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From the ragpicker who feeds 300 stray dogs every day to the daily wage labourers who dive into the Yamuna voluntarily to clear polluting plastic waste, India is a treasure-trove of untold stories and unsung heroes.
But they may not remain unsung for long. Over the past few years, several filmmakers decided to use their lens to not only make these stories known to the world but also to get these heroes the recognition and help they need to continue their work.
Today let’s take a look at the stories of a few everyday heroes and changemakers who inspired India.
Probably Paradise by Ravi Iyer
On the outskirts of Mumbai in Karjat is a 1.5-acre plot. To most, it might only look like an animal shelter with a host of cats, dogs, horses, donkeys and pigs! But to these animals, it is paradise – probably.
This film by Ravi Iyer in 2015 chronicles the journey of an unabashed Parsi woman, Roxanne Davur, now in her late 60s, who is making the final journey of these abandoned, chronically ill and geriatric animals pain-free and dignified at aptly named ‘Probably Paradise’.
None of this is easy of course – especially financially. Maintenance of the shelter costs Roxanne Rs 6 lakh a month, thanks to the rising number of animals.
But the film gave Roxanne’s story the limelight it deserved. “When you give someone a visiting card, they put it in their pockets, wallets, bowls and it lies there forgotten. But Ravi’s film on ‘Probably Paradise’ remained with everyone who came across it. It had a tremendous impact. Cages for injured animals were brought, people donated tents, the shelter is being painted, volunteers are coming in for help. We should continue to make such visual visiting cards I suppose,” laughs Roxanne
Ravi, who first met Roxanne during the shoot, continues to remain close friends with her till date. Often his weekends are spent at ‘Probably Paradise’, interacting with the animals, shooting short videos for its Facebook page, pro bono.
‘Yamuna Ke Gotakhor’ by Meghathithi Kabeer
Shankar has lived on the banks of Yamuna for the entirety of his life. On most days, he joins a group of other young men and dives into the river. It isn’t for any ritual or plain fun though.
Dubbed the ‘Yamuna Ke Gotakhor’ by social filmmaker Meghathithi Kabeer, these men are a voluntary group of divers, who have been cleaning the river every single day for years. Without any protection to shield them from the toxicity of the water, their bare hands sift through the surface to remove polythene, plastic, garbage and flowers in an attempt to clean it.
In 2015, Meghathithi’s journey into exploring the state of the Yamuna and the lives of these divers culminated in the film ‘Yamuna Ke Gotakhor.’
“If you were to ask any school kid in Delhi if they knew of a river that flows through the centre of their city, you’d see blank faces. Isn’t it a shame that one of the biggest rivers flowing through the national capital has been reduced to a nullah and is dead?” questions Meghathithi.
“Visiting villages in Delhi, I have firsthand witnessed the appalling water crisis. Amid this jarring crisis, the story of the Gotakhors is a ray of hope. These men, don’t get paid for their work. They do it voluntarily. As the educated masses continue tokenism, these uneducated daily labourers dive into the river they revere every single day to keep her pure.”
Apart from screening the award-winning film in several international film festivals within and outside India, Meghathithi even launched the ‘I am Yamuna’ campaign to direct on-ground efforts for the river.
His relationship with the all the Gotakhors, especially Shankarji, continues to be his one of his most prized possessions till date, he says.
Pratima by Sudeshna Guha Roy
“Amma with her saree, a patta (band) on her head and a biddi in her hand is a woman with many facets,” says filmmaker Sudeshna. One moment you see her caressing one of her 300 strays, and in the next, you will see her hurl abuses at the taxi driver who ran over one of her pets.
37 years ago, Pratima Devi left her village of Nandigram in West Bengal and came to Delhi. Married at 7, Pratima was a mother to three kids by the age of 19. Though her children lived in Sangam Vihar, she continues to stay in a hut by the road at Saket – and takes care of over 300 stray dogs! This is her story.
After the film won an award by the YES Foundation, Sudeshna and her team helped Pratima set up a tea-stall. They also set up crowdfunding that raised Rs 83,000. Pratima was not only able to buy a few cages for her injured animals, but also buy mattresses to shield them from the harsh winters of Delhi.
She even bought a second-hand van to take injured strays to the vet hospital.
“The ‘YES! i am the CHANGE’ challenge gave us a direction. Amma’ story was so strong that we never had to put in any additional effort to make the narrative engaging. From being a young child bride to a young mother, being abused by an alcoholic husband to becoming a mother of over 300 strays, her journey transformed us as filmmakers too,” says Sudeshna.
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Humaari Muskaan by Leena Kejriwal
Leena’s association with Humaari Muskaan began in 2012, where she would often mentor kids and conduct photography workshops. It was at that time that she met Jaya. At 14, Jaya was sold by a man to a brothel at Sonagachi in Kolkata under the pretence of giving her work.
This is Jaya’s journey from abandoning commercial sex work and working with an NGO to prevent second generation trafficking among children of commercial sex workers in Kolkata.
“This film made me realise the power of the digital space to reach out and spark a debate about one of the most rampant social evils in the country – trafficking”, Leena said.
The success of the film led to Leena Kejriwal’s extensive and widely-recognised public art campaign against trafficking, MISSING, which also inspired a smartphone app.
The game MISSING, which features a brave village girl, Champa, and her fight against prostitution and finding her own place in the world, won the Nasscom award and had over half a million organic downloads in 70+ countries.
The film helped raise awareness among the public to not just be silent spectators but speak up against trafficking.
The organisation too grew manifold. Children who didn’t have a place to study until 11 pm, due to the nature of work their mothers are involved in, are studying at the newly established night school at Humaari Muskaan. Humaari Muskaan which was once known only in the streets of Kolkata has people from around the world pouring in to document their work, and help financially.
It is indeed interesting to see how a short film can impact the lives of not only these exceptional changemakers but also filmmakers who are socially driven to tell their stories too.