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Face of compassion

B. Suneetha
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Focus ‘Ottayal,' Shiny Jacob Benjamin's documentary on Daya Bai, is an inspiring account of the life of a social activist from Kerala who has chosen to work for the empowerment of tribals in Madhya Pradesh. B. Suneetha

‘O ttayal' or ‘One Woman-Alone,' an hour-long documentary on Daya Bai, maps the journey of a teenaged novice from Pala who decided to give up the cloistered life in a convent to serve the tribals of Madhya Pradesh.

Shiny Jacob Benjamin's documentary on Daya Bai shows how Mercy Mathew, who hails from a prosperous Christian family in Pala, Kerala, decides to become a nun to serve the poor. But, later, she gives up her habit to work for the tribal population in the midlands of India.

One among the people

Daya Bai who is now in her seventies has merged so much into the life of the Gounda Tribe of Madhya Pradesh, that she even looks like one among them. In fact, when Daya Bai first spoke from the frames of the impressive documentary, it was almost a shock to hear her chaste English and equally fluent Malayalam; one expected the skinny, roughened and colourful appearance on the screen to speak in any other language but English or Malayalam. Her evolution from Mercy Mathew to Daya Bai a.k.a. Deedi is a solitary journey and scripted by no religious compulsions or political ambitions and Shiny has managed to capture the essence of this rare woman with singular brilliance. Daya Bai's sound bytes come across as gems of genuineness and her exceptionally positive body language has been effectively copied on to the film. The one shot of her determined stride is an excellent definition of the subject of the documentary, Daya Bai.

Her inspiring speeches in a language that reaches out to her audience, her satyagrahas and campaigns to press local authorities to open schools and her efforts to empower almost forgotten villages in interior and tribal Madhya Pradesh emphasise how Daya Bai has improved the life of the tribals. She also stages impromptu street plays to take the message of empowerment through knowledge to the hearts of her audiences.

Daya Bai teaches each village she visits how to take care of itself and then moves on to the next village where another problem awaits her. This total lack of ambition in building up an empire of good-will or a vote bank is what makes Daya Bai different from many so-called social workers of the present day.

Life of struggle

The shooting happened in Deedi's own territory in Barul of Chindwara district in Madhya Pradesh, where the entire team spent five days camping around Deedi's sparse hut. Daya Bai has made this her home since 1995.

The team has caught Daya Bai's daily routine and persona on film, although the footage of her various struggles was not retrievable. But Daya Bai is not a person who craves the limelight and her simplicity quite takes one by surprise. It was pleasant to see the face one saw on the screen emerge from the audience right after the screening; the same toothy and genuine smile, and compassionate body language. One understands why Nandita Das, the film personality, has written such a beautiful tribute to this lady even way back in 2005, as the one inspiration of her life.

‘Ottayal' is Shiny's latest addition to the list of documentaries she has made since 2001. Shiny's subjects for her documentaries have been as varied as Kanayi Kunjiraman, the sculptor; Bhagya, a young woman from Karnataka who makes a living by singing on trains in Kerala; the Monsoon; male sex-workers; practitioners of black magic; and sexually exploited female victims and their treatment in a patriarchal society.

‘Ottayal,' which was screened in the capital city, has been produced by the Global Media Group and scripted by Sunnykutty Abraham. Shoby Thilakan has lent his voice for the narration.


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