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‘All that matters to them is the world around their mother’: documentary on children born in prison

Malati Rao’s ‘Born Behind Bars’ brings out the stories of children whose mothers are inmates of Chanchalguda prison in Hyderabad.

“Kranti learnt how to walk and talk here,” says Sevanti, the assistant teacher at the school inside the Chanchalguda prison for women in Hyderabad. “Now he talks non-stop.”

Kranti, barely four years old, is making faces at the ceiling while waiting to escape so that he can run around the jail premises, play with broken pipes or mimic the jail superintendent by walking with his hands behind the back. He grins and peers into the camera, and it is clear that neither the frame nor the prison walls can contain his energy.

Malati Rao’s documentary Born Behind Bars follows the stories of children like Kranti, who are born and raised in prison to women who are serving time there. Produced by Films Division, Born Behind Bars takes us inside Chanchalguda prison, where children stay with their incarcerated mothers until they turn six, after which they are transferred either to a hostel or to a children’s home.

“A lot of Kranti’s mannerisms come from the people he sees in authority,” Rao, a writer, director and producer and teacher of fiction and documentary films, told “He is a performer and he has this swagger that is impossible to ignore. But most importantly, he was interested in communicating with us. He is also older than the other kids and hence, more expressive too.”

Does he realise where he is? “Kranti is too little to know too much at this point,” Rao said. “It is just another home for him. Kranti will deal with the judgements that come with being a child of a prisoner in due time.”

Kranti in Born Behind Bars. Image credit: Films Division.
Kranti in Born Behind Bars. Image credit: Films Division.

It all began when Rao, a Master of Fine Arts graduate in Film and Media Arts from Temple University in Philadelphia, read a newspaper report about children in a Gujarat prison being taught under the Right to Education Act. Her previous documentary, Free and Compuslory (2012), explored RTE, and her interest was piqued by the extension of the social welfare programme to prisons. “When we got there, we filmed a little both in Ahmedabad as well as in Baroda and the idea germinated there,” Rao said. “I was really interested in the life of the women and realised that there is a strong connection between women, poverty and incarceration.”

But once Rao completed her first research trip, the prison authorities wrote to her asking her not to pursue her project. “I think there had been a prison break in Ahmedabad around that time,” Rao said. “But I was intrigued enough, so I applied to as many prisons as I could.” The Hyderabad prison responded favourably, and it helped that Rao was fluent in Telugu.

“I wasn’t interested in doing some sort of scoop film – I was interested in observing them, being with them and showing what life was like inside for them,” Rao said. “According to the guidelines set by the Chakravarthy panel, there are a number of rules regarding the right kind of nutrition and facilities for these children. Now, how much of this gets implemented is always questionable. But, to a large extent, I felt that the prison system itself is under a lot of pressure and the children are not really a priority for them. They are stretched and under-staffed but from what I observed, they weren’t treating the children badly.”

Born Behind Bars. Image credit: Films Division.
Born Behind Bars. Image credit: Films Division.

Rao’s filmography includes Some Roots Grow Upwards (2003, co-director), Sarah+ Dee (2007, assistant director), Patang (2011, assistant director), Free and Compulsory (2012, writer and director) and Handmade in India (2014, writer and director). A graduate from Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, Rao has worked extensively in television and has taught film and screenwriting as well. “Law, women and education are three themes that I seem to keep coming back to in all of my work,” she said.

Born Behind Bars contains some of her preoccupations. She introduces us to kids across age groups, some of whom are aware of the crimes for which their mothers have been convicted. Rao asks them simple questions about themselves and then slowly ventures towards tougher, more personal topics.

The filmmaker is often a silent listener as Kranti either babbles away or shares the occasionally horrifying story, such as the one time he saw an inmate being beaten up. Other children open up about their thoughts, their parents, what they’ve seen and what they wish they hadn’t seen. Two older girls who are visiting their mothers in prison chat about school; another tells her mother about what it is like in her hostel’s TV room – what the boys prefer watching versus what the girls like.

Throughout, Rao creates rare moments of intimacy in a world where the women and their children are always being watched.

Malati Rao.
Malati Rao.

“You know how there are these shoots of banyan trees on the sides of the roads – nobody waters them but they grow and survive and they are hardy,” Rao said. “This metaphor works for these kids. There’s no telling what they’ll encounter or what kind of baggage they’ll carry but they are hardy and are already connecting with the world and surviving. To me, that’s pretty powerful.”

A number of misconceptions Rao had were cleared after she set foot inside the prison. “I had read about how these children, because they have been inside the high walls of the prison, haven’t seen the sun rise or set, at least for the first six years of their lives,” she explained. “I had just become a mother, so even I was discovering motherhood and learning a lot. When I spent time with these children, I realised that they don’t really care about sunlight at their age. All that really matters to them is the world around their mothers. The mothers are the primary caregivers in their case and as long as the kids are near them, they felt secure. So I underwent some changes in terms of how I processed their lives in there as well.”

The challenges of filming ranged from dealing with the formation of a new state – she was still shooting when Telangana came into being in 2014 – to promising the privacy of the prisoners. Her team wasn’t allowed near the barracks. “Unlike other more developed countries, we do not have the right as much to explore our public systems in the way that you can demand that in other countries,” Rao said. “You can’t say I pay taxes, hence you owe it to us. That kind of transparency is not there here.”

However, these constraints shaped the film in several ways. “When the women realised that their faces weren’t going to be seen, they were more at ease and less self-conscious,” Rao said. “With children, you just need to spend more time with them. Initially, they are interested in the equipment. After a while, they are interested in talking.”

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.