Mumbai Mirror, Wednesday, September 26, 2007
“A Sari State of Affairs”
Nishtha Jain’s film, 6 Yards to Democracy, is not a well-thought out argument, but a journey of discovery that she invites you to take with her
On the 12th of April 2004 senior BJP leader Lalji Tandon’s friends decided to celebrate his birthday by distributing 12000 saris to poor women from in and around Lucknow. Hundreds of women lined up early that morning for the booty. Allegedly at some point, perhaps impatient with the never ending queue, the organizers started flinging saris at the crowd. A stampede ensued killing 21 women and an infant and injuring several others. Filmmaker Nishtha Jain visited the area with a camera and her crew curios about what really happened that morning and why. Her journey and its findings are documented in her film 6 yards to democracy. Starting from testimonies by women who survived the incident and relatives of those who did not, Jain widens the angle to look at the state of women in the concerned area in general- perhaps seeking to understand why they might have risked their lives for the gift of a single sari.
Jain’s film is not a well thought out argument, but a journey of discovery that she invites you to take with her. It is neither comprehensive, nor cohesive and while looking into housing and employment problems when the filmmaker’s gaze gets transfixed at the lack of sanitation and latrines for women, you are stuck there with her engaging in her quiet outrage against the abominable indignation of their daily lives. Clearly the conditions that so stump her might offer no new insight to those in the know but the sincerity of her reaction should move them afresh. Jain’s vision is permeated by a lyrical humanity that is often missing in documentaries of this nature, whose agenda tends to become clinical and impersonal. The women she speaks with are not merely witnesses in favor of her argument but characters she gives space and time to. Tender shots of them marveling awkwardly at the grandeur of a five star hotel, applying make-up or singing a bittersweet folk song layer their testimonies. But the journey into their personal spaces is at the cost of certain facts that do not find their place in the film. And it is precisely those facts that amplify its relevance.
Attempting to ‘buy’ votes violates the election commission’s code of conduct. Even though news channels gave a lot of attention to the event it was mostly in the form of political cross fire between personalities. As with election coverage in general, the real issues of the people concerned were lost in airing campaign trails and opinion polls. The official death toll was debated to be half of the real number. Lalji Tandon was given a clean chit and the others accused got out on bail by manipulating legal technicalities. The educated television viewer was too busy deciding the fate of film stars to protest. The accused issued a statement claiming the stampede was a result of the hysterical stupidity of the victims. Maybe they have a point. If our poorer classes still believe democracy has something to offer them, even a free sari, they must be stupid.