"Salma defied her village to become the most famous female poet in Southern India."
Internationally acclaimed documentary filmmaker Kim Longinotto (Rough Aunties) and screenwriter/film editor Ollie Huddleston use this tagline to begin to tell the story of SALMA--a legendary Muslim Tamil activist, poet, author and politician.
Salma's journey to her current notoriety has come with a horrific price. Longinotto allows Salma to share her story. The audience is taken back in time through her opening a very personal memory scrapbook. Salma is the storyteller. The film crew figuratively collect the snap shots and turns them into a remarkable moving picture, purposefully slow in its delivery. Time is needed to unravel the electrifying narrative of Salma's multi-layered Indian cultural of contradictions. Salma is hidden twice from the outside world: first by her family and then again by her husband. Yes, she was physically locked away by both parties.
The documentary reveals unexpected imagery from the highest of expertise with clear esthetically beautiful cinematography; heart wrenching interviews from family and friends; connecting sights and sounds of Salma's Tamil culture.
As a young girl, Salma was a lover of education. She longed to study at the University. Village mores in southern India had other plans for girls like herself. Girls were allowed to go to school until they reached the age of puberty. At the age of 12 or 13 it was time for the girls to end their education and enter into an arranged marriage set up by the family. Salma's schooling was coming to an end. To marry would be the death of her so she begged her family to send her away so that she could continue her studies. Money and a place for her to stay would be difficult for the family to provide. She rebelled against a marriage. Her actions did not sit well with the family nor the village leaders. Salma's parents were forced to extreme actions to keep her in line.
Oddly, a socially embarrassing episode occurs two months prior to Salma ending her schooling as the real cause for strong parental punishment. Salma shares that, "One night, she and three other girls her age snuck out of the house to go see a movie. If asked for permission, it would not have been granted. Unbeknown to them the film was a soft porn-flick. The four were the only women in the cinema of a packed house of men. The girls were so embarrassed that they had their heads buried in their laps the whole show." The news spread of the rebellious girls. Salma says, "My parents were liberal intellectuals. They understood the complexities of identity that I might face.Struggling with their own identities, they felt compelled to encourage some form of conservatism within me."
Salma was locked up in a very small room that had a tiny open window partially barred by iron rods. It was later to be calculated that she would live in confinement from her formative teenage years to those of young adulthood. The resources Salma drew from to remain mentally alert was the love she had for the books she read. Recollecting stories of people and various subjects kept her mind active. She devoured and imagined words. It was out of her trained love for words that she began to formulate poetry. She had no means to write her poetry down so for awhile it was in her head. Salma's sister was her inspiration. She risked the freedom of her own life in order to give Salma what she needed most: paper and pencil. Salma's sister smuggled paper and writing tools that were far more precious than gold or silver for the budding poet. It is on these coveted papers that Salma's youthful years of questions, discovery, and emotional ups and downs are words of liberation and transformation for women all around the world.
The tiny quarter was her residence for nine long years until she finally agreed to an arranged marriage. It was arranged that she to be married to a village leader. A probable future of freedom. Salma's frustrating fate doesn't end with marriage. Her husband will lock her up too. Another form of confinement was not going to alter Salma's will to be free.
The undying love of Salma's mother who was once her jailer now longed to save her daughter from a culture that entrapped Salma's talent. Her mother and sister work in secret to smuggle the poetry out of the village and into the hands of publishers. A dangerous journey. A complicated escapade.
While Longinotto was able to capture Salma's story, the fact is that there are millions of women all over the world who share Salma's experience only they never escape to tell their tale.