Here is a portrait unlike any I've encountered in fictional or documentary film.
Sampat Pal Devi, an "untouchable" in her mid-60s, has devoted herself to fighting the abuse of women in Uttar Pradesh, where you're as likely to see an ox-drawn cart as a motorcycle on one of the area's dusty dirt roads.
Wearing her trademark pink sari, Sampat has found a calling rescuing child brides who have been beaten, starved, raped, or otherwise abused by their in-laws.
Laws exist to protect these waifs but until Sampat came along, apparently no one believed they should be enforced. So it's been up to Sampat to rescue these kids and then hector the police into punishing their aggressors.
This fly-on-the-wall documentary sheds little light on how the queenly Sampat managed to get so brave. She does seem to gain something personally through her interventions; as she dabs the eyes of her often-suicidal wards, she seems eager to heal from having been married off at 12 and later reduced to selling tea on the street to support her kids.
The portrait isn't all rosy. In one segment, Sampat secretly returns one of her girls to the home where she had been beaten -- seemingly as part of some kind of tribal swap. This apparent lapse of ethical judgment triggers Sampat's breakup with her higher-caste boyfriend, Babuji, who accurately targets some of Sampat's failings. But she's dismissive and defensive toward him, showing no openness to psychological thinking despite the emotional rightness of her campaigns to help others.
This documentary leaves one grateful for not having been born in Uttar Pradesh. Although unmentioned, tourists flock there for the Taj Majal. However, traditions there seem iron-clad in their oppression of women. And it doesn't seem like the men are doing well, either. Groups of them are always milling about as if they have nothing to do. With the notable exception of Sampat herself, most of the villagers who appear in this film appear significantly underfed (as cows mosey through the streets, of course).
I don't like to see anyone oppressed or abused and this film has inspired me. Its protagonist is far from perfect but why should we expect her to be?
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