The birth of a child calls for celebration. Well, not always. Not if it is a girl, and certainly not if born out of wedlock. But the determination of an unwed 19-year-old Sikh girl to give birth to triplet girls, thereby jolting a patriarchal social order is the theme of 'Pink Ludoos', a film that is winning critical acclaim and awards.
Laced with wit, the film tackles the serious issue of societal discrimination against women and portrays how people can cross geographical boundaries with their attitudes intact. And worse, perpetuate them. So in British Columbia, when a boy is born in the Punjabi community (it could be true of many communities the world over), it is a time of great celebration, and relatives hand out ludoos (a round-shaped, traditional Indian sweet preparation).
What happens when a girl is born? "They had out Kleenex (tissue paper)," says Gugan Dhaliwal, the film's protagonist, who believes that by birthing the girls, she is fulfilling her destined role to challenge this discrimination.
While Indo-Canadian filmmakers have explored themes of arranged marriages, inter-generational conflict, immigrant identity and so on, 'Pink Ludoos' is the first to explore gender selection - aborting the female foetus. Even though, under Bill C-13, the Assisted Human Reproduction Act, passed last year, the practice (of sex determination) is banned in Canada, many clinics in the US provide information about the sex of the foetus. It is well known that women, particularly from the Indian and Chinese communities hop over the border to these clinics for sex determination tests, says Belle Mott, 41, who wrote the screenplay for 'Pink Ludoos'.
An English teacher, Belle (her real name is Balbir), entered 'Pink Ludoos' at a screenplay writing competition. She won and soon 'Pink Ludoos' moved from paper to the big screen when Brightlight Pictures picked it up and approached Gaurav Seth to direct it. The film's title draws on the Indian practice of distributing ladoos on joyous/auspicious occasions. Although ladoos are usually yellow or orange, the choice of pink (which signifies girls) is deliberate and the message is clear: the birth of a girl is as much a cause to celebrate as that of a boy.
The producers suggested a title change since "ludoos" is an unfamiliar word to the mainstream audience, but Belle refused. Her stand: "The movie was about gender preference and I wanted the name to be a metaphor. We should get into our consciousness that girls are as valuable." Unfortunately, she says, the growing number of educated professionals has not meant a corresponding change in mental attitudes. While it is true that attitudes are changing, the change is too slow and Mott hopes movies like 'Pink Ludoos' will hasten the process.
The film is a tongue-in-cheek journey into the superstitions and caste prejudices prevalent in the Indian community. In all the festivals it has been screened at so far, the audience has lapped up the film's humorous take on these serious issues.
It was this very aspect that also attracted Gaurav Seth, the film's director. Seth, 36, who made his debut with an award-winning film, 'A Passage to Ottawa', three years ago, snapped up the offer to direct 'Pink Ludoos'. "I read the script and was totally sold," says the filmmaker who grew up in Mumbai and studied filmmaking in Russia before settling in Canada in 1999.
Incidentally, Seth had submitted the script of a psychological thriller to Brightlight Pictures hours before they gave him 'Pink Ludoos'. He says he was attracted to the film because it "was raising an important issue but in a humorous, palatable and playful manner". He filmed it with an inexperienced cast, in 16 days, and on a shoestring budget of Canadian $1.2 million.
Seth says the fact that comedies are underrated in terms of a message they can put forward has worked to his advantage. "People think comedies mean just humour and I like the fact that comedies are underrated for messages because you can make movies like this and sneak in a message or at least an idea to think about without making a big deal of it or without people expecting it. This makes the film even more potent than someone going into theatre knowing it is a serious film or raising a very important issue."
Seth also feels that this issue (patriarchy) in the Indian community is not talked about much, especially in the West.
Although 'Pink Ludoos' was originally meant to be a television film, the overwhelming response to its screenings at recent film festivals in the US and Canada has made the producers abandon its telly-screening and schedule a commercial release later in 2005. At the Reelworld Film Festival in Toronto - April 13-17, 2005 - 'Pink Ludoos' won the award for best Canadian film.
While the film has won all-round appreciation, some people have been upset with the community's portrayal, arguing that it reinforces stereotypes and that Indo-Canadian filmmakers have a responsibility to portray the positive side. "Yes there are problems, but when you are an ethnic minority you are already stereotyped so much, you don't like to see stereotypes reinforced in the film," says Rajesh Kalra, who watched 'Pink Ludoos' in Toronto.
Seth counters that such arguments stem from a "need to be accepted" by the white mainstream populace. "I am comfortable enough with my culture not to gloss over its negative aspects," he says.
Mott argues on similar lines. "I am being socially responsible as a member of the community. Fortunately, my parents have been very liberal and provided me an education and voice because of which I feel a responsibility to talk about some things in our culture. I do not mean to criticise, but to look at our vulnerabilities and put them in a place where the mainstream audience can see them," she says. After all, she argues, "everybody has to admit there is a problem, then we can start addressing the issues."