Women of My Billion Documentary Review: An important film scarred by an unfocused narrative

Women of My Billion Documentary Review: An important film scarred by an unfocused narrative

The Ajitesh Sharma directorial offers little originality in its facile storytelling
Women of My Billion(2.5 / 5)

In India, the discourse around violence against women has taken many shapes. The massive outrage after the Delhi gang rape and murder in 2012 gave rise to discussions taking place through films, music videos, and television shows. The 2015 documentary India’s Daughter went deeper into understanding the psyche of the rapists and the way their minds were filled with prejudices and misogyny that turned them into predators. The Taapsee Pannu starrer Pink (2016) raised questions around the importance of consent and the failure of authorities to stop men from committing these horrific crimes. Even the reality talk show Satyamev Jayate (2012-14), hosted by Aamir Khan, had multiple episodes that explored the ill-effects of patriarchy and how toxic masculinity makes monsters out of men. Ajitesh Sharma’s Women of My Billion is an addition to this range of films. It tries to explore similar themes and feels like a sum total of all the earlier explorations, offering little originality in its facile storytelling.

Directed by: Ajitesh Sharma

Streamer: Prime Video

This is the tale of Srishti Bakshi, who leaves her high-paying job to go on a nationwide walk to create awareness on the rising cases of violence against women. She visits schools, meets women of all age groups, and talks to them about battling gender prejudices and misogyny in everyday life. The documentary begins with her visiting a place at night where domestic violence is taking place in real-time. With a camera and her flashlights on, she enters the house and confronts the man as his wife wails in agony. It is a triggering start and feels violating when the camera gets closer to the wife’s face, as she is still recovering from the trauma. After this, you expect to go back to her story later in the film. However, the only update on her comes at the end and that too in the form of titles. As a result, the triggering scene feels like it is played only for shock value.

There are other instances where Srishti enters the space of some of the survivors of violence and is seen speaking to them. In one scene, she speaks to a woman in a village and advises her not to endorse dowry. “No one will marry my daughter then,” cries the woman. “Let her not marry then; marriage is not necessary,” replies Srishti. The point that she makes is important, although saying that to a woman facing the troubles of dowry feels a bit superficial. It puts the blame in some way on the woman whose “regressive” ways are guiding her to believe in the necessity of dowry. After all, she is just a victim of a system that has been failing many others like her for centuries.

The film fails to look at it as a systemic issue and focuses instead on individual stories of suffering that are encountered by Srishti. She is at the centre of everything as she walks on highways and takes different seminars. Several false notes are stroked in the attempts of making her seem like a superwoman who is on a ‘mission’ to end gender-based violence. After a point, her walk from Kanyakumari to Kashmir starts to feel inconsequential as there is no real-time value addition. The arduousness in her journey is only told but never felt.

Her quest is intercut with the resilient stories of three women. Pragya, an acid attack survivor, goes into the details of the incident that changed her life and what it did to her mental health. Along with her, Sangeeta and Neha relive the horrors of their abusive marriages that left them devastated. It is in their harrowing experiences that the film truly becomes a striking document on the extent of violence women face every day in India. It would have worked better if there were more such stories brought together without Srishti’s journey being given such prominence.

Her walk is something that seems to also restrict the scope for director Ajitesh Sharma. He notably served as the assistant director for Richie Mehta’s seminal series Delhi Crime, which looked at the issue with a gaze that was engaging, empathetic and informative. At many places, Mehta’s storytelling brought you closer to the feeling of anger and immense regret felt by the parents of survivors, while delving into the disturbing mind of the rapists. On the other hand, Sharma’s film doesn’t make the most of its storytelling and feels like an uneven mix of a YouTube vox pop, a news report and a CSR initiative. The focus seems to be shifting continuously and the narrative doesn’t remain pointed. It ends with a long recording from one of the sessions taken by Srishti which is an activity where she asks the women participants to close their eyes and imagine an alternate childhood. The camera again sneaks up on their faces as tears roll down their closed eyes. It's too overbearing and tedious to see as the film seems to be trying too hard to make us feel something. The editing is centred on the moment more than what it’s worth and the camera knows little more than capturing the obvious. Finally, the film ends just how it began: by inciting a reaction in the invisible viewer via looking at the crying faces of the subjects. There seems to be nothing more, nothing less.

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