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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 Scroll.in. “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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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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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.