Photo courtesy of Affinity Film
Director: Madeleine Grant | Canada | 2014 | English and Tamil with English Subtitles | World Premiere | 91 Minutes
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Despite the fact that the caste system was declared illegal in the 1950s, those known as “untouchables” are still relegated to poverty. Now they are officially designated as “backward communities” and remain in menial jobs and in a state of abject poverty. Society has kept them from rising in the ranks, for instance these children often work instead of going to school or receive sub par education at government schools.
Being Indian-Canadian, I’ve heard about the caste system my entire life and have always been told, “that’s just the way it is,” without much further explanation for society’s capacity for injustice. But coming across The Backward Class has given me some new hope.
In this compelling documentary, Vancouver based director Madeleine Grant takes us to a rural part of Bangalore where she came across a small school invested in bringing opportunity to backward caste students. The Shanti Bavan School was founded by Dr. Abraham George in 1997 and the documentary follows the first graduating class of Dalit (“untouchable”) caste students as they prepare for the Indian School Certificate exams and apply to colleges.
The school provides quality education (usually reserved for the wealthy) starting at preschool. It is a safe haven providing food, board and the notion that everyone is equal despite the reality that lies outside the school walls. Students are screened for admission and only one child per family is admitted in order to reach as many families as possible. The mission of the school is to create global leaders from these students who otherwise would not have been given a chance.
The immense stress the students face is not lost on those watching the documentary. We watch Vijay, Anith and Mala struggle with two different worlds and the pressure to bring their families out of destitution with the fear that they only have one chance to do well on the exams and get into a good college. They are acutely aware that one road leads them to success while the other leads them back to a life of poverty.
Mala wants to pursue fashion design but instead studies math and physics as she believes an engineering degree will get her more money. Anith has admittedly fallen behind on his studies and Vijay aspires to get into the National Law School. Grant does a superb job of capturing the students’ personalities and I dare a viewer not to fall in love with them and hope with all their heart that they succeed.
The student stories are balanced with insight into the lives of their families, who are uneducated and living in slums, banking on their children to bring wealth to not only them but to their village. We also catch a glimpse into the sacrifice of the school’s principal, Lalita Law, who runs the school at the expense of her family life.
As everyone focuses their attention on the success or failure of the students, founder Dr. George tries to keep the school afloat after taking a thrashing during the 2008 financial crisis. With the school falling into disrepair, he puts his house up for sale and risks not being able to afford college for his own children — all to sustain the vision and idea that given equal opportunity, anyone can succeed.
This film is an absolute must see. From the idealistic vision that Dr. George started with to the realities of the students graduating against impossible odds and archaic societal boundaries, it’s hard not to be swept up in the tragedy of not affording all children with quality education. However, it also sparks hope in the capacity that education has in breaking the cycle of poverty. It begs the question, how can we sustainably create more progressive schools that are caste-blind and what impact do we have on helping eliminate the ever pervasive caste system in India?
Also – the cast and crew are in town so you can find out where these students are currently and what happened to their lives after the documentary, check it out!
Avneet Toor is a first generation Canadian blogger who loves film, food and fiction. She’s currently living in Toronto while pining for New York and carefully planning to travel every inch of the globe.