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Arunima Maharshi

IWB Blogger

Filmmaker Akshaya Sawant On How Patriarchy Crumbles Under Extreme Environmental Crisis

  • IWB Post
  •  June 26, 2019

Every day we’re reading about the frightening situation of water crisis in Chennai. According to a report by National Institution for Transforming India, at least 21 cities in India will run out of groundwater by 2020. And so now the question that the masses hold is that is it time to declare climate emergency?

Given the severity of the crisis, the legitimacy of it cannot be questioned, but does the situation not ask us some questions, too? A lot of simple do’s and don’ts that can lead to a rather big contribution can be made at an individual and community level, and one doesn’t need to wait for it to be their city/state’s turn to acknowledge the emergency.

But while the crisis and combating strategies are being discussed, another as alarming aspect of the situation is the severity of the social implications it has caused and is continuing to, and particularly for the rural India – Filmmaker Akshaya Sawant’s documentary Talking To The Wind, as you will find out, takes us exactly there.

A multimedia artist from Mumbai, Akshaya has an undergraduate degree in Fine Arts with a major in painting, but it were her experiments with a DSLR camera that paved for her the way to filmmaking and to eventually becoming a recipient of the Dean’s Fellowship at Emerson College, Boston.

Akshaya made Talking To The Wind as a part of her thesis in the MFA program at Emerson. The documentary explores and highlights the extreme effects of gender inequality in a highly marginalized community of drought-prone rural Maharashtra. Digging a little into how it came about, I came across one of Akshaya’s earlier interviews where she had shared, “One day walking out after a shoot, a friend threw a gallon of water in the trash and when I asked him why, he said it was inconvenient for him to carry and that he recycled it. I have always been environmentally conscious and it was a different perspective for me. I saw myself as a connect between the two very different lands of USA and India, and that is how the idea of making a film based in India and to make it have a global appeal occurred to me.”

Akshaya Sawant

Sharing her experience of screening the documentary for the community and the impact she anticipates, Akshaya said, “Our aim is to empower the community by giving them tools to understand, learn and practice gender equality. I think it’s important to create impact through entertainment; if we reach the crowdfunding goal, we will be able to have numerous such screenings through untouched lanes of rural Maharashtra, accompanied by volunteers from ‘The Red Elephant Foundation’ to teach gender equality through games for the children in the village. So we not only provide entertainment, we educate and then we teach how to apply those lessons in their lives. I believe that this ripple effect can create a long-lasting change, breaking the cycle.”

Let’s begin with talking about if you observed any difference in the patriarchal system’s functioning in the rural setup, as compared to urban.

Patriarchy is a social system in which men hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property. We are well aware that this social practice is present in underdeveloped as well as developed countries; however the rural areas show a significant rigid gender binary system that’s difficult to overcome due to lack of awareness and education. People in rural areas continue to live their lives strictly based on these gender norms because anything slightly outside of it is considered “wrong as per our Indian culture”. This patriarchal structure turns men into the ‘head of the family’, giving them the power of making decisions; while women end up doing the labor and housework, restricting their full potential as intelligent, competent individuals. This structure also puts the entire financial responsibility of the family on men while the women bear the burden of preserving the honor.

The environmental crisis hit Maharashtra in 2013 and has resulted in over 1400 suicides per year since. The rough average being seven suicides per day. The reasons behind the suicides is zero harvest caused by man-made climate change and the pressures of marrying their daughters with huge amounts of dowry. Yet, they refuse to acknowledge the results of this toxic practice, which clearly cannot sustain under these environmental conditions. They’d rather marry off their daughters instead of using that money for their education which can in future bring financial stability to their home.

Akshaya Sawant

Which tells us about how the patriarchal system crumbles under environmental crisis. Do you think it sheds the desired light on the incompetency of patriarchy?

The farmers are entirely dependent on the harvest for their yearly income and the drought has resulted in zero income for three consecutive years. One of the biggest expenses for the farmer is his daughter’s marriage. He is required to marry her off as soon as she turns 18 with huge amount of dowry because of the societal pressure. They would have married them off earlier if the government hadn’t made child marriage illegal. If she is not married by 18, people start talking and attacking her and her family’s honor. The farmer ends up taking debt from private money lenders because government loans are either not easily accessible or are insufficient. The private money lenders charge higher interest rate that farmers cannot pay due to the continued drought. Not being able to support their family challenges their “masculinity” and then for them, suicide becomes the way out.

Akshaya Sawant

“The famine 1972 drought in Maharashtra was a natural calamity where groundwater was still available 6 meters deep. The drought of 2013 – 2015 however, is man-made and is a result of incompetent water management, accompanied by corruption, selection of water-intensive crops and lack of long-term planning to manage groundwater according to the report by ‘South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People’ (SANDRP).”

And the famers’ suicide thus makes the lives of women even more difficult.  

Indeed. With her husband gone, the woman is left to pick up the pieces and is forced to become the head of the family. However, due to lack of education, she continues to do field work earning 100 Rs. per day for harsh labor in extreme weather conditions. She is stuck in the rut of living hand to mouth while trying to move her family forward. She works day and night to put her son through education as that’s the only way out of the situation. And marries her daughters off to reduce the number of mouths to feed, giving her daughter the same fate as hers. The girls in rural areas are smart, resilient and hardworking with a drive to become more than just a product of their situation. But they are denied the right of making decisions in their lives.

Akshaya Sawant

According to the UN data of 2017, 60% of the women work in the agricultural sector of rural India, a sector that provides little to no protection of labor rights or social rights restricting in upward mobility. Teen marriages restrict access to education and employment and results into poor decision-making, greater risks of early pregnancy, maternal complications, STDs and domestic abuse. Imagine if the communities treated their women and girls equal to the men, educating them to use their full potential like their urban counterparts, treating all individuals as quality resource, they would not only contribute to the economy but also provide solutions to their environmental problems.

Of such depth and severity is the impact of environmental crisis on the psychology and identity of people. It must also be redefining the perception of masculinity and the strength society associates with it?

Masculinity is one of the many qualities (strength, driven and toughness) that is regarded as characteristic to men. Over the years it has become a way of defining if the person is “man-enough” to deal with situations that life throws towards them. They are responsible for taking the burden of the financial stability and protection of their family, without the luxury of being vulnerable. Vulnerability is treated as weakness and they often get mocked or bullied for it. They are always required to put up a brave face and never let their guard down.

The three-year-long drought accompanied by lack of support from government showed how such pressures can impact the farmer’s psychology of being the sole breadwinner, where he constantly feels not good enough to provide for his family or failing to protect his daughter’s honor in the society. The environmental crisis turned Maharashtra into a graveyard by effortlessly cracking the already problematic patriarchal social structure, where men had to resort to suicide as the only way to provide for their family, in the form of compensation from government.

Akshaya Sawant

How in your opinion can gender equality change the manner of dealing with the crisis?

First off, we need to understand and break this vicious cycle, which is by giving equal power to men and women and allowing them to be strong, vulnerable, and empathetic. It makes us “human” to experience these spectrum of emotions, and it should be okay to have those moments of strength and doubts to build strong foundation of a society. When 60% of the population is oppressed and not given the habitat to strive and contribute to the economy, it puts huge amount of pressure on the remaining 40%. We need to slowly disrupt these rigid gender norms because a woman is perfectly capable of rising above these situations if she is given the tools; it shouldn’t be just the man’s responsibility to provide for his family.

Very well put. Tell us a little about your firsthand experience of witnessing this deep-rooted mentality; any incidents from the time you were visiting the villages?

In the beginning, during production schedule, I would go to different villages to look for my subjects for the film. One such incident was when we went to Bhilegaon to meet the villagers. I was sitting in the temple with my line producer Kalpesh More and sound recordist Sahishnu Tongaonkar surrounded by all the men from the village. We spoke about the drought and how they had to cope with the water scarcity with no income. Slowly I got in the topic of women in their society. As we dug deeper, the tone of the conversation changed. When I asked them why they wouldn’t use the dowry money to educate their daughters so they can bring additional income home, they told me that I am not from their society, I don’t belong there and I don’t understand how things work there. They will continue taking the dowry and that practice will never change.

Akshaya Sawant

And in your crowd funding pitch video, you’ve shared that the screening of documentary sparked debate/discussion amongst the village community. Significant takeaway?

I went to the village to show the film earlier this year, and it was quite a nerve-wracking experience. The film explores gender norms through various perspectives of the villagers and by default, of the director, i.e. me. But instead of just attacking their social constructs as an outsider, the film opens a dialogue through the voices in the community. The story allows you to feel the emotions and takes you on a journey which, in turn, opens doors for a conversation around the topic, which I think is a huge win. There was a long uncomfortable silence after the screening because they were confronted with the realities of their society. It’s hard for the older generation to understand these concepts because their way of living is deeply rooted into their bones. But they were open to talk about the problems and came up to me to tell me how they can or cannot advance. For the women it was harder to speak about it in front of everyone and they talked to me privately.

Women remain almost invisible in government schemes too, but it affects their lives just as much if not more.  

That’s very true, women are affected as much if not more because of these conditions. However, they are not a priority when it comes to realizing solutions to counter the situation. Since the drought, a lot of groups have come forward to provide monetary compensation to the farmers, donate their time, create awareness about usage and storage of water and educate farmers on small businesses so they are not entirely dependent on harvest for their livelihood. However, women’s basic fundamental right has not been at the forefront to eradicate the issue. There are NGO’s training women to sell small products and empower them financially. And these initiatives are extremely important, but unless women become more confident as competent, equal members of the society, their full potential will remain buried. The change in their status quo as individuals needs to happen now.

Akshaya Sawant

How are they handling the situation, given the way the societal system has led them to be perceived as more a burden/liability than an important resource herself?

Unfortunately, they have accepted these conditions as their fate. They grow up learning that they are secondary citizens, every person in power around them is a man and even if they receive the power, it’s snatched away! For example, the sarpanch (village leader) of Waghala was a woman in 2017, elected under the women’s reservation quota. But she never sat in the office because her husband took her seat. Everyone in the village knew about it but they never opposed it, including the real sarpanch herself. Of course there are exceptions like Mayadevi, who worked in the gram panchayat at Waghala to bring sanitation to every house in the village. She is married with kids but her father allowed her to study and graduate, which is why she sits in the office making decisions in an otherwise all men committee.

Does there seem any hope in regard to the situation of the young girls?

The young girls in the village would come up to me to tell me that they do not want to get married but they don’t have a choice. The elder women know that their daughters want to study further but can’t afford to educate them due to poverty. Families don’t have money to spare and given a choice, they invest in the boys because for them, girls’ purpose is to be married and bear children. I would say that it’s not as if the parents are heartless or they don’t love their daughters; it’s because they want to abide by the Indian culture and traditions. For them, she has to be married by 18 to preserve her honor, more dowry means a better life for her in a better family; and even though this thought comes from a place of love, there needs to be awareness about why this practice is disastrous and how they need to stop in order to save themselves, if nothing else.

Akshaya Sawant

Stills taken are from the trailer of Akshaya’s documentary Talking To The Wind

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