-based stage artiste Alka Amin as Leelavathi, breathtaking photography by S. Chockalingam and Indian Ocean's wonderful music add to the value of Swaraj. For its director, the film is "an act of faith in the power of grassroots democracy, in the resilience of women and in the indomitable strength of many of my people, called low-caste". Anwar Jamal has dedicated the film to the one million elected women representatives in the country's panchayati institutions, who are participating in the ongoing "quiet revolution" in rural India with a lot of hope.

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