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Mallika Dutt was living the immigrant dream in New York. She worked for a “fancy white shoe law firm” and had her name on the door of her office. Then one day in a co-worker left her a copy of the Dr. Seuss children’s book The Places You’ll Go. “I read the first four lines on the subway and just started howling,” she remembers.

Congratulations! / Today is your day. / You’re off to Great Places! / You’re off and away!

The next day she quit her job. It was 1991. She was $30,000 in debt. She had no idea what she was going to do next. All she knew was she could not spend her life shielding “asbestos companies from litigation.” She had no idea in less than ten years she’d end up starting her own non-profit organization, Breakthrough, an international human rights organization that marries education, activism, and popular culture. Today, Dutt has gone great places and done things she’d never dreamed off—from producing an award-winning music video to launching a video game.

She Can End Deportation

“I’ve never played a video game in my life,” Dutt admits with a chuckle. But no matter. She can still expound confidently about underlying game engines. Breakthrough’s new game, ICED (I Can End Deportation) isn’t even out yet (it’s scheduled for release on December 10, Human Rights Day), but her phone hasn’t stopped ringing. Fox News, Clear Channel, CNN, Los Angeles Times—everyone’s been calling.

“I never thought I would see the day when CNN would call and I would say to someone can you take a message,” laughs Dutt.

ICED debuts at a time when immigration has become, as some have called it, the “third rail” of politics. Immigration reform buckled in the Senate and crackdowns on those here illegally have increased across the country. ICED ( is about a set of teens who run afoul of the immigration system. “It lets you get into the skin of someone going through the deportation system,” says Dutt. The characters include a Japanese student, a Haitian asylum seeker, a young undocumented man from Latin America, a European woman who thinks she is legal, and an Indian-American high school student.

Dutt’s aim was to use a video game “to really create a consciousness of deportation and detention and how it’s removed any notion of due process from the immigration system.” Now she’s been on right-wing talk shows with hostile callers who demand to know, “What part of illegal don’t you understand?”

Dutt is thrilled. The whole reason she started Breakthrough was to take the conversation about human rights beyond the usual suspects. “Part of the problem of the progressive movement is you tend to speak to your own allies,” says Dutt. “For years I would go to a documentary screening, a protest, a workshop or conference, and I would see the same 500 people over and over again.”

A Culture of Human Rights

That was why Dutt first decided to address gender-based violence through a music video that could play on MTV rather than a documentary that would be seen by only a few. “Remember,” says Dutt, “the public domain is the space that also creates the images that oppress women. So it was important to create images that run counter to that in the same space.” Mann ke Manjeerey, a music album, whose title track became an award-winning video, released in India in September 2000 to phenomenal success, topping the charts for five months. The video has, says Dutt, one of the “highest recall rates” of any indie music video in the industry. The video won the 2001 National Screen Award in India. “Years after the launch of the album, people still walk up to me and say how much they enjoyed the songs I had sung,” says Shubha Mudgal, who sang for most of the songs on the album.

When she embarked on the project, however, Dutt faced plenty of skepticism. As a program officer for Ford Foundation in India before she launched Breakthrough, Dutt had plenty of connections. But she had no credentials in the music industry, certainly not as a producer.

“There were plenty of ‘who the hell is Mallika’ moments,” she says. She also faced some skepticism from the women’s movement. People wondered why an album about women’s rights had a male lyricist and a male composer. “And they asked, ‘aren’t you selling out by trying to get on MTV?’” remembers Dutt.

But Dutt says it worked even at the most personal level. “I can recite chapter and verse of international legal conventions and no one in my family understands a word,” says Dutt. “They just look at me blankly. But Mann ke Manjeerey came out and they immediately got it.” Using popular music to address social issues is not new, says Mudgal, but “in India, popular music has rarely welcomed music that gives messages about human rights.” Instead, she says popular music sticks to “silly songs about cafeteria or college romance” and, in order to play on TV, must be under 4 minutes and “pretty” enough.

Dutt knew from the get go that a powerful message was not enough in order to be noticed: “[The video] had to be good quality and visually appealing because pop culture is a one-day wonder kind of space.”

At the same time, Dutt is fully aware that there is only so much a 4-minute video can achieve. “You have to build on the buzz,” says Dutt. “You can affect public discourse in a mass way and then penetrate at the community level on a smaller level with a curriculum.” ICED will come with its own curriculum that teachers can use to talk about human rights and how laws are made.

Breakthrough has also taken on other contentious issues such as HIV. Dutt says in India the focus of much HIV work “places the onus of the disease on the sex workers, completely missing the man.” In 2005, Breakthrough launched “What Kind of Man Are You?” a campaign that tackled that issue but in a gender-sensitive way. “80 percent of married women are infected by their husbands or partners,” says Dutt. “So just saying ‘be monogamous’ doesn’t make sense.”

The harshest reaction to the campaign came not in India but among South Asians in the U.S. who accused Dutt “of promoting infidelity by encouraging men to wear condoms.” Dutt knows one campaign won’t change the social structure, but it does help activists “enter a much larger conversation about gender relations and sexuality.” The conversation should be “about all of us,” she says, rather than just the “violator, violation, and victim.” Now Breakthrough in India is trying to educate women and enforcement agencies about the provisions of a prevention of domestic violence bill that came into law last year.

Anuja Gupta who runs Raahi, a New Delhi-based organization which works on issues of child sexual abuse and incest, agrees with Dutt’s approach. She says it is vital to bring these issues “from the private to the public sphere. And it needs to be done in a way that reaches out to people in their day-to-day surroundings (not in conferences or seminars) in a non-threatening yet hard-hitting manner. Mallika has been successful in doing that.”


Breakthrough was not Dutt’s first experience taking hot-button issues out into the community. She was one of the co-founders of Sakhi, a support group for women confronting domestic violence, at a time when the Indian community in the U.S. liked to pretend that such things didn’t happen to us. “I remember getting so much flak,” says Dutt. “Everything from ‘Why are you washing our dirty linen in public’ to ‘It’s not Hindus who do it; it’s the Muslims.’”

In the early days, Sakhi was refused permission to attend the Diwali festival in South Seaport in New York. “So we stood on the subway and handed out fliers,” recalls Tula Goenka, another founding member, now an associate professor of radio, television and film at Syracuse University. But Dutt knew how to stand her ground. She grew up as the only female grandchild in her family, acutely aware of how the rules were different for her compared to her brothers. “I didn’t want to be dependent on anyone,” says Dutt. When she decided to go abroad to study, “the odds were against her,” says Micky Bhatia, one of her best friends from Modern High School in Calcutta. “There was no way that she could go without a scholarship, but she made that happen through determination and hard work.”

“I have been basically supporting myself since I was 18,” says Dutt. It was a hard transition—she was one of about four Indians in Mt. Holyoke in 1980. After coming to Mt. Holyoke, Dutt “developed a vocabulary of feminism” and perspectives on social justice.

“I became politicized through Mallika,” Goenka says, remembering how, while living in New York, she suddenly got a call from Dutt in 1989 asking if she wanted to attend a women’s organization meeting in New Jersey. They got lost that first time on the highway but eventually made it to a meeting. Later they decided it was too difficult to trek to New Jersey and instead started a New York chapter, calling it Sakhi.

Dutt has since moved on from Sakhi, but her work with the organization directly influenced Breakthrough. It convinced her that she needed to address not just the consequences of violence, but also the social conditions that breed them in order to bring about a “culture of human rights.” “Culture is what we swim in,” says Dutt. “I am about building human rights culture as opposed to just ending human rights violations.”

It’s an important distinction, says Jael Silliman, Program Officer for Women’s Rights and Gender Equity at the Ford Foundation where Dutt was an officer in the ’90s. “She really is a visionary,” says Silliman. “[Dutt] realizes that human rights through courts, declarations, and formal bodies only reach a small fraction of people. She thinks big.” Best of all, says Silliman, “She knows the jargon, but she doesn’t speak the jargon.”

Silliman first met Dutt when Silliman was teaching a course at Columbia University over 25 years ago. It was her first teaching position and she didn’t yet have her Ph.D.: “I felt intimidated by Mallika. I felt as if she knew more than I did. And she was not afraid to ask difficult questions.”

Chhoti Mirchi Badi Jhal

Over the years, Dutt has become a little more diplomatic in her networking. Shashi Tharoor serves on the board of Breakthrough and says that even with his busy schedule it was hard to say no to Dutt’s “enthusiasm and persistence.” In fact, one of his sons interned at Breakthrough. Tharoor remembers first meeting Dutt in 1989 through Sakhi: “She was a feisty young woman. If anything, her energy and dynamism have only intensified over the years.”

Dutt’s intensity does worry some of her friends. But Dutt, Goenka reveals, does have her guilty pleasures. As teenagers, they both loved to read Mills and Boons romances. “I think she still reads some version,” laughs Goenka. “I say we are middle-aged women with a die hard romantic streak.”

“Chhoti mirchi badi jhal hai (‘the small chili is extra hot’),” quips Bhatia. Dutt is all of 4’10” but, as Bhatia exclaims, “can she get her point across!”

And Dutt still has a few points to make. But right now she’s also busy decorating her office: not the real one, but the one on the alternate reality world of Second Life, where she has an avatar and Breakthrough has an office. ICED will release not just in real life but also in Second Life. “The problems we deal with are old,” says Dutt. “But as progessives we have to use new 21st century tools to deal with them. Otherwise we’ll always be on the backfoot.”

Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a news-magazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New America Media.