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Period: Start of a journey

After the documentary Period: End of Sentence won an Oscar, Patriot visits Kathikeda village to find a lot has changed for its women

About 100 km from the city of Delhi, in a small district called Hapur in Uttar Pradesh, there’s a small village called Kathikheda. Over the past few days, visitors have been pouring in. There’s an atmosphere of celebration all over the place. The women here have finally succeeded in breaking the taboos surrounding menstruation – that too, keeping the whole world as witness.

Period. End of Sentence, the Oscar winning short documentary, was based on the women working in Kathikheda’s pad manufacturing unit. Directed by Rayka Zehtabchi and produced by Melissa Berton and Sikhya entertainment, this documentary broke all stigmas attached to menstruation and sanitary napkins. Before this, even talking about periods openly in this village was considered a sin. But now, the pad unit – which produces its own brand of sanitary napkins – by the name ‘Fly’, has finally got its wings!

Life has changed for the villagers after all the recognition and fame. But the women here were fearless, even before this tryst with fame. Dedicated, driven and confident, they silently made history. Patriot visits Kathikheda village and speaks to these wonder women – and the men, who unexpectedly, were also part of this empowerment.

Women win big

All those who have seen the documentary, the image of one strong-willed girl with expressive eyes is surely imprinted on their minds. Being the focus of the film, Sneh, is now a known face – both in and outside India. “I was sweeping the floor this morning when one media person saw me. He was taken aback. He was in tears,” she shares. “I still do the household chores before going to the factory.” It might look as if nothing has changed for her, yet a lot has. “I wanted to be independent. Thus, when my sister-in-law Suman told me about this job, I took it up around two years back.”

She recalls how she wasn’t able to speak when faced with the camera for the first time. “It took some time for me to open up. But I wasn’t shy because I had to speak about periods or pads. The day I started working here, I had left behind all my shame and hesitation. If we are not able to talk about our work openly, what’s the point? Also, our work is to make people aware. If we ourselves hesitate, then how will it work?”

Hers is the confidence with which women here speak out. Suman, another star of this empowering documentary says, “I was not ashamed to speak of menstruation, nor pads. But the girls working in the unit were hesitant at first. That was normal, as none of us has faced a camera before this.”

“Initially, every girl working in the unit used to say to their families that ‘diapers are being made here.’ They were scared to tell the truth. Then came the film – which openly spoke about menstruation and pads. That too in a village – and thus fighting against all these stereotypes felt like we are fighting the battle of Mahabharat,” confesses Suman.

She says there were challenges in the initial days of shooting – the filming crew were foreigners, so they didn’t open up much. Crowds gathered to watch the shoot and had to be managed; and their training for the sale of pads was also going on at that time. “But then all went well, and the people of Kathikheda village cooperated a lot,” she says.

Shabana, the eldest of the cast, still is in awe of the whole experience. “We had no idea it was going to be this big, and that is why the documentary was so real. We were just ourselves,” she says. There’s a memorable scene in the documentary, where she confesses that she dreams big for their Fly sanitary napkin. When asked what dream was she talking about, she laughs and replies “Oscar toh bilkul nahi socha tha!” (Definitely didn’t think of an Oscar!).

On her reaction after watching the documentary for the first time, she says, “Laafz nahi hote kuch cheezon ke liye” (There are no words to describe some experiences). “The first time I saw myself in the documentary, I was like ‘Main toh heroine ban gayi’ (I am a heroine now),” laughs Sneh.

MEN & MENstruation

“Do you know what work was going on in the factory?”

“No, initially I did not,” accepts Suman’s brother-in-law.

“But now, after watching the documentary, he knows,” laugh the women.

Like him, the men in the village were unaware, or maybe acted so, of the work going on in the unit. Many of them were made to believe that diapers for babies are manufactured here. Some believed, some did not – but none opposed. Rather, they were supportive from the beginning.

Bijender, father of six daughters, gave his land to set up the factory. “People used to gossip. They used to mock. But I thought it’s for a good cause. Many people said you are doing the wrong thing. But I did not bother.” Two of his daughters, Preeti and Rakhi, works in the unit as well. Moreover, whenever there’s any problem in the factory – he’s there at their beck and call.

“Whenever I work till late, my husband comes to pick me up. There were some places – like places in the interior of the village – where one has to walk two or more kilometres to reach. He used to drop me and pick up as well,” says Suman, who is a social worker as well. “He even takes his days off for me sometimes.”

“Without the support of my father, I would not have been able to do this,” shares Preeti, Bijender’s youngest daughter. “My father and brother even made a pad once in the factory,” she smiles proudly.

“When I first came to know (that sanitary napkins are made in the unit), I was in tears. And today also…,” Suman’s brother-in-law ‘s voice breaks as tears roll down his cheeks. “These are the tears of joy,” he clarifies.

Challenges & Controversies

It was through Action India – a Delhi-based women’s welfare group – that the pad factory in Kathikheda was set up. Moreover, their efforts towards making the documentary is also immense. But not all is well in the team now, as some are upset at not being acknowledged for their hard work. According to Sulekha Singh, the General Secretary of Action India, her efforts and those of Gouri Choudhury (President, Action India) were not considered much. “Some people got all the limelight. And we, as well as Action India, have not been given our due respect,” she says. She also claims that the team has been affected by this.

On the other hand, almost every woman in the Kathikheda unit acknowledged Action India’s efforts from inception. “Without Gouri Choudhury, nothing could have happened,” says Shabana, who herself has been associated with Action India since 1997. She even gets teary-eyed, as she speaks about Choudhury’s contribution. She says, “This documentary is not of 26 minutes, but of 20 years! Because it is a result of the effort Action India has put in all these years. I hope she (Gauri) gets to hear this from you all, as I cannot tell it to her myself.” Sneh and Suman seconds her thoughts. “We do talk about Action India’s contribution, but media doesn’t mention it in their reports,” complains Suman.

The biggest issue the villagers face here is outages. Every day, for three hours or more, that too during the daytime, there are power cuts. But after the documentary, this problem will be resolved soon, it seems. Suman says that Hapur’s DM ordered that the electricity problem be solved soon. “Now, we can work without any hindrance. The biggest issue was marketing and electricity – both of these will hopefully be solved soon after the limelight!”

Dreams do come true

“I am lucky that I got to represent my country in the Oscars. Today, the world knows my name, the name of my village, our efforts – but my happiness will be doubled when I’ll get to join Delhi police,” says Sneh. She recalls her experience at the Academy Award as unforgettable.

“The moment I walked the red carpet – it was unbelievable! Have never seen so many cameras in my life. I used to watch IIFA awards on TV, but this was much bigger than that,” she says with a smile that lights up the room. “One memorable incident at the Oscars was that AR Rahman was seated one row in front of mine! When our film won the award, I got up from the seat and was cheering for them. Then he turned back and took my photo,” she says. “I have never been to Delhi, never seen India Gate and I got the opportunity to travel to the US!”

Suman said she had no idea what the world outside is like, because before this her world was limited to the village only. “It was beyond my imagination that this documentary will win an Oscar. Where big banner films like Lagaan, Paheli, Mother India – all these could not win, how can I think that a documentary from our village will do the unthinkable!” exclaims Shabana.

Thanks to the limelight, not only has their work been acknowledged but the sale of Fly sanitary napkins has also increased, they claim. “Also, we openly talk about periods now – even with our father or uncle,” says Rakhi.

“Now there are only seven of us working in this unit, we wish 700 more come and work for us,” says Preeti. She further adds, “Women will readily give Rs 20 to their kids for chocolate or something, but will never think of their own health. They will use a cloth during menstruation, but will not spare Rs 20 for pads. This thought needs to be changed! Women should think of their health first and use sanitary napkins.”

Thus, it can well be concluded that the Oscar win for Period: End of Sentence is definitely not an end, but just the beginning for their new journey.