Political Film Society - Sandstorm (Bawandar)

PFS Film Review
Sandstorm (Bawandar)


Some years before the release of Sandstorm (Bawandar), Sanwari (played by Nandita Das) of the Untouchable caste works as an organizer for a feminist organization in India to make some extra money for her family. Shobha Devi (played by Deepti Naval) hired Sanwari on learning of an incident when she demanded full payment for her work at a landfill. Going from village to village, Sanwari spreads the message that women have equal rights; for example, she preaches that elders should not pair off young girls and boys at the age of 4 or 5 as irrevocable marriage partners, thereby condemning girls to prepare for a domestic career when their intellects might be suitable for academic success. In the countryside, where casteism and sexism are assumed to be the natural order, such a message is radical, especially when delivered by an Untouchable. Accordingly, Sanwari is first taunted and then raped one day by five Brahman men, including a village council chief and a priest, some of whom beat and hold down her spouse Sohan (played by Raghuvir Yadav) so that he cannot defend her honor. When Devi finds out about the rape, she shepherds Sanwari through the Indian criminal justice and political systems, where Murphy's Law operates at almost every turn, until a trial is held. In reporting the rape, the police inspector on duty (played by Ravi Jhankal) requires evidence in the form of a physical examination, which in turn can only be provided to a victim when an order is signed by a magistrate. The magistrate, however, is too busy getting dressed for a party to sign the order on Friday night, so his Monday order comes when the bruises in her body have partially healed. On Monday, when the inspector collects her undergarment, blood and semen have already dried. Since police take no action to investigate, Devi goes to the local parliamentary representative, Dhanraj Meena (played by Govind Namdeo), who gives a rousing speech but later secretly blocks an investigation. Devi then takes Sanwari to New Delhi to meet the head of an NGO, whose board of directors agrees to pursue the matter, some primarily because they will gain political advantage. In any case, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao (played by his brother) rallies to Sanwari's cause, providing funds for her legal defense, and the lawyer (played by Gulshan Grover) who prosecutes her case is firmly committed to seek justice on her behalf. Nevertheless, the five are acquitted in 1991 by a judge whose reasoning is based on stereotypic casteism and sexism, showing that he has no idea about the real-world conditions of a female Untouchable in India. Five years later, Amy (played by Laila Rouass), a mythical journalist of Indian descent from England, and her Indian boyfriend Ravi (played by Rahul Khanna) arrive in India to do their own investigation, and most of the film consists of interviews and flashbacks based on their recollections. The film ends with some obvious propaganda, a statement to the camera by Devi indicating that the case is still on appeal and that neither Sanwari nor her supporters have given up hope that she has provided the paradigm case that may bring fundamental social change to India. Nevertheless, questions emerge from the presentation, directed by Jag Mundhra in the manner of a docudrama about Bhanwari Devi, the actual victim. (1) Why not also charge the five defendants with assault and battery on Sanwari's husband, a much easier case to win? (2) The film speculates that the semen present on Sanwari's undergarment matches neither those of the accused nor of her husband because the sexist police officer later jacked off into the garment. (3) The New Delhi NGO activist fabricates evidence by tearing Sanwari's upper garments. (4) Some of Sanwari's supporters use her case for their own political ends, but of course so do those who oppose her case. Nevertheless, for raising consciousness about serious political problems in India, the Political Film Society has nominated Sandstorm for best film on democracy, best film on human rights, best film on peace, and best film exposé of 2003. MH

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