A garden of hope

A garden of hope

A garden of hope

The black screen comes to life.A young girl dressed in a rust-coloured salwar-kurta is expertly clambering on top of a wooden structure amidst dense green foliage.

As the camera follows her, the youngster turns slowly to reveal her serene, pretty face.

The stirring sounds of the flute strike up in the background as she goes about attending to the maze of bottle gourd creepers on her thatched roof.

This is the evocative opening sequence of filmmaker Megan Mylan’s new documentary short, After My Garden Grows, which has been showcased at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Best known for her Oscar-winning film, Smile Pinki, Mylan has a penchant for finding her subjects in India.

If Smile Pinki traced the journey of Pinki Sonkar, a five-year-old girl with a severe cleft lip from a village in Varanasi, the protagonist of her latest film is Monika Barman, a resident of Bhutkura village in the Cooch Behar district of West Bengal.

Constant gardener

Monika lives with her parents.

A school dropout, this 16-year-old is the guardian of a lush vegetable garden that she has nurtured in the vicinity of her home.

As is evident from the film, Monika grows bottle gourd, pumpkin, herbs, wild greens and mushrooms on her small plot.

One instantly wonders how this quiet teenager has managed to become a master cultivator, considering the poor social status of girls like her, who are generally considered a liability to be married off even before the legal age of 18.

How did Mylan come to know of this life-changing transformation taking place in a remote corner of the world?

The filmmaker had initially read about it in The Seattle Times in the US in 2012.

Then when she went deeper into this story, she was inspired to capture it on film. With funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the support of the Sundance Institute, she arrived with her crew at Bhutkura in 2013.

After interacting with a few girls, Mylan zeroed in on Monika.

In the documentary, Monika welcomes her elder sister, who has come for a visit with her baby, and proudly serves up a lunch made from gourd and greens picked from her garden.

“Do you like it? Do you want more?” she inquires eagerly. When her sister tells their mother that Monika needs to go to school, the older woman remarks, “But father can’t afford it.” Marriage then?

Says Monika, “When didi got married the dowry was Rs 20,000 with some gold and a bicycle. Now that will not be enough.” Her sister smiles and says, “For this one’s wedding, better to wait 10 years. The later you marry the better.”

“How about after my garden grows?” suggests the young girl.

Making ends meet

As Mylan’s camera cuts to Monika, she is talking to her friends about the merits of eating good food, especially mushrooms, which she playfully calls “the frog’s umbrella”.

She tells them confidently, “How can vegetarians get adequate nutrition?

Mushrooms provide that.” Monika, who is part of the local SABLA group, regularly visits her anganwadi centre where the government worker and local Landesa staff conduct discussions on land rights, health and nutrition, and dealing with restrictive patriarchal norms.

A conversation Mylan has shot has the girls talking about how they sell the surplus vegetables from their garden. When asked what they do with the money, Monika promptly says, “I am saving to pay fees to return to school.”

According to Mylan, Monika’s story has a universal appeal because “every adolescent girl in the world remains confused regarding her future. This will help a girl in France or Brazil to identify with Monika”.

Today, as her film gears up for screenings at various global platforms, the talented filmmaker is hoping that just as “after Smile Pinki, the Prime Minister of India talked about the problems of the cleft lip in children”, the film on Monika, which will be officially released in India in September — and for which Mylan will be in the country — would “provoke a discussion on land rights for girls” and that this effort, currently underway in one district, would be scaled up in the entire state, and nationally through SABLA, impacting almost 80 million adolescent girls in India.