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The intrepid Kim Longinotto delivers another dispatch from the female frontier with “Pink Saris,” which focuses on the seemingly intractable caste system and systemic abuse of women in India, a nation struggling to meet its potential as a world economic power. Longinotto might simply have celebrated (or railed at) the accomplishments of her chief subject, activist Sampat Pal, but “Pink Saris” is a multilayered, psychologically complex portrait of both a woman and a moment; in short, it’s a pic that seems perfect for HBO, where exposure is already assured.

“Pink Saris” refers to the hot-colored garments worn by Pal’s Gulabi Gang, women who resist the traditionalist view of Indian society, including the ostracization of so-called “untouchables,” the taboos surrounding intercaste marriages, the routine physical abuse of “disobedient” wives and the marrying-off of girls before they’ve entered puberty. Pal herself was married at 12, and she possesses a ferocity when facing down an errant father, father-in-law or husband. She also simply doesn’t care about propriety, which makes her a formidable opponent of the status quo.

But Pal is certainly not selfless or humble; nor is she entirely right all the time, which Longinotto makes quite clear as she follows the activist around, rescuing this abandoned bride or that mistreated child. “I am the messiah for women!” Pal exclaims during one of her diatribes. “I am more powerful than the police.” She’s also a shameless actor and sloganeer, which is ironic because Longinotto, characteristically, seems to have blended into the woodwork to capture most of her subjects at their most unguarded. The verbal combat in which Pal and her adversaries engage is roaring and, in some cases, exhilarating. But Pal plays to the cameras virtually every moment she’s in frame — with only one exception, which becomes a very somber and sobering moment in what is otherwise a fairly freewheeling film.

Another of Pal’s shortcomings is an inability to compromise, even if it adversely affects the comfort of the girl in question. In one case, a proposed marriage between an already married untouchable female and an upper-caste boy, Pal helps maneuver the divorce, then struggles to rationalize a dire situation after the boy goes back to his family, leaving the girl unwed and with very few options. But though Pal is flawed, she remains a heroic subject; in this instance, she takes the young women home to her already overcrowded house, and hopes.

Tech credits are good, particularly Longinotto’s shooting, which is in-their-face and uninhibited.

Pink Saris

U.K.

  • Production: An HBO Documentary Films/Women Make Movies presentation of a Channel 4 production. Produced by Amber Latiff, Girjashanker Vohra. Directed by Kim Longinotto.
  • Crew: Camera (color, DV), Longinotto; editor, Ollie Huddleston; music, Midival Punditz ; sound, Girjashanker Vohra. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Real to Reel), Sept. 14, 2010. Running time: 96 MIN.
  • With: With Sampat Pal, Renu Devi, Niranjan Pal, Rekha Paswan, Shiv Devi Patel, Rampataree Yadav. (Hindi dialogue)
  • Music By: