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‘Barefoot Grandmamas’ in the solar system

Budhaditya Bhattacharya
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Documentary on a group of African women in Rajasthantraining to become solar engineers

Yasmin Kidwai with the barefoot grandmamas
Yasmin Kidwai with the barefoot grandmamas

In a sequence early in Yasmin Kidwai’s new documentary No Problem! Six Months With The Barefoot Grandmamas , we are introduced to a group of African women (from Malawi, Tanzania, South Sudan and other countries) that has just arrived in India, and is going to be in Tilonia, Rajasthan, for the next six months. It is going to be a difficult six months, for the women know no Hindi, and very little English. But they are unfazed. By the end of their stay, they have more than a working knowledge of Hindi, and the power to illuminate their houses and villages back home.

Chronicles of six months

The hour-long film, funded by the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, chronicles the six months they spend at Barefoot College in Tilonia, where numerous rural women, mostly illiterate, from all over the world are trained every year to become solar engineers. A lack of formal education doesn’t imply a lack of skill and sophistication here. “Where is it written that if you can’t read or write, you can’t become an engineer or a designer?” asks Bunker Roy, the founder of Barefoot College.

It was while researching for a film in 2012 on the irregularities in the implementation of MGNREGA in Rajasthan that Yasmin stumbled upon the work of Barefoot College. “There was a story of barefoot women dentists in that village. Though I found it interesting, I had done this women empowerment story when I started my career. So there was nothing new in that — that women can do it is not a story for me anymore. Because, of course, they can! Then this story about African women came up and that I found it very interesting, because of the cultural angle,” says Yasmin, who has previously made Where Do I Go From Here? (on the lives of older people in urban India) and Parda Hai Parda (on the relationship Indian women have with the veil), among others.

The women selected for the project are, in most cases, young mothers and grandmothers. “They choose women because the work is not for men. A woman will use it to benefit family and village. But a man can use it for his own benefit — like attracting other women. The woman is the one who knows the real problems of the family,” explains Esha from Tanzania, a prominent character in the film.

The same programme wouldn’t work if barefoot teachers were to go to African villages, as an alien environment imposes its own pressures, which are crucial to the learning.

Willpower

A woman loses a close relative, another hears news of the rice growing on her farm getting destroyed, and they all miss their families. But the urgency of becoming solar engineers overpowers all else. “I remember my husband and my children but I cannot put them in my heart. If I miss them, I cannot take solar to Africa,” a South Sudanese woman says.

Rather than voiceovers, Yasmin decided to use music to tie things together. She worked closely with Rahul Ram and Amit Kilam for the background score. “We composed the music frame by frame.”

She is now busy taking the film to different festivals. “I want to do it for them, they are so ordinary yet so special,” she says. The film opened the recent Jeevika film festival, has won awards at the Zanzibar International Film Festival 2013 and was nominated for the Golden Award at the Aljazeera International Documentary Film Festival 2013. It will be screened next at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, France, and in Tanzania where some of the featured women will watch it.


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