Shiny Jacob Benjamin’s Translated Lives traces the migration of Malayali women to Germany in the 1960s

Documentary filmmaker Shiny Jacob Benjamin, one of the two women from Kerala who won the Laadli National Media Awards for Gender Sensitivity 2011-12, is back with a new short film. Shiny, whose works focus mostly on women, is out with Translated Lives.

A 40-minute-long documentary, Translated Lives narrates the stories of groups of young Malayali women, some in their mid-teens, who trained in Germany as nurses. “Post World War II, Germany found themselves drastically short of trained nurses. They sent requests for nurses through various churches in Kerala. Thus in the 1960s and early 70s groups of young women left for Germany in search of greener pastures,” says Shiny.

What fascinated Shiny was how these young women, most of them who had just completed their SSLC, had the courage to seek a career and life abroad. “These were women who hail from tiny villages in Kerala. They knew nothing about the world. Although they came from small towns, they dared to dream big.”

For most of them, convincing their family that Germany was where their future lay was a challenge. The women were given basic lessons in German, English, etiquette and the like by local priests who knew German. While some left for Germany by ship, others went by flight. Breedena recollects how reality struck her friends and her as the flight took off from the Thiruvananthapuram airport. She says on screen: “As the plane took off, we realised the enormity of our decision. Having led such sheltered lives, here we were travelling across the world to a foreign land. Many of us wondered whether we would be able to see our family again. We burst into tears collectively. The late actor Sathyan who was travelling on the plane, comforted us.”

Draped in saris, the women were greeted to a snowy Germany. Theresa, one of the nurses says she thought it was cotton falling from the sky. As they weren’t prepared for a cold weather, the women were provided with warm clothing. “We were well looked after by the sisters in the convent we stayed in and by the nursing staff in the hospital. Although at first, we did feel we were treated as maids, we soon realised that scrubbing toilets, sweeping the courtyard and the like were part of our training as we saw Germans and other nationalities training as nurses doing the same. Even the mayor’s daughter did the same,” says Breedena.

Slowly and surely, these women adapted to the society as they learnt their job, the language and the culture. While some married from India, others married Germans. “We were never short of proposals as the Germans found the colour of our skin and our culture, fascinating,” says Lily.

Those who married from India found adjusting to married life a challenge as according to the local law, the husbands could not work for the first four years on their arrival. “Most husbands thus had to look after the household duties, something most of them resented,” says Nisha. Adds Suneetha: “Some grew suspicious of their wives as the women worked late and there were cases where the husband killed his wife and his children in a fit of rage.”

Although most of the women left their homeland in hopes of returning to it some day, many have chosen to settle in Germany as their children have chosen to sprout roots in Germany.

“Many view a Non Resident Indian's life as rosy. I want to show it isn’t so. They too have to struggle to survive,” says Shiny.

The filmmaker stayed in Germany for a month with her cameraman L.S. Shivakumar for the documentary. “We stayed with these nurses and their families,” says Shiny.

Although the short film consists of mostly excerpts from interviews with these women, breathtaking visuals of the German landscape and smart editing make the documentary a winner.

Commentary by Shashikumar filled in the blanks. “The fact that the women were candid in sharing the stories of their lives also made it interesting,” says Shiny.

The documentary, produced by Mathew Joseph and scripted by Paul Zachariah, will be screened at Russian Cultural Centre on March 7 at 6.30 p.m.