‘The Saints of Sin’ unravels the contemporary Indian urban women
Documentaries scare me. Especially those about women. Because they’re either über strident or pathos-ridden. Couple this with a documentary being made by Bengalis and I’m filled with dread that it’ll be so intellectual and aantel as we Bengalis say, that leave alone me even Ritwik Ghatak wouldn’t understand head or tail of it. But I couldn’t have been more wrong about a documentary I saw a few evenings back at the India International Centre in New Delhi. Called The Saints of Sin, it’s about eight women and the specific sins they embody.
The film is directed by Aniruddha Sen and the concept is Swati Bhattacharya’s. Both are advertising veterans, and Swati is someone I know socially and whose non-commercial work I have seen and admired. This documentary is made up of conversations with these eight women explaining why they feel they identify with each specific sin. These are not rural women or women who are broken or devastated or need help of any sort. These are women, including a transgender woman, ranging from the ages of 30 to almost 60, who are confident and financially independent and have agency.
It would be fair to say that their stories and experiences reveal how their sins have actually given them agency. What also worked for me is that none of the experiences—some of which are horrific, especially those of sexual abuse by Debbie who is Wrath and Shreya who is Gluttony—are narrated with rancour or melodrama. It is what it is, but these are experiences which have defined these women.
I’ll get into a brief outline of some of the sins and the women which resonated and stayed most with me. The first, of course, is Debbie, who I know as this warm, extremely confident, competent woman at the top of her game. It’s with Debbie’s story of Wrath that the documentary kicks off. Debbie narrates how she felt betrayed by the realization at a very young age of her mother’s obvious preference for her older brother, and how her brother sexually harassed her from the time she was 12 till 14 and how her mother simply pretended it wasn’t happening and that Debbie needed to handle the situation on her own. She explains how she took that Wrath and turned it into aggression and assertion and courage in her life, because she realized that if she could survive this at home, she could survive anything the world threw at her.
There is Runa who spoke about why she related to Greed. But not greed for money or tangibles, but greed for her own space. From an indifferent husband and from her financial dependency on and need for validation from him. She spoke of how she gave up custody to her children, because she felt they’d be happier with their father.
Journalist and film-maker Paromita Vohra spoke of how Lust defined her. And got a little teary-eyed while narrating how she was judged for her sexual openness by her women friends and how she made that Lust work for her.
Pradipta, who is a transgender, spoke of how she Envied women. Because all she wants and wanted was the love of a straight man, which was so difficult—almost impossible—to come by for her. But easy for women. (Even if some of us may not want the love of the straight men who come our way.)She didn’t even have the choice of rejection, which we take for granted.
It is the utter lack of playing the victim card or being whiney, often interspersing the narration with humour and lots of frankness which works. These are not sob stories or calls for sympathy. They are experiences which will make you look around at the people you know, the women you know especially, with new eyes. It is definitely a feminist film, because many of the experiences are laced with examples of patriarchy exerting itself whether sexually, socially or financially. But more than that these are stories of great strength, which explain to you why that colleague of yours who is a bundle of joy, sometimes seems a little brittle and sharp around the edges. Why your aunt seems to focus on her own happiness. Or why your best friend tends to be a little standoffish in her relationships. And it drives home the fact—once again—that sexual abuse is so rampant across urban, middle and upper class homes in India, whether it’s by a brother, an uncle, a father. It’s there and so many mothers especially turn a blind eye to what is happening to their child.
It takes great courage to narrate the experiences or admit to some of the intentions which have been mentioned in this film. And I give full points to especially Debbie, Paromita, Shreya (who is Gluttony) and Runa (Greed) for having the gumption to come out with their experiences and have it recorded for posterity on celluloid. It’s not easy and I can’t think of many women who would do so. I don’t think for all my sound and fury, I would be able to do so. It’s also commendable that a heterosexual male director’s cameramanaged to extract such narrations without artifice or posturing from each of the women.
Each sin is separated from the other by a Bengali song by singers from Bangladesh. I know the music was chosen with great effort by Sen and Bhattacharya, because they said so in the question-answer session following the screening. I am not a fan of Bengali music and found it a little disruptive to the flow of the stories, but that’s just me.
The film is not getting a commercial release—although I did notice that Pahlaj Nihalani has given it a U/A certification, much like he did Befikre! The Saints Of Sin will be shown in private screenings and will do the festival circuit, and I hope will be at least released online soon.
I would strongly recommend that if you know a woman or even a human being, you should watch it. To know that there’s far more to the women you meet and simply take at face value every day.