KL: The bit I would have taken out of Pink Saris [about Sampat Pal Devi, leader of the Gulabi Gang] were the bits with Babuji where it’s very clear that they’re a couple. That they’re living together. When a friend took the film to show Sampat, she said, “Oh, come on, let’s show it in the village!” And the friend had to say, “Sampat, I don’t think you should show it to the village. You know they’re already putting up with you. They’re dealing with you. But I don’t think they actually want to be faced with how you’re breaking every single rule.” I mean she’s fearless in a way.
CV: You document very deep culturally ingrained injustices and things can get very intense. As a western woman, do you every feel the community may turn against you and view you as part of this “corruption?” Do you ever fear for your safety?
KL: Salma is so incredibly brave and the stakes have been extremely high for her. We are being careful about how we’re bringing the film out. We’re getting a little swirl of support for her so that when it’s shown in India that she’ll get strength from other women.
I don’t’ think people realize how brave she’s been. It’s such an unbelievably courageous thing. The poems themselves. So when you film someone like her and you think about how courageous she is, you don’t think about yourself. You can never be as brave as she has been. That first time having herself photographed was when she was really, really… her life was in danger then. And when her husband brought the acid and put it on the shelf above her bed and she went on writing. To do that is so extraordinary because she knows women who have had acid thrown on them. It’s a really huge thing and you never recover. You’re blinded and it eats into your bones.
So the risk we’re taking is minuscule compared to that.
CV: What does Salma think about the film?
KL: She saw it for the first time at Sundance and I said, “Don’t you want to see it before the screening?” She said, “No, no. I want to watch it with an audience.” She cried in that screening quite a lot and at the end of it.
What happens is, and it’s amazing, usually they’ll say, “Here’s Kim,” and people clap politely. Then Salma comes up and everyone stands up and cheers for her. She’s gotten incredible support and strength from that. It’s been a really big thing. I don’t think anything like that [her reception by audiences] happens in that way with the book. Women come up and they hold her and they hug her. With the book, it’s not so emotional because it’s one step removed. The novel has other characters living through what she’s lived through, it’s not so obvious in that way.
When we showed the film at a school in Sundance, women came up and told her, “You’ve given me the strength to stay in school.” One woman came up and said, “I relate to your experience.” That one-to-one thing within a massive group, is a big thing and it’s meant a lot to her.
CV: How many books has Salma written?
KL: She’s written a novel, The Hour Past Midnight, and lots and lots of poems but most of them are not translated into English. There’s a publishing company in New York (Orbooks.com) who are publishing them in English. They’re in the middle of doing it.
CV: Many of these stories reveal how female oppression is often supported by women themselves. In Western culture we see this in magazines run by women editors and writers that scrutinize other women. So there is a universal thread here that speaks to many of us.
KL: Exactly. It’s the people you love most that betray you. That’s what it is. It was her mum that she loved most that pretended she was dying of stress to trick her. And the aunt who brought her up, who she loved more than anything, who would visit her in her little room and take her food and force her to eat. So it’s part of the organization of keeping her in the house. And that’s the tragedy but that’s also the only way it can go on. If it was so clear that it was men against women, it wouldn’t be going on anymore.
CV: If women said enough is enough and stood together it could not go on. It takes women to support it.
KL: It wouldn’t sustain. The same with FGM [female genital mutilation]. Its women who do it to each other. If the men had to do it…
CV: Is feminism a concept in India or is it viewed as a merely Western idea?
KL: What it is, is a human rights issue. What Salma is aware of, and all of the women, if they’ve had a spokesperson like Salma who does speak out, Malala Yousafzai talks about it in Pakistan, is that going to school is a fundamental right that’s been taken away. Then being forced to marry against your will. From a very young age Salma said, “That’s not going to happen to me. I’m not going to let it happen.” So I think there’s no way you could be anything else [besides a feminist].
CV: You allow the women, within their own culture, to speak for themselves. How do you balance capturing these (culturally specific) stories without imposing your societal values or beliefs onto it?
KL: When you go somewhere like that little tiny village, where most of the people have never spoken to anyone from the outside before, and you look different, everything about you is a bit different, you are a complete outsider. And then you’re with someone like Salma, who has always felt like an outsider. The other side of what we’ve been saying is that, yes, she is a hero. She is a pioneer. But I think for every single pioneer that you and I have read about and admired, they always feel like they’re sort of alone and they’re outsiders in a way. They’re not really accepted by their own families. They’re looking for love desperately and they never really find acceptance and love in the way that they want because they’ll always be different. I think that’s why I’m attracted to people that feel a little bit different and are outsiders.
It’s like Fardhosa Mohammed, who was campaigning against FGM at great personal cost [The Day I Will Never Forget]. She is a real outsider in Somali culture because it’s so much part of her culture. She’ll always have her critics and people that look down on her. I think it makes it easier really because Salma thinks, ‘She’s [Kim] an outsider and I’m an outsider. And I can really open up and be myself. She’s not going to look down on me and think that I’m a bad Muslim. Or a bad Tamil. Or a bad villager.’
CV: Who is the documentary for?
KL: When I’m making it I’m not thinking of it being just for Indian women or just for Muslim women or…I’m thinking that I’m making it for my best friend because I’m hoping that we’ll all find links in our own lives with it. For example, it made me think of my own childhood. It made me incredibly inspired to know that there was a woman like Salma.
We read about Nelson Mandela smuggling his book out on tiny bits of toilet paper out of jail and we were all campaigning for him, and he’s a huge hero. Then you learn that there’s a woman like Salma, who’s a modern day hero and she’s just one of us. And she’s gone through those years of being kept away and never gave up. Never ever gave up. She kept fighting, and I think, gosh, if she can do this, it gives me strength. So, I hope it’s for everyone.
CV: You don’t become rich from documentary films that deal with such important issues. What drives you to continue making them?
KL: Because it’s so inspiring, really. I’m always going to be grateful that I met Salma. I think she’s so wonderful. I had hoped she would be wonderful before I met her but I thought it may be a bit like Sampat. Sampat’s a very flawed, difficult, damaged person. And often quite contradictory in her need for fame and her fear of relationships. Even though I loved her, at times I couldn’t stand her. But with Salma I totally loved her and she’s even more amazing than I could have dreamt.
I’ve been so lucky to meet her and know her and make the film so other people can meet her and feel that they’ve met her aunt and her mum. And people can meet Malik and see that he’s not so bad after all. He’s just part of this village, which is the enemy. It’s not Malik. It’s not her dad. It’s not even Nadjma’s son, Wasim, the one who wants her to have a horrible time. It’s none of them. They’re all vulnerable and damaged themselves. The village is this “thing” that’s ruining them all. That’s what’s at stake. That’s what formed them all. I’m so happy to be part of something that is making people discuss the village and maybe weakening the village a tiny bit.
CV: When one is oppressed we’re all oppressed. Malik oppressed his wife because he was also oppressed.
KL: Exactly. I’m so glad you got that because sometimes people say, “I can’t stand Malik,” and they don’t get that.
CV: How can we support this bold artist activist?
KL: One of the things that came through really really clearly when I was making the film with Sampat Pal Devi was that she wasn’t really interested in the film. What she was so clear about was that what was going to change things in India was the written word. It was magazines, newspapers, and people talking about things they’ve read. Because it can go through the cracks in the way that film can’t. In the way that Salma was reading bits of newspaper from the unwrapped groceries. That is how change is going to happen. Salma really believes it. That is why she went through all that risk to get her poems out.
She really believes in the written word, and so did Mandela. It is a short cut for change happening.