Wednesday, November 12, 2008

India's Unknown Birth Control Pioneer

Margaret Sanger, an American birth control pioneer, founded her first clinic in 1916 at Brooklyn New York. A few days later, she was arrested on obscenity charges and sentenced to 30 days in jail. A determined woman, she kept challenging the reigning orthodoxy, and ultimately succeeded in bringing sexual and reproductive freedoms to women worldwide. Time magazine included her in the list of 100 most influential people of the 20th century.

Marie Stopes, a British birth control pioneer, founded her first clinic in 1921 at London. Although she was never arrested, a number of doctors and priests attacked her. Eventually her ideas and work gained acceptance, and today "Marie Stopes International" a women's reproductive health organization is active in several countries.

Raghunath Karve, an Indian birth control pioneer, founded his first clinic in 1921 at Bombay. He was arrested and convicted twice on obscenity charges, and had to pay fines. Despite waging a lifelong passionate fight for gender equality and women's sexual & reproductive rights, he was relegated to the backwaters of history. In 1953, he died a lonely and unsung man.

Dhyaas Parva (An Era of Yearning) is director Amol Palekar's award winning Marathi movie, a biographical account of the life of Raghunath Karve. Filmed in a restrained almost documentary style, this non-sermonizing movie keeps the intellectually curious viewer rooted to their seat. Shunning traditional devices like songs and melodrama, a rationalist treatment makes this a refreshing experience.

Malati Karve, Raghunath's wife, whole-heartedly supports him in his endeavors. At times she shoulders much of the couple's financial responsibilities, after having chosen to work in the career of her choice. One of the most powerful scenes is when Raghunath tells Malati that she is under no obligation to bear children. Since she does not feel like being a mother, they remain childless. Naturally this does not go down well in pre-independence India; a Doctor mis-diagnosing her illness(Pernicious Anemia) claims that her troubles are due to not being a mother in over 15 years of marriage.

Other effective episodes from the movie

*** Several snide comments passed by the Karve's neighbors. Viewers well versed in Marathi culture, especially that of Pune and Girgaum Mumbai, will truly appreciate these.

*** Raghunath's speech to a gathering of Pune intellectuals and the negative response it generates. Palekar takes a delicious tongue-in-cheek swipe at a few of the opponents, bringing memories of Ghashiram Kotwal.

*** Some progressive editors refusing to publish Karve's progressive magazine, one of those editors calling his ideas "provocative".

*** The reason for being charged with obscenity; his editorial asserting that "Current attitudes to female fidelity and virginity emanate from a woman being viewed as a man's property."

*** Several scenes hinting at some of the reasons for his failure :- a refusal to compromise, being extremely critical of those in power, unable to build and maintain relationships.

Employing an underplaying style reminiscent of Arun Sarnaik and Shriram Lagoo from Sinhasan, Kishore Kadam delivers an outstanding performance as Raghunath Karve. Without resorting to any histrionics, he intelligently conveys the pain of constantly being rejected and ignored. He is equally at ease displaying unflagging determination, but the real genius is the unsentimental portrayal in analyzing Karve's own failures.

Seema Biswas, as Malati Karve, delivers a reserved and gentle performance; quite unlike her Bandit Queen effort. The other supporting actors have turned in competent efforts, with Sanjay Mone as Dr. Ambedkar being the standout.

Amol Palekar himself a committed social progressive, atheist, and gender equality champion; possibly had an interesting dilemma as to how to create this movie. He could have chosen to loudly trumpet Raghunath Karve's ideas and raved and ranted against those that opposed him, he did neither. The intentional focus on the reasons as to why Raghunath Karve did not succeed in becoming famous is Palekar's stroke of genius. Additionally, he managed to get Bhanu Athaiyya (India's only Oscar winner) for costume design and Nitin Desai (Devdas, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam) for art direction to work for a pittance. Their joint efforts have resulted in creating a a realistic period feel that compliments the movie's central theme.

A) Free India was the world's first Govt. to institute a birth control program. It began in the 1950's on a small scale; and in response to the burgeoning population, by the late 60's/early 70's had grown into a much bigger country-wide effort.
B) India's population crossed the one billion mark in the early 2000's, and by 2020-25 is projected to reach anywhere between 1.3 - 1.5 billion. In the second half of this century, India is projected to be the most populous country on earth.
C) In the United States, it took the 1965 landmark US Supreme Court decision Griswold V Connecticut to legalize contraception for married couples. Eisenstat V Baird (1972) extended this right to unmarried couples.
D) Even today in the US, women's reproductive rights are constantly being challenged. Aid for international birth control is often un-certain and subject to ideological and budget constraints.

2) The Global Family Planning Revolution, Warren C. Robinson, John A. Ross
3) Twenty-First Century India, Tim Dyson, Robert Cassen, Leela Visaria
7) Wikipedia


avdi said...

Amazing Samir. Looks like all the pioneers and catalysts of the society get burned at the stake.

This movie I wont miss for sure.

samir said...

Ava :
Looks like they do, don't they. This movie is a must see.

Anu Warrier said...

Sameer, I loved Dhyaas Parva. It had all my favourite actors - Atul Kulkarni, Kishore Kadam, Seema Biswas, Mohan Joglekar...

Have you seen Natrang?

samir said...

Anu :
I have yet to see Natrang, will try & do so.
Thanks for the nice comment.