Documentary film maker, Kim Longinotto has dedicated her career to shining light on some of the most oppressed yet fearless women in history. Her latest documentary chronicles Muslim Tamil poet, Salma.
Confined to her family’s home and forced into marriage, Salma endured decades of threats and violence inflicted upon her to prevent her from simply writing. She wrote anyway. Today, her revolutionary work has made her the most famous South Indian female writer in history. Speaking from her home in London, Longinotto likens the valiant poet to Nelson Mandela.
With any hope, Salma’s legacy on the lives of girl’s in India, and the world, will be just as historical. Chaka V.
CV: How did you learn about Salma?
KL: At the beginning of last year, I was at a film festival in Delhi and there was a seminar about women in India. Women were giving papers and talks about women in India and it was a bit gloomy. Everyone was feeling a bit dispirited that nothing was changing. At the end of it a woman called, Urvashi Butalia (Publisher of Zubaan Books), suddenly started talking about Salma. She said that there was this amazing woman. She was in this very traditional village and had smuggled her poems out, and now she had become this hope for her village.
It was obviously something that had inspired her [Butalia], and I just thought, ‘God, I’d love to make a film about it.’ It was one of those strange things that happen – well, it’s never happened to me before. After the seminar I just sort of ran after her and she gave me Salma’s e-mail. That’s how I got in touch with her.
CV: You say that that moment of, ‘I’d love to make a film about it,’ had never happened to you before? That’s surprising.
KL: Not where someone has told me a story and I thought, ‘I want to make a film about that particular story,’ just like that. A story hadn’t grabbed me like that. And also, I don’t normally make films where it is a story that has happened in the past and you need to retell it in a way. I normally make a film where somebody is at a start point in their lives and it is a start point for the film.
But I knew that this story was extraordinary. I think what it is about the story is that it’s been happening for thousands and thousands of years all over the world, to millions of women, and yet so few of them have come out of that situation and told their stories in the kind of intimate and profound way that Salma has. What she’s doing is standing up to her whole culture and its traditions and saying, “I know this has been going on. I know it happened to my mum, my grandmother and my grandmother before that but I think it’s mad.”
That’s why I love it when she goes to the little room where she was kept, and she laughs and says, “I don’t know why the window’s there. You can’t see anything.” I like that sense that she thinks, ‘This is mad.’ And when she was 13 she thought it was mad. She never accepted it as being real, as being normal. That’s what makes her special. You maybe get a woman like that in a hundred generations that can just see outside of what she’s in and look around it and say, ‘There must be a different life for me somewhere. This life that everyone’s living can’t be the only life.’
CV: When I was watching the film, I wondered, is Salma unusual because she recognized it as crazy and was strong enough to stand up against it? Or is she simply unusual?
KL: I think she’s one in a million. She’s one in a trillion. In the way that if you think of someone like Nelson Mandela, who was kept in prison – and I know that was for very different reasons and very different kinds of imprisonment –it’s similar in the way that the people around them were so frightened of the word that they would do anything to stop Nelson Mandela from writing his book. And they did everything they could to stop her from writing her poems.
And also the way that he [Mandela] came from his lengthy imprisonment with no feelings of revenge. He seemed to come out with such kind of love, and humour and gentleness. She’s come out as this extraordinary person. She loves her family. What I’ve learned from her is that people can do this to you and you can come out and still love them and say things like, “Oh, my mother’s done so much for me, I don’t feel like I’ve done anything for her.” I think that’s also what makes her extraordinary.
CV: Salma often seems to be holding her tongue and simmering under the surface, and the way she has to navigate certain discussions is difficult to watch. There is also somewhat of a sad little girl still inside of her. She loves her family but I wondered why she goes back? Does she go back often?
KL: She goes back often. But she typically goes back for one or two days because usually it’s too difficult for her.
She’s not been out [from imprisonment] that long if you think of it. It’s been 4 years that she’s been living in Chennai or maybe 5 years now. I think when she’s there [in the village] she sort of feels it all closing in on her again. You see it happening. You see her becoming, as you say, the young girl that was kept inside the house. You see her mother-in-law saying, “You should cover your head.” You can feel people disapproving of her and her school friend saying, “My husband doesn’t let me see you.” And you see the village.
What I find so interesting about the village, and that was another thing that I learned really strongly from being there, is that the village is a place, a group of houses, a group of families but it’s also a way of thinking. There’s a sense of people judging people. Right when that woman Ayesha says, “I wanted to educate my daughter but you know the village doesn’t allow it so I had to send her away.” It’s like the village is a person. It’s a very powerful thing. It’s almost like the village is a small God or something. That’s why she finds it difficult to be in the village for any length of time. But because we were making the film she stayed longer.
She also loves her mum and at the end of the film she says, “I have to keep coming to see you. You never come and see me. Why don’t you come and see me?” And her mum says, and it’s brutally honest, “We’ve got nobody we want to see in Chennai” And you feel like saying, “Mum, its Salma!” Then she says, “Your father doesn’t really like grandchildren. There’s nothing for him in Chennai. So why would we come to Chennai?” Salma’s longing for her mum to say, “I really miss you.” There’s this kind of honesty that’s extraordinary. It’s wonderful and it’s terrible at the same time.
CV: It’s a painful scene to watch because you do sense that Salma wants to hear her mother say, “I want you. You’re loved.”
KL: She’s desperately wanting her mum, and she’s never really had her mum. And her mum never had her mum, probably.
CV: Yes. It’s a cycle.
KL: Exactly. You see the aunt saying, “I tried to wash the blood [menstrual blood] off of my dress.” You see that it has happened to her and then she was immediately married. She must have been, 13, 14 when she was married off and has never moved from that house. She gestures to the house and says, “And that was it. That was my life.”
CV: Salma is very outspoken about her father and husband’s past treatment of her. How has she survived and not been killed? Has the fact that her story is now so public made her less fearful?
KL: She was frightened of being killed with the acid. I think she thought he [Malik] would have killed her at one point. But what is so interesting, is that the men [in her life] have changed. She’s changed the men as well. So that her father is being nicer to the mum, making the mum tea. Her father was very frightened when the mum got cancer and thought he was going to lose her and then realized how much he did love her. So that was his big shift.
But I think Malik is desperate for her approval now that she’s become famous. And it’s another way that her fame and hero status is protecting her. I think she’s mainly afraid of the village now. She’s not afraid of her family. This “thing,” the village, fundamentally disapproves of her.
Malik was so lovely to us when we were there. And Malik doesn’t talk about sadness. He talks about anger. It’s very interesting how the men have this anger inside of them. It’s not a good system for anybody. He says, “When I was young it was jealousy. After that, the anger was arrogance and pride.” It must have been terrifying for a young man to suddenly have to have sex with a woman you’ve never met before. It’s so public.
CV: And a woman who refused to marry you for many years.
KL: Yes! And who shamed you in front of all your friends, who said you should kidnap her. You see him in the film starting to wonder and question what the anger was. You see the shock on his face and that he’s sort of thinking, ‘Oh, what is this anger?’ So they’re all constantly being forced into this self-evaluation through Salma.
CV: In your documentary, The Day I Will Never Forget, and now, Salma, there is this fear of puberty amongst women (also felt in the West) because a lot of abuse, exploitation and oppression really kicks in at the onset of puberty.
KL: I don’t know if you picked up on when Fatima, the niece, is trying to refuse food and the aunt [Jarina] is trying to force her to eat. I was very much like Fatima, I dreaded puberty. I wanted to not get the curves. I thought that I would then be an adult and I didn’t want to be this adult because there was no models of what a woman could be that I liked. But there you can see that it’s absolutely terrifying.
Those two little girls that you see on the roof, looking at the sunset and dancing, you sort of know that it’s going to be a year at the most of those sunsets that they’ll be able to look at. It was almost unbearable when I was watching them because I was thinking, ‘Oh, darlings, enjoy this sunset because it’s one of your last, probably.’ And that’s obviously tied up with puberty. So you can see why Fatima’s big fear is becoming a woman because it’s the end of your life, really.
CV: There is a lot of smiling amongst the women even as they discuss very painful things. Is this part of the numbing, a coping mechanism to deal with severe oppression? Or the face they’re showing to the camera?
KL: Yes, I’m so glad you got that. I think if you feel there’s no way out…there is a scene in the film, after the aunt [Jarina] smiles into the camera [after force feeding Fatima] as if to say, ‘Oh, this isn’t serious. I’m forcing her to eat. This is nothing. Don’t worry everything’s fine.’ And then Salma says, “They don’t seem to realize the suffering they’re all carrying around in them.”
They’ve had to somehow put it to one side. A bit like how abused children do, they flit it off from themselves. And mum says it when Salma asks her, “Why did you give me away, mum?” And mum doesn’t answer her, she answers us. She says, “Oh, I didn’t think anything of it at the time. I thought my parents would look after her. I suppose I was too young to care.” And she kind of looks dead. There’s a sort of deadness to it. She doesn’t say, “It broke my heart to give my baby girl away,” which it must have done.
The aunt [little ma] breaks through when she says, “I cried and cried when they took Salma away from me. And then when I was locked up, I was looking over the walls…” Then she sort of laughs and Salma sort of laughs when she says, “The window didn’t show me anything.” But they kind of break out of it.
If you’ve been told all your life that this is what your destiny is. This is your life. You have to come to terms with it or otherwise you would kill yourself, maybe. So you put the sadness to one side and that’s what Salma talks about when she talks about the sadness.
CV: Why do you think Salma originally agreed to take that famous photo that revealed her identity? Why did she take that risk? Did she share this with you?
KL: I think it’s a lot of things. You’re a poet and you’re a writer, you’ve written this book, and you suddenly realize that everybody loves the book because you’ve been getting messages through your mum, through this very circuitous route. It probably takes you three or four weeks to get each little letter. Then someone goes through tremendous trouble to come and find you. And he’s a rather nice handsome young man, and you’ve probably not met a man like that before, who treats you as an equal and a colleague. Then he says, “Oh please, just one quick photo.” I think she thought her family wouldn’t see it because this village seems outside of the world in a way. But relatives in Chennai saw it. Maybe part of her kidded herself that they weren’t going to find out who she was.
The other half of her probably thought, ‘I’d quite like people to know who I am.” Imagine if you were always writing under a pseudonym, there would be a part of you that would want people to know it was you, Chaka, not George Eliot, or this man. Because everyone thought it was a man, as well. They said a woman wouldn’t be able to write like that. “Women aren’t educated. It can’t be a woman living in a village without education. It must be a man.”
I think of it as the ultimate rebellion. The next brave step. It’s an incredibly brave thing.
CV: The ultimate rebellion. You’re right. To have the courage in that moment to reveal herself, it was a powerful thing for her to do, and for us to see in the film.
KL: Absolutely. And when you read the poems, like the one she read directly to the audience, “My vagina opens…,” you think, my God, most English women wouldn’t write that in their life. It’s so honest. It’s kind of shocking. I knew what the word “yoni” was, so when she says “yoni” and then repeats it that was a sheer act of defiance. And she’s still doing it.
CV: What is amazing about that poem is that she discusses the trade-offs that women have to make when their sexuality is their only power.
KL: Yes. And how you get your contraceptives through giving sex. I thought that was extraordinary. And trying to get a little bit of love through it. That’s a wonderful poem.
CV: Do you think that Salma is a reluctant hero?
KL: She’s mixed. Her parents are so proud of her and she loves that because it’s something she’s never really had. Her father says, “She’s a good girl but she’s too clever.” I think he’s begrudgingly proud of her. But her mum and her aunt are proud of her.
She really has this sense of mission. That she wants to help other girls. That’s really genuine. She knows that the only way to do that is to speak out because she also knows that all the laws have been changed in India. That is what everyone was saying in that film festival so long ago, “All the laws are in place. Why aren’t things changing? What can we do?” And Salma realized that it is the state of mind that needs to be changed, the mindset. That is what she’s doing by speaking out and saying, “This needs to change. This isn’t right.”
I still get things in the U.K. where people say, “Western feminist’s think it is a bad thing. Women don’t mind it in those countries.” She’s a woman saying, “It was hell. I begged my mother every day, please let me go to school?” Her sister says that, “There’s not a day that goes by that I didn’t wish that I was in school.” So they’re giving the lie to that sense that it’s not a big deal and most women go along with it, which is what people say.
And we know now that at this moment, as we’re talking, there’s millions of girls looking from behind those lattice windows, all over the world, cut off from the world. Salma’s speaking out for them. That’s what she wants to do and I love her for it.