Reflections on 'Daughters of Destiny'
The outpour of love and support my friends and I have received from many viewers around the world since the release of the Netflix docu-series, Daughters of Destiny, has been indeed humbling. Many seem to be interested in learning more about our lives, and in interacting with them I often find myself reflecting on all that shaped us to be daughters of destiny.
In 2011, I was in the midst of preparing for my final national exams which were to determine the kind of college I could join when I first met the film director, Vanessa Roth. Little did I know then that she was going to be an integral part of my life for the next seven years, silently observing all the happenings in the school through the lens of her camera and with her story-teller’s instinct. I was then seventeen years old and full of questions starting with my own immediate life.
In the beginning, I interacted with Vanessa as one would treat a guest, friendly but careful to give her a good impression. But it didn’t take long for me to let my guard down. Slowly I began to share intimate details about my life both at school and at home. She was understanding of the dreams and desires of a confused young girl quite anxious about her future.
At first I was terribly conscious of being on camera but enjoyed the attention nevertheless. As weeks turned into years, I got accustomed to the presence of the production team on campus. The moments we spent sharing meals, laughter and stories of our lives and of our two different countries and cultures grew into a special friendship.
Vanessa, with her simple and casual style of dressing and friendly nature, was adept at trivializing her presence even while being at the heart of all the action. Her unassuming ways helped me open up to my deep inner feelings and thoughts with the trust that I would be understood and not judged.
I saw the entire project as just another film team doing a story on Shanti Bhavan and didn’t quite understand its significance until it all came together as a four-part series that showcased our stories through its raw cultural, social and gender dynamics. Watching the film with a sense of detachment only deepened my appreciation for Dr. George, Ajit and the entire Shanti Bhavan family who helped transform my life from poverty to one of possibility.
I also got to visit the homes of my four friends for the first time on the screen. I got a better sense of the challenges they too encountered during vacations from school. I was struck by the realization that the film had captured each of us five girls --Theinmozhi, Preetha, Manjula, Karthika and myself -- at pivotal moments in our lives that had left marks in our personal histories.
We were at the threshold of embracing something new. Theinmozhi, the youngest of the five, was moving into adolescence with the typical confusions and questions about the changes happening to her both physically and emotionally. Preetha is seen struggling to handle her personal and professional expectations, and at times seems naturally lost. Manjula who is very driven by her goals is seen wonderfully making the transition from a school girl to a trainee nurse. Through Karthika, we see a passionate aspiring lawyer acting upon her dreams to be a human rights advocate as she tries to help her community gain sole rights to the quarry land they lived on for many years. In me, you see a girl trying to follow her own heart even when it comes in conflict with the dreams and expectations of her family.
Our individual battles don’t stand isolated from the larger socio-economic influences of poverty, caste discrimination, gender bias and family expectations derived from conservative and traditional beliefs. The conflict of differing belief systems in the two worlds we are a part of is brought out quite distinctly. For instance, while Manjula’s grandfather believes that it is ‘useless to educate a girl’, Dr. George continues to support female education through the Shanti Bhavan program. While my grandmother thinks I should settle down in the village and marry her son, I go on to complete college and travel a path that she nor any other woman in our family has ever had the chance to tread upon.
The fight to strike a balance between these two worlds will be an ongoing one. But what is encouraging is that, as viewers might have noticed by the end of the fourth series, each of the girls has found a clear footing, if not many of the answers to our inner fears. Even in the darkest moments, we will find light through the voice of our education. We will carry with us the lessons of our upbringing and live the rest of our lives with a sense of personal agency that we gained through our formative years at Shanti Bhavan.
Haneli barediddu -- what is written on the forehead -- cannot be our destiny. I am responsible for the choices I make and the paths I choose to traverse to create the arc of my fate and the generational change that now starts with me in my family.