“ B amba foot gaya [the dam has burst]”, “cycle mein puncture”, “red light”, “ laal dhaga [red thread]”, “date”, “MC”, “ maheena [month]” and “period”—the women of Khati Khera laughed as they recalled these terms referring to menstruation. Most of these words and phrases are uttered in jest, as inside jokes. Across cultures, women use secret terms to convey that they are on their menstrual cycle. The shame and stigma, if any, is only in front of men. The situation is not very different in Khati Khera, a sleepy village in western Uttar Pradesh which recently shot to fame after a documentary on its sanitary napkin factory managed entirely by women won an Oscar award.
Sometimes, Western interpretations of Indian subjects, such as the British Marxist historian Perry Anderson’s The Indian Ideology , can be important interventions in an unbroken narrative. They point to uncomfortable truths that indigenous scholars might find difficult to admit to. But while Indian subjects have, time and again, fascinated Western audiences, they are not always represented accurately. For instance, the Hollywood film Slumdog Millionaire was accused of indulging in “poverty porn”, whereas Life of Pi seemed to be exoticising the hinterland.
The debate on the politics of representation was reignited this year when Period. End of Sentence won an Oscar in the Best Documentary Short Subject category. The Academy award threw the spotlight on director Rayka Zehtabchi, the first Iranian-American woman to win an Oscar. Filmed in four villages across Hapur district in Uttar Pradesh, the film also brought into sharp focus menstruation, a taboo subject in many parts of the world. While accepting the award onstage alongside the producer Melissa Berton, an emotional Rayka Zehtabchi said: “I can’t believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar.” By awarding this film, ahead of Black Sheep , a film on racism, and Lifeboat , a documentary on the plight of Syrian refugees, both films tackling non-white issues, the Academy sent out a message that it was time to provide recognition to a fresh film on women’s concerns. It was a stepping stone in the Academy’s claim to being a more inclusive institution, given that lack of diversity is something that it has often been accused of.
While accepting the award, Melissa Berton said, “A period should end a sentence, not a girl’s education,” a tag line from the film. It became a popular quote from the awards night after Hollywood star Reese Witherspoon highlighted it. The film-makers have repeatedly stated that girls across the world drop out of school because of their periods. But when Frontline visited Khati Khera, it was evident that the girls who had dropped out of school, at least in that village, had done so for economic reasons. With the exception of one girl, the others who dropped out did so because the village school offered education only until Class 8, said Arshi, one of the seven girls who worked in the factory unit for biodegradable sanitary pads. The others are Nishu, Preeti, Rakhi, Rukhsana, Sneha and Sushma. Those who want to study further have to spend Rs.100 to travel to the nearest school in another village. While girls dropping out of school because of their menstruation might make for a dramatic plotline and a quotable quote, it was just one of the many cinematic liberties that the film-makers had taken.
When this correspondent visited the factory unit set up in a Gujjar home in Khati Khera, she was taken through the drill—the sorting of hard sheet, gel sheet, mixing, grinding, weighing, pressing, sanitising and packing done by the girls. Ever since the Oscar award, they have been overwhelmed by the constant media interest in their lives. Guddu, an electrician, proudly walked around, giving instructions to the girls on how to handle the machinery. After he left, the girls clarified that he had no role to play in the functioning of the unit. “He just likes to strut around like a patriarch. Earlier, these men would talk behind our backs and laugh at us,” said Preeti. Unlike earlier, now the men of the village visited the unit and took a keen interest in their work. Of the seven girls, Sneha, the main protagonist of the film, and Suman, an activist with Action India, had accompanied the producers to the award ceremony in Los Angeles. Like Sneha, many girls and boys from Hapur harbour dreams of joining the police or the armed forces.
Rakhi, in whose house the unit has been set up, is the undisputed leader; she puts in more hours than anybody else. Owing to erratic power supply, the girls end up working odd hours, sometimes even at night, to meet the target of 600 pieces a day. The products are distributed under the brand name “Fly” by activists of Action India in 40 villages. “We want to take our product from 40 to 400 villages and scale up the employment from seven to 70 women,” said Rakhi.
This was the first time the women in the village had found gainful employment outside their homes and fields. While they continued to do housework and tend buffaloes, things are gradually changing on that front as well. Rakhi’s father, who was earlier told that they were making children’s diapers, recently told her to focus on her work in the unit while he took care of the field. “I like to go and help him in the morning anyway,” said Rakhi. The families of the women are waking up to their potential as they bring home Rs.2,500 every month. The villagers, too, are keen on appearing supportive of their work as they see the project expand. Especially after the Oscar, the attitude of the villagers has changed considerably towards the unit and the work they do.
Action India, a non-governmental organisation run by Gouri Choudhury, has been working on issues of child labour, maternal mortality, infant mortality and women empowerment in the villages of Hapur since 2000. Over the years, they have partnered with several international organisations. In 2016, they connected with Girls Learn International (GLI), a programme within the Feminist Majority Foundation, a non-profit organisation based in the United States. Earlier, GLI had raised funds for schools in Pakistan, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. They raised money for The Pad Project through bake sales, yoga-thons and the funding platform Kickstarter to make a documentary about high school pupils and their teachers from the United States working with a school in Hapur to set up a sanitary pad machine. Devendra Kumar, programme manager, Action India, told Frontline : “One thing led to another, Rs.5 lakh was raised and our activists panned out across India to find a cost-effective and low-cost unit for biodegradable sanitary pads.”
After various surveys, they decided to instal the machine manufactured by Arunachalam Muruganantham, popularly known as the “Pad Man of India”, from Coimbatore. They persisted through setbacks and received funds from Credit Suisse to expand the project. In 2018, the second unit was set up in Soodna. But since Muruganantham refused to upgrade his technology and the market demand in Hapur necessitated that they manufactured pads with wings, Action India decided to rope in Shehnaz Enterprise from Udaipur for the second machine. “Now we are looking to instal a third unit from Mumbai. It is slightly expensive, so we are figuring out our finances before finalising it,” he said. Action India hopes that the attention garnered by the Oscars might enable them to get funds for setting up more units.
The activists of Action India, Susheela, Anita, Usha, Suman and Sashi, hail from the nearby villages of Ubarpur, Chitouli, Pir Nagar Soodna, Ayadnagar and Hasanpur. They are the vital links between the funders and the villagers, and are instrumental in selecting and setting up the machines in the villages. They told Frontline how their lives had changed since they started working with Action India. They have organised hundreds of self-help groups (SHGs) and are intimately involved in the lives of the women they work with. They told Frontline : “Ever since we started working with Action India, we have seen the change in our own lives and homes. Our families respect us; we always have money in our pockets. We are trying to ensure that our children get proper education and complete their studies. By extension, we are helping improve the lives of other girls and women who can also feel empowered and independent. This project is a part of that entire process.”
The second unit is in Soodna village in the house of Susheela, an Action Aid activist. Unlike Khati Khera, a Gujjar majority-village, Soodna is a Scheduled Caste majority village, and people here did not have any reservations when the factory was being set up. “Sometimes when I am busy or away, my sons hand over the sanitary napkin packet to a customer. I taught them early on what was what and they do not feel any shame.” The unit manufactures 400 pads a day and employs seven women from the village. There are challenges of erratic electric supply here as well, but the women have overcome it by working odd hours, just like the women in Khati Khera.
Period. End of Sentence portrays the women as proactive agents wanting to change their destiny through sheer hard work and grit, not as victims. But focussing as it does excessively on shame and stigma, it does not record the cultural shift that has taken place in the villages after the setting up of the units. Despite the women’s obvious pride about the film, the feeling that it was an international film for global audiences could not be shaken off. With the exception of the executive producers Guneet Monga and Mandakini Kakar of Sikhya Entertainment, the names on the credits are all non-Indian. This has hurt the activists who worked on the ground.
One of the women told Frontline : “We do not want to play spoilsport. We are also cheering for a positive outcome. But it weighs on our minds that we, too, worked towards the film being made. It was a collective effort, but we are not getting any recognition. Even the local media are not writing about us.” Sam and Rayka Zehtabchi were the only two people who made day trips to Khati Khera for the shooting. Later, for the screening, around 20 U.S. students visited Khati Khera. For all the positivity garnered by the film, its politics of appropriation cannot be dismissed. Since it was made for an international audience, it is also feeding into the spectator’s gaze where the subject performs for an elite audience.
It is not just Western film-makers who run the risk of misrepresenting rural India. Journalists from urban India, too, fail to grasp the cultural nuances of life in the villages. A story on the lack of toilets in the factory unit of Khati Khera went viral. But girls of Khati Khera explained that it was a falsehood to the extent that owing to joint families living under the same roof, toilets are always built outside in the courtyard. For someone from the cities who is used to attached bathrooms inside the house, this might seem an anomaly, but it is not unusual for Gujjar households in villages. The villagers brushed aside these petty misrepresentations, with the larger picture in mind, and remained charmed by the attention that the Oscars had brought them.