This docu-series has been on my watchlist for over a year now. I finally caught up on it over the weekend. The four plus hour long series traces five girls as they grow up under the spotlight. The youngest child is four and the older ones in high school. They are chosen to go to Shanti Bhavan, a residential school, couple of hours from Bangalore, set in over 30 acres of greenery and rustic charm.
Each class starts with 24 children, 12 girls and 12 boys hand selected from the three states that comprise southern India. They have to belong to Dalit families, they should not have developmental needs and only one child per family can be admitted. From age 4 through college, the kids’ needs are taken care of. Five meals a day, clothes, an austere life filled with all that is needed for these children to feel supported through their primary education and beyond. The children are exposed to people from across the world through the school’s volunteer program (which is how the director Vanessa Roth got involved).
The story takes on the dissonance the children experience as they shuttle between the first world school and the hard reality of where and how their families live and survive. The story telling is nuanced, the camera for most parts unobtrusive. The background score apt and almost invisible as it blends with the narrative.
The five girls whose journeys we are invested in leave us wanting more. I closed Netflix rooting for them to succeed, to go on to live fabulous lives and in the process pull their families up. They likely will.
However, waking up this morning, my mind went to the other untold stories. The hundreds of kids not spotlighted. The ones who had to drop out. The ones who managed to pass through but not to good colleges or well paying jobs. The ones who’s real world subsumed them until all that was left was the crushing burden of gratitude.
In the four hour long series, I heard rumbles of clashes between George and Ajit, their approach towards imbueing the ideal of one child lifting entire families and villages out of poverty different from each other. I hear it in hesitant notes when the girls speak of feeling boxed in, of craving freedom, of wanting to just be. This unbearable load the children carry, the invisible weight of gratitude and being in debt all their lives for a choice they had no say in making.
Parents drop children off at the school at the age of four knowing their children will be cared for, provided good nutrition and a solid education. They do it in the interest of the child. The school takes on the children with great intentions. They do their best to provide that space for the children to grow up as well rounded individuals.
What about the children though? The reason the film lingers so much in my head is that much like in adoption, these children carry a weight they did not sign up for. They are left in the school for a better (subjectively) fate than the one they are likely to have if they stayed where they are. They are molded like clay to fit a certain archetype. They are vessels for a certain form of saviorism.
This is a social experiment in many ways, much like the ones Dr. Mengele instituted (watch Three Identical Strangers if you have not), perhaps not as horrific in that the children retain a connection to their families of origin. There is so much left unsaid and unexplored and perhaps for the better.
In a few years, I hope the Karthikas, the Preethas, the Manjulas, the Shilpas and Thenmozhis go back to Shanti Bhavan and make it the kind of school they wish they had been in. The idea in theory is amazing, the absense of people with lived experiences making decisions is alarming. But then, that is true world over.
Did you watch the series? What did you think?