Readers Write In #311: Thoughts on ‘Daughters of Destiny’

Posted on December 12, 2020

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(by Aravindan Rajaram)

Imagine you stay at the Shanti Bhavan residential school in rural Tamilnadu for one month each in seven successive years. You are invisible to everyone. You follow the school’s founder Dr. George Abraham, teachers, staff and students from the underprivileged community. Specifically, have a keen eye on the lives of five girls in the school and later in their college. The girls – Thenmozhi, Preetha, Manjula, Karthika and Shilpa – are happy, sad, curious, confused, articulate and very introspective. None of them are conscious about your presence

You are honest, perceptive and empathetic.

You videograph everything that happens.

The school intends to provide upward social mobility to the underprivileged kids by imparting education.

You resist the temptation of masking the school’s problems to glorify the intent.

You are from the first world. You document it for the 190 million “world audience”. Yet, you resist the temptation of dramatizing the abject poverty of the third world with rich imagery.

You come back to the edit table after seven years; curate the content and stitch together a coherent story for four hours.

If you are like the film maker Vanessa Roth, your final product would have become the impressive “Daughters of Destiny”, a four-part Netflix documentary.

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The founder’s philosophy is that education is the main tool that breaks the poverty cycle to alleviate poverty. Unlike similar schools which attempt to do integrated community development programs – in addition to providing education. This builds a virtual wall between the school and the community.

The school admits only one child per family for its own valid reason, creating an uncomfortable relationship dynamic among the siblings.

These factors make the students lead two completely different lives with contrasting identities – one at home and one at the school. The stark identity conflict of few of the girls is portrayed as is, without judging the school’s philosophy. It makes us empathize with the girls without judging anyone.

Acclaimed photographer Raghu Rai has once said, “My religion and instinctive responsibility is to capture the truth of any given situation. Whether it goes against someone or in favour is not my concern”. Daughters of Destiny stays truthful to this principle.

Having engaged with similar schools, the success and challenges of Shanti Bhavan and the socio-economic background of the students are familiar to me. Despite that, the documentary kept me completely engaged. For people who are not very familiar with the socio-cultural fabric, caste and gender dynamics, this will certainly be an engrossing watch.

Throughout the series and even beyond, we grow along with the five girls for seven years. We become their well wishers. We develop a genuine sense of curiosity and wish they open the doorways of freedom and hope. As expressed beautifully by the perceptive Preetha:

“One day, I will wipe away the waterfall of hopelessness
and replace it with a river of hope and salvation.
One day, I will show the world that I am that girl who
shoots bullets into the sky and makes doorways of freedom, hope and relief”.