Docu in the illegal marriage racket of the Old City makes waves at IDSFFK 2019
Well, at least a few more people will talk about the problem of illegal marriage that is ruining the lives of dozens of innocent girls in Hyderabad. With luck, the subject will receive some attention; It's time for something to be done about it, says director Dheeshma Puzhakkal, speaking of her documentary. still I Rise . The 35-minute documentary, which was filmed in the Old City, was selected to be screened at the 12th Kerala International Short Film and Documentary Festival (IDSFFK), recently.
Made by Dheeshma and a group of fellow students of University of Hyderabad as part of their MA Mass Communication course, still I Rise tells the story of Wazim and Muneera,
victims of the illegal marriage racket that thrives in Hyderabad. The film reflects the sad reality of young Muslim girls, mostly 8 to 15 years old, who are attracted to
Illegal marriage contract with older men offering large sums of money to their poor parents.
I used to be so naughty. I ran around the ravines, irritated my neighbors, climbed trees ... But after those long years locked in a room while my daughter was born, there was a silence in me, Wazim is seen dressed in burka in the documentary . The pain that she has kept inside for a long time is evident in her tone. Her family married her to a man older than 70 when he was in seventh grade.
The story of Muneera, who got married at the age of 12 to 75, is so heartbreaking. When I looked at it for the first time, I felt like crying. He was so old. And he used to hit me without even thinking that I'm a little boy. It would burn me with cigarettes; I still have marks all over my body. And every time he left, he locked me out, recalls Muneera, her eyes full of tears.
How Dheeshma and his crew focused on Wazim and Muneera is a story in itself. While looking for institutions that serve homeless women, the students found that there are only two in Hyderabad. They were curious about what happened with the rest of the women and the search ended with the Shaheen Welfare Association, a women's welfare group led by the poet and activist Jameela Nishat. During the last two decades, the collective has been working among the disadvantaged sectors of society to eradicate the exploitation of women and children, carrying out sting operations and rescue missions, and also conducting awareness campaigns and skills development for those who need work. We found many victims there and we were surprised. It is amazing how this inhuman racket is thriving in the heart of an urban space like Hyderabad, Dheeshma laments.
In most cases, divorce documents are also signed along with marriage contracts. The husband, who stays with the girl for a few days or more, leaves with the promise that he will soon send a visa, which never happens. Many of these girls become pregnant and resort to risky abortions once they realize their husbands are not coming back. The hapless girls become a burden for the dignity of their families and are locked up for a long time or get married without their consent again. Jameela told us about a woman who married 17 times before committing suicide in 2016. She is very sad, says Dheeshma.
Chonbeni Shitri, the documentary's director of photography, nods. When we started shooting, I had no idea what I was getting into. But with days and months of research, visits and conversations, we got into the lives of these women, share, and add: With each moment we spent with them, we realized how important it is that their voices are heard. The crew had to overcome many difficulties during the production. It was not possible to walk with the camera without attracting unnecessary problems. But with the help of local women who understood the situation, they managed to complete it. The shots where Wazim and Muneera talk about their lives were mostly taken indoors. We chose Muneera and Wazim because they managed to find a life outside their desperate situation despite their trauma. They offer some hope to those who are still victims. But we had to earn their trust to share their story. It was not easy for them either. They were afraid, but they decided to share their story because it is necessary for the world to know, says Dheeshma.
It is tragic how poverty, lack of education and awareness of rights perpetuate this exploitation. When I was little, my mother used to be worried about who would want to marry me because I was dark and fat. Then, at the first opportunity they had, they gave me the man who showed interest, says Wazim, who had an older daughter when her younger sisters and other girls from her family got married. My daughter called me didi, and every time I ask her to call me ammi, she simply refuses, she says with a wry smile.
It is remarkable how the 30-year-old still expects a better tomorrow. When my sisters visit my home with their family, I would like to have the same kind of happiness. I felt so alone and unable to face my life. But not anymore. Now I find my life doing Karchup embroidery, Mehndi Design and adapt jobs and I want to dedicate my life to my own income, and maybe one day I want to open my own store, says Wazim.
Muneera has also found his happiness again. When we met Muneera for the first time before the shooting began, she was married to a man of her choice and she was also pregnant. It is comforting to see how little by little they are rebuilding their lives, says Dheeshma. The director and the team consciously decided to rely solely on the voices of the protagonists to tell the story. The idea was to keep the narrative free of our perspective/take their lives, explains Dheeshma.
It is possible that the documentary was produced as part of the course work when he was a student, but he certainly knew what he was doing. Our production could be amateur, but the content certainly was not, he says, declining. And we could not agree.