Into the Storm
single poppy seed is enough to spoil a whole vat of
milk," declares one of the leaders of a tiny village
nestled within the golden sand dunes of Rajasthan, India.
The men, all high-caste Gujjars, sit on the dusty steps
nervously twirling their mustaches and nodding in agreement.
One of the village women, a low-caste potter, has been
acting out of her place, and punishment is in order
before the entire village is poisoned. The "poppy
seed" is Sanwari Devi, a local woman who works
for Rajasthan's women's development program, called
Saathin. Devi has been interfering with the time-honored
tradition of child marriage, even daring to report to
authorities the marriage of the one-year-old daughter
of a high caste village member, causing police to disrupt
the ceremony. The men decide that Devi must be punished
in the traditional way---by raping her.
a story that at times is so outrageous it seems to be
a parody of the truth, it is hard to believe that "The
Sandstorm" is based on a true story.
by Jagmohan Mundhra, "The Sandstorm" is a
raw, gripping story based on the real life experiences
of Bhanwari Devi, a rural Indian woman who was gang-raped
ten years ago by five high-caste village leaders, including
a village council chief and a priest, as punishment
for challenging the tradition of child marriage. Instead
of retreating in shame, as societal norms in rural India
dictate, Devi became a national and international heroine
when she took on the corrupt and chauvinistic judicial
system in order to challenge her alleged rapists in
court. After a controversial trial, the five men were
acquitted of all but a few minor charges, and Devi is
still waiting for an appeal.
Sandstorm," originally released in India three
years ago and now playing in limited screenings in America,
is director Jagmohan's attempt to keep Devi's story
from being slowly erased from the public conscious.
Das plays a low caste potter woman. Courtesy
is given a powerful and sensitive portrayal by actress
Nandita Das, whose previous film credits include Deepa
Mehta's international productions "Fire" and
"Earth." Das, who is no stranger to sensitive
social issues---she holds a masters degree in social
work---won a Best Actress Award at the Santa Monica
Film Festival for her performance in "The Sandstorm."
"The Sandstorm" also won Best Picture and
the Audience Choice Award at the San Jose Film Festival,
and was met with great applause at the London Film Festival,
where proceeds from the screening were presented personally
by Das to Devi.
decides to fight for justice, but soon realizes that
the evidence of her rape has been quietly swept under
the rug---bureaucratic red tape delays Devi from having
a medical examination until several days after her rape,
when most of the evidence is gone. And in Jagmohan's
retelling of the story, a local police officer takes
custody of Devi's skirt and defiles it during a late
night date with a lingerie magazine, thus sabotaging
the DNA evidence.
powerful story manages to shine through a muck of bad
directorial decisions, the most offensive being the
decision to frame Devi's story within that of Amy, a
beautiful and shallow British journalist, who travels
to Rajasthan in hopes of turning Devi's ordeal into
a best-selling novel. The scenes containing Amy and
Ravi, her male companion, are not only unnecessary,
but downright degrading to the story. After the most
harrowing scene in the film, in which Devi is gang-raped
in front of her husband, who has been beaten into submission,
the director cuts to Amy sitting in her hotel room,
unnecessarily narrating: "This story is so shocking."
Amy then says with a smirk, "On the other hand,
I'm having a good time getting to know Ravi." Suggestive
music comes on, and we see a shot of Ravi lying half
clothed on the hotel bed. The levity of this scene is
a slap in the face to Nandita Das' poignant performance,
but perhaps most irking is that these scenes almost
seem to be slapped onto the main story as an afterthought,
perhaps in a misguided attempt to attract a wider audience
with star power, as Amy is played by Laila Ruoass, a
popular VJ and former "Elle" cover girl.
Jagmohan also made some insightful decisions in his
retelling of the story. For example, setting the story
amidst the rolling sand dunes of Jhanjheu, instead of
Bhateri where Bhanwari Devi actually lives, makes for
many beautiful and memorable scenes: It is in the sand
that the illiterate Devi first learns to write her name
with coaching from her young daughter, before a sandstorm
sweeps away the writing, and it is in the sand where
Devi is viciously raped by the village leaders.
and her husband are attacked by village leaders.
Courtesy of offoffoff.com
Sandstorm" has generated a flurry of controversy
since its original release in India. Both women's groups
and journalists have accused Jagmohan of sensationalizing
Devi's story, exploiting her and of jeopardizing her
court case. One of the most vocal critics, Kalpana Sharma,
a journalist for "The Hindu," India's national
newspaper, condemned Jagmohan for making the film without
Devi's informed consent, and stated that Devi was "deeply
worried about the impact of [the film] on her life,
on the life of her children and on the on-going battle
in court." Jagmohan claims that he had consulted
the Forum Against Violence On Women, but that they would
not grant their consent to the film, giving "vague
excuses" such as "re-opening old wounds and
traumatizing Bhanwari Devi." However, he maintains
that Bhanwari Devi herself described her story in detail
to the screenwriter, Ashok Mishra (National award winner
for Shyam Benegal's "Samar"), and "tied
raakhi" to him---a tradition that showed that she
trusted Mishra to protect her.
its flaws, "The Sandstorm" is an important
film that shines an uncomfortable spotlight on the unjust
treatment of rape victims in India. Jagmohan may have
made a few manipulations and poor decisions in his retelling
of the story, but the brutal injustice of the case comes
through; in a November 1995 verdict, the five defendants
were found not guilty. Among the reasons the judge gave
for the acquittal was that the delay in obtaining a
medical exam and in filing a complaint with the police
indicated that Devi had made the story up. He also reasoned
that upper caste men, including a Brahmin, would not
touch a woman of a lower caste, much less rape her.
Finally, he stated that teenagers usually commit rape,
and since the defendants were all middle-aged, they
were unlikely to have committed the crime.
Bhanwari Devi continues to work as a women's rights
activist in the village of Bhateri where she still lives,
largely ostracized from the village community. While
Devi may never see her attackers brought to justice,
Jagmohan's film may help ensure that her story will
not vanish like writing in the sand.