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Giving voice to the voiceless is a thread of commonality that runs through her work. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, she was recently feted for her role as an investigative journalist who exposed the web of lies that surrounded Anil Kumar’s dealings with his maidservant Manju Das in the Galleon Group scandal that brought down Raj Rajarathnam, the billionaire investor.
In 2011 Vachani listened to courtroom testimony of how Rajarathnam worked to get important information from Kumar, which he later used in an illegal insider trading scandal. As she listened to the testimony, Vachani realized that an important player in this scheme was the innocent maidservant Manju Das whose identity had been stolen by the wily Kumar.
Vachani set out in search of Manju Das who had been sent to India at the beginning of the scandal. All she had to begin this search was the name of a district in Bengal in which the village was situated. With dogged determination, Vachani tracked her down and spoke to her about her time in Kumar’s employment at his home in Saratoga, California.
The details that emerged will make one truly believe in the proverb, “Fact is stranger than fiction.” Kumar had employed Manju Das in his home where she worked close to 80-hour weeks with pay that was far below minimum wage standards. When she injured herself on the job, instead of seeking medical treatment in the United States which would have been costly, he paid for her treatment in India. While traveling to India, Das suffered intensely and to this day, there is a slight pain in her hip.
Vachani wonders now whether the delay in seeking treatment had left her with a permanent disability.
And, then, there was the question of unpaid wages. Das’s dream was to build a store for her son to conduct business. It now stood—half-built with rafters jutting out—a daily reminder of how her modest dreams had been thwarted by Kumar, a businessman who had set out to fool the smartest business minds in the country. What choice did illiterate Manju Das truly have to go against such a wily businessman? None really.
And that has been the driving force of Vachani’s quest as a documentary filmmaker and writer. She has empathy for those who do not possess the intellectual heft to find themselves portrayed on the silver screen or written about in the pages of newspapers and magazines. And, yet, each of their stories needs to be heard.
In her teens, she felt empathy for a maidservant who worked in her grandparents’ house in New Delhi. “I was eighteen years old and so was she, and yet our lives were so different. Here I was going to college, with many opportunities ahead of me. On the other hand, she was being treated for being possessed by spirits with shamans coming home from time to time. My grandparents assured me that these rituals were tied to their superstitious practices and there was not much that we could do to help. That unsettling experience stayed with me.”
As a graduate student at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, a documentary filmmaking workshop with Dr. Steven Feld changed the focus of her goals from becoming a journalist to becoming a documentary filmmaker. After graduate school, she landed a dream assignment as the Assistant Editor to Mira Nair for her movie, India Cabaret, and worked assiduously to learn as much as she could on the job. Working on a tight budget for Mira Nair’s next film, Salaam Bombay, she wore many hats as Assistant Director, Script Supervisor, and served as an important liaison with the slum children of Mumbai.
After this fruitful association with Mira Nair for many years, Vachani struck out on her own with the documentary, Eyes of Stone about the practice of driving out spirits in many rural areas in North India. As she traversed rural areas on buses collecting primary research for her first documentary, she came across a fascinating group of common townsfolk—vegetable sellers who rode the buses selling their wares while putting up impromptu entertainment shows for the travelers. She soon realized that many of them had had dreams of making it in Bollywood. With their dreams thwarted, they used their entertainment skills to keep passengers laughing and open to buying their goods. Thus was born her next documentary, Diamonds in a Market.
In 1995, her documentary When Mother Comes Home for Christmas, focused the spotlight on Sri Lankan mothers who cared for children in Europe even as their own children grew up in orphanages.
Vachani says, “These women were bringing in foreign currency in staggering amounts. The Sri Lankan government was promising them a future that did not exist. Work for two years in a foreign country, save enough money to build a better future—this was the story that sent thousands of women abroad, forcing them to give up their own children. The sheer economics of this situation was never in their favor. They had to work for many years before they could even dream of returning home.” She stumbled upon this story when she traveled in Europe and saw women of Sri Lankan descent taking care of young children. As she got to know them, she realized that this story encapsulated trade practices, travel of human capital, and brought issues of class and nationhood into the limelight, precisely at a time when the word, “‘globalization” was just starting to enter the lexicon of economies worldwide. Activists in Sri Lanka arranged film screenings in many communities to show women the true picture of what it meant to travel abroad for work.
Time and again, Vachani’s work helps showcase people from marginalized communities. Her story on Manju Das for Caravan won the Asian College of Journalism’s inaugural prize for investigative reporting. She has won prizes in film festivals around the world for her films.
Depending on the subject that she is working on, she has helped activists with her artistic works. When she wrote the Manju Das story, so many reached out to her to offer financial help that she helped create a fund which provides a modest monthly stipend to her family.
Talking to her, I realized that she is truly an artist who has straddled multiple forms of storytelling, from documentary film making to investigative reporting. Each time, she follows her subjects closely, treating their lives and choices with compassion in the retelling. An artist with empathy – Nilita Vachani!
For Nilita Vachani’s newly released short film on Manju Das and for excerpts from her other documntary films, check out our website for links.