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Home and away
April 08, 2022 COMMENT comment
Home and away
By Juhi Baveja
While chronicling the journey of African women, who travelled to a small village in Rajasthan in search of knowledge and empowerment, filmmaker Yasmin Kidwai found that the self and the other are just the same. I learnt a lot about empowerment from the women who travelled across continents to bring electricity to their villages. Those who say women are deterred by their physical capabilities are so wrong. These women climbed rooftops and harnessed energy to generate electricity.
Ahuman's sense of identity is first carved out by separating the self from the other. As years pass by, distinctions made are more severe – often on the basis of inherent prejudices. Chronicling an evolution, from 'othering' to finding a common bond is this filmmaker's unique journey. Yasmin Kidwai, a Delhi-based documentary filmmaker, who has recently completed a film about a commune of African women in India called No Problem!,
found her emotional landscape evolving through her experience with these women.
A graduate from St Xavier's College in Mumbai, Kidwai started out with television in the late nineties, worked with big production houses including NDTV, and since then has made over 50 films. Her first film was about travel in Madhya Pradesh, which went on to win an IATA award. The 30-year-old claims her vision is intertwined with her devotion to human interest stories: "People are the starting point in every story. The topics are formed around them and can range from housing, poverty, education, culture, to ageing and religion," says the auteur.
One of her most impactful works, Purdah Hai Purdah, was her first venture into a women-centric subject. Talking about the relationship of women with the veil she says, "The veil was not limited to the hijab, but it was also about the ghunghat. All women make a statement when it comes to the veil – whether they choose to wear it or they refrain – their relation to religion, state, and social values becomes evident." She claims this one was the second film after No Problem! that altered her perception in many ways.
Kidwai was involved in developmental work related to NREGA in Rajasthan in 2011 when she found Barefoot College working with migrants and women at the grassroot level – by educating them and including them in a community radio programme. The story interested her, but she knew that it wouldn't be possible for her to do the film by herself. So she contacted the Ministry of External Affairs (for whom she had earlier done a film about Indian economic growth, which was screened at Davos). Once the funding was arranged, she picked the women from the airport – those who were coming from various parts of Africa to enrol in the 2011 batch. These 38 women, who had never left their villages, travelled across continents and came to India to stay at Tilonia (in Rajasthan) to study engineering and bring electricity to their villages.
These grandmothers and mothers had left their kids at home, and she felt that it somewhat mirrored her own story. "I had to spend vast amounts of time away from my young kids (aged six and four) and return to Tilonia every month to follow their progress. Those who say women are deterred by their physical capabilities are so wrong. These women climbed rooftops and harnessed energy to generate electricity," she says.
After being with these women, she had an epiphany of sorts. "These women were illiterate, and we seemed to have nothing in common. But I found out that we are the same – we have the same joys, same concerns. These grandmothers of Malabi were so refined when it came to respecting themselves. I travelled to Zanzibar and Tasmania where we finished the film and I saw the entire village lighted up," she tells us and goes on to share what a woman told her: "I quote verbatim: 'Earlier I was Fatima, and now I am Fatima Engineer. First I was zero, and now I am 10...' It taught me a lot about empowerment... All it takes to feel empowered is to find something about yourself that is valuable – a honed skill – something that makes you feel confident about yourself. I took so many things for granted and here are women willing to travel across continents in the hope of getting electricity – the basic requisites for a clean standard of living," she says.

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