It all began at age five, when Kailash Satyarthi couldn’t understand why he was able to go to school with new shoes, but another boy was stuck shining shoes outside that same school. His headmaster told him that it was normal for children from poor families to have to work to survive. This answer wasn’t good enough.
Starting November 27th, you can witness the impact of this Nobel Peace Laureate’s movement. Earlier this month, YouTube announced its acquisition of the award-winning documentary, “The Price of Free” from director Derek Doneen and producer Davis Guggenheim (who also produced “An Inconvenient Truth” and “He Named Me Malala”) that shines light on the lifelong mission of Kailash Satyarthi to liberate children from the shackles of slavery and labor and help them reintegrate into society and develop their own sense of agency. The film originally premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and received the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize.
I had the privilege of speaking with Kailash Satyarthi Ji on his journey and upcoming documentary.
Me: Thank you so much for sitting down with me. I’ve been very touched by your mission and so has my mother.
Thank you so much. Maybe we can just call her after this interview and say hello to her. (he laughs)
**For the record…he did call her and left a voicemail**
Me: I think one of the strengths of our generation is our ability to identify problems and build anger. Where I feel we sometimes lack, is how to constructively use that anger. In your TED talk, you use the phrase “Anger. Idea. Action.” as your map for solving problems so I have to ask: What made you angry? Where did you get your ideas? How did you know what the productive action was going to be to actually help these kids?
He told me the popular story of the cobbler boy outside his school.
He [my teacher] said that this is not uncommon. Poor children have to help [their] families. So I said, okay sir but went to meet the boy myself. I found the boy sitting under the open sky with no shade. And we were all wearing new shoes so none of us could give any job to him. Next morning and then the next morning I kept on watching him. Why are people saying that poor children have to work? Why are there poor children etc. etc. Many things came to my mind. And that made me angry. That was my first spark of anger I would say…but that was also my first spark of compassion.
One day I gathered the courage to talk to the boy. I asked him these questions. His father was sitting alongside him. He was shocked. He said, “Babuji mainne to khabi sochae nahin aysa.” He had never thought about it because nobody had asked him such a thing. And then his father stood up and folded his hand and said babuji school jaane key leeay to aap loge hai hum to isi mazthuri karne kay lea pehdha hota hai. You are born to go to school but we people are born to go to work. I could not do anything for the boy but I started looking at the world with a different eye. The empty eyes of that boy filled my eyes and my mind with anger and ideas.
Kailash Ji spoke to the themes of generational complacency and the notion that his family couldn’t understand his anger because for them, this was normal. He never knew much about the caste system but would notice his family practicing untouchability unconsciously because he belonged to a high caste family. High caste people would practically throw food at their sweepers because they didn’t want to touch them.
Me: So, what was one of your first ideas?
Kailash Ji proceeded to tell me about his first “initiative” he put into place at the age of 11. He noticed that at the end of the school year, kids would be stuck with many books that they’d never use again. He wanted to find a way to repurpose these books and give them to poor children who could not afford them. He and his friend found a vegetable cart and went from house to house and asked all their aunties and uncles to contribute books. Within 4 hours, they collected 2,500 books.
Every book that was put in the cart was almost like a new incarnation for me and my personality. I realized that if you are truthful and pure of heart that the world will support you but if you work with some sort of selfish interest and try to be clever of course people will support but that sense of accomplishment and achievement will always be missing.
Within 15 days, Kailash Ji had collected over 10,000 books.
Let us create a book bank. Because I had an idea that my elder brothers go to the bank and withdraw money and deposit money so as an 11 year [old] that would be a good idea that there could be someone taking responsibility and needy children can borrow books for one year and they’d have to return with the guarantee that they are safe. My head master liked that idea so the book bank began. And that was a very strong foundation of my self-belief, confidence, and the belief in society. It did not matter whether they were Muslims, Hindus, and Christians; there was no low caste or high caste. Everyone just gave us books.
Kailash Ji had a very typical Indian upbringing. His parents wanted him to be an engineer, and he graduated into one of the most lucrative fields in India at the time. He told me a funny story about how he had once considered being a doctor but decided not to because he never wanted to have to dissect a dead frog. He eventually left his technical work and took up teaching at his university.
I did that for one year but then I decided to follow my heart thinking that if you follow your heart then your mind will follow you. I was very clear that I am not going to remain an engineer or professor for all time. When I met Sumedha Ji [Kailash’s wife] and then we have fallen in love. And when you fall in love sarai duniya apke dushman hai; the whole world is your enemy. So marriage was not easy but finally we did it. But we knew and she knew that she was going to marry with a crazy person not an engineer who wanted to do something good for humanity and children.
Side bar: Sumedha Ji is the sweetest woman I have ever met and is an EXCELLENT ping pong player. She also gave me a pack of Ayurvedic pills to help cure my cough.
Me: At least with activism in the U.S. we’re taught from a young age to call our congressman etc. But in India I imagine that’s not the first step to sparking change. Did you ever bump into a situation where Indian politicians were either complicit, or chose to be ignorant in the fight against child slavery?
Absolutely. They are connived in many cases. They themselves are sometimes responsible for these crimes and evils. Many of them are businessmen who fund the slavery networks. And it’s not only in India. In most of the developing countries – I work in Pakistan as well, Nepal, Bangladesh, I’ve worked in almost 150 countries so I have this experience in most places where awareness is lacking most definitely due to lack of education. The politics is dirty, but politics is dirty in the whole world but when the people are very directly connived with criminal gangs and the illegally run businesses then it becomes more difficult and that forms a mafia kinds of a situation. And I’ve had to face it.
Me: I will be the first person to say that I didn’t realize the extent of which child trafficking was an issue. Even growing up, I feel like issues with children were not always the most ‘glamorous’ to discuss and learn about, so they were often times glossed over. How can we change that?
People living in any part of the world should realize that they cannot live in silo. Because not only does that mean you cannot solve the problems, but it is impossible to live in silo. We have to feel interconnected because every issue will have some sort of global implication. Young people need to start thinking like that. And that is what we are trying to do with this film.
He also spoke to having teachers and educators encourage their students to become responsible consumers. Even when you buy “chocolate or sporting goods”, we should practice passionate consumerism and ask brands about their labor practices. If everyone starts asking these questions then no brand or company will be able to ignore it.
These are small things we can do to protect humanity.
Me: When I watched this documentary, I realized that I had been living in a silo; you just get comfortable with your job, routine, and lifestyle that you forget that the world is so much bigger than your own.
Exactly. And I’m using this film as a campaign tool for my 100 million for 100 million campaign. This is the human history’s largest ever campaign that has been launched. I want to engage 200 million children in the world today in a practical way.
The idea behind his initiative is that 100 million young people are victoms of some iteration of violence. This includes slavery, violence, trafficking, denial of education, health, etc. But on the other hand, there are hundreds of millions of young people who are full of excitement and ready to make the world a better place. Kailash Ji wants to provide the means to channelize this energy and have 100 million safe children to be plight bearers and change makers.
This campaign has already been launched in 31 countries. And we are calling on youth to sign and register and once they do they will receive some information regularly on how they can be involved in their neighborhood. Not necessarily about child labor. The whole idea is to create a free, safe, and educated childhood for everyone. We want to encourage volunteer work and we will help provide that platform. They can write blogs, speak in the media, use Instagram, Facebook. They can use technology in their own way.
Speaking with Kailash Satyarthi Ji was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. It’s rare and refreshing to meet someone who operates on pure selflessness. The documentary clearly tracks how Kailash Ji identifies a problem, plans his course of action, conducts a raid, and most importantly rehibilites the rescued children. In a world where the resources for change have never been more accessible, he is an example to us all that there is absolutely no excuse to sit idle. Awareness is the first step but taking action is where the real change begins.
It is the strength of both British and South Asian cinema that every few years, and with increasing regularity, a film comes along that is able to successfully and thoughtfully bridge the highs and lows of both cultures. With the recognisable cross-cultural DNA of films like “Bend it Like Beckham”, “Bride and Prejudice”and others before it, Shekhar Kapur brings to the silver screen an honest and comedic representation of East meets West with “What’s Love Got To Do With It” — an exploration of love and marriage across international norms.
Written and produced by Jemima Khan, the film draws from elements of her own experience of marrying then-Pakistani cricket star and now ex-Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and relocating to the country for 10 years.
“Particularly in the West, Pakistanis would quite often be seen as terrorists, fanatics and backwards,” says Khan, as she reminisces about her time spent in Pakistan over Zoom. “My experience of living in Pakistan was very colourful, vibrant, and fun. I always felt like the rom-com side of Pakistan was more surprising than anything else.”
A film not just about the heart, but with a lot of heart of its own, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” touches on South Asian families, culture, individuality, and marriages in the 21st century. Set in the UK and Pakistan, this is a feel-good and fun story about childhood best friends and neighbours, Zoe and Kazim, AKA Kaz. And as the narrative unfolds, new light is shone on their friendship and questions are asked about the cultural norms and practices we have grown to accept.
It isn’t your usual ‘boy-meets-girl’ tale. On the contrary, they’ve known each other forever; the fabric of their lives intertwined. Kaz is a British-Pakistani doctor of “marriageable” age, opting for an “assisted” marriage set in motion by his own desire rather than parental duress.
“I think we’ve replaced the term “arranged” with “assisted” because South Asian parents now trust their kids more to make the right decision for themselves,” said Shahzad Latif, sitting next to Lily James, who nods in agreement. “It’s still a process. Some parents may have more confidence in their kids than others, but we’re getting there.”
Zoe – played by Lily James – is a professional documentary maker living on an inexplicably fancy houseboat (bit of a stretch for somebody having difficulty funding projects, but, at this point, a crucial ingredient for London rom-coms). As a white British woman, her method of finding love isn’t one that involves parents or family.
“It was a no-brainer for me to be part of the script,” says a smiling James in response to whether any culture shocks were encountered during filming and table reads. “Pakistani culture is so rich and colourful, and it was important for me to showcase this side of the country. So no, no culture shocks per se, just more singing and dancing in comparison to British culture!”
Zoe’s camera is the vehicle through which the film examines Kaz’s “contractual love”, as she trawls dating apps while following her best friend down the assisted aisle.
Emma Thompson’s Cath plays the comedic matriarch to Zoe, eager to witness the conclusion of her daughter’s swiping days by being with someone suitable. She’s found a family in Shabana Azmi’s Aisha Khan – a more layered mum — one that is embracing both tradition and modernity. It would be fair to say that Azmi successfully sells cinema-goers on the difficulty of that struggle.
“Today’s society is slowly coming to terms with providing children the space they rightfully require and deserve to make decisions,” says Azmi, reflecting on how scripts and films have evolved over time. “Gone are the days when parents would blackmail their children into marrying the first person they come across. Just because they are their kids doesn’t mean they are actually children. They are adults with views and minds of their own.”
Kaz is then introduced to Maimoona (Sajal Aly); a shy introvert from Pakistan, unsure about the idea of moving permanently to London. She’s dealing with internal battles of her own; battles between personal desires and societal expectations.
“Maimoona may not have verbally said much, but her face said everything,” explains Aly, looking beautiful and radiant as ever. “She is torn between what she wants and what society silently shoves down at her and eventually, she goes with what the latter expects.”
The film navigates between London and a fabricated Lahore filmed in the suburbs of the British capital; a feat that comes as testament to the film’s production design. Kaz and Zoe’s jaunts across Lahore, backdropped by its magnificent architecture, set the stage for Pakistani music legends to shine, including the mesmerising voice of Rahet Fateh Ali Khan.
And if this wasn’t enough, Nitin Sawhney and Naughty Boy add further melody to the film’s music, as they talk about their experience of creating appropriate tunes such as the foot-thumping “Mahi Sona”.
“It was a great process and experience to create an appropriate language and expression of music which added elements and flavours to the film,” says the duo enthusiastically. “It’s also an ode to our South Asian heritage.”
Even though the tone of “What’s Love Got To Do With It” is distinctly feel-good, the film thoughtfully explores the unconventional ways that relationships may be built, and what multiculturalism can teach one another. Is it, in fact, more sensible to be practical about relationships? Is it possible to learn to love the person we’re with? Is love really the only ingredient needed for a successful marriage? Why was Kaz’s sister shunned for marrying outside of their culture? And do Western relationships draw more on the ideas of assisted partnerships than we realise?
A clever reference is drawn from the moment Prince Charles shattered many royal dreamers’ hearts with his dismissive “whatever in love means” comment upon his engagement to Princess Diana, thus proving that these notions may be closer to home in the West than one might believe.
James and Latif are a charismatic pair, with Zoe married to her independence and Kaz gently questioning her prejudices. The film is also a vivid demonstration of British talent, with Asim Chaudhry playing a hilarious yet questionable rishta uncle, comic duo Ben Ashenden and Alex Owen appearing as a pair of TV commissioners with a briefcase of ridiculous ideas, and Nikkita Chadha as the confrontational Baby — the film’s feisty rebel, in love with dancing.
“It’s incredible to be part of such a diverse and stellar cast,” smiles Chadha animatedly, while sipping on tea at Soho House in London. “My character is defiant and nonconformist — perfectly conflicting with the name “Baby “. I’m really excited for everyone to watch the film.”
Divorce is still stigmatised in South Asia — a theme often carefully avoided in desi films and television. Khan gently addresses it as a twist in the film – with a reminder that be it love or assisted marriage — amicable and mutual separations are a possibility.
As a complete package, “What’s Love Got To Do With It” deftly wraps up all the emotions associated with love and family in its joyful, musical, and vibrant 109-minute runtime. With its cast, music and direction, this classic rom-com is set to make you laugh, cry and, even more importantly, make you think about the multi-dimensional nature of love within and across cultures. The film is now showing in cinemas worldwide, and we highly recommend it.
Desk bound by day and travel bound all other times – Queenie thrives on her weekly dose of biryani and chilli paneer. She recently released her first book called The Poor Londoner, which talks about comical expat experiences people face worldwide. With degrees in Journalism and Creative Writing, her work and research on gender inequality in the travel industry is taught in universities across the globe. Her travels and everyday fails can be found on Instagram (@thepoorlondoner) and YouTube (The Poor Londoner).
Originally from Karachi, Pakistan and now blended into the hustle-bustle of London, Marium is a trainee technology consultant, by day and sometime also night, and also finishing her bachelors in Digital Innovation. In the midst of striving to be someone, she enjoys dreaming about the impossible (impossible according to desi standards and sometime Harry Potter impossible as well), and writing about them. She enjoys baking, decorating things and a cup of chai!
For any of us who have siblings, the relationship with them can be one of the most fulfilling ones. And also one of the most bloody frustrating. No one can quite stroke the fire like someone who knows you extremely well, or sometimes not, but have a familial bond with that neither one of you chose. In “Polite Society,“directed by Nida Manzoor, sisters Ria Khan and Lena Khan’s loving, sweet, and sometimes tumultuous relationship takes center stage.
Played delightfully by Priya Kansara and Ritu Arya, respectively, the evolution of their relationship is one of the film’s greatest and simultaneously weakest points. It’s also pretty cool to see two South Asian actresses in an action-comedy movie — how refreshing it is to mention the art of choreography and praise it in regards to fight sequences vs. dance sequences for a film centered on two South Asian women — that itself shows progress.
Set in London, Ria is an aspiring stunt woman who already shows massive talent in martial arts. She looks up to her older sister Lena, who is enrolled in art school and, also holds remarkable potential in a somewhat less traditionally acceptable field. Their relationship starts off as supportive and sweet with no inclinations of jealousy or resentment that sometimes plagues sisterly bonds. But this also means that they are quite protective of one another, almost to the detriment of their well wishes for each other.
This all happens when Lena gets engaged after dropping out of art school. Ria feels betrayed. They were supposed to be on this journey together in fighting for their dreams. Ria decides that she knows what’s best for her sister and enlists the help of her friends to rescue the damsel in distress from her own wedding. Her deep animosity towards the prospect of Lena getting married is also fueled by Lena’s fiancé and his mother acting extremely suspiciously. The twist that ultimately brings the two sisters back together is both shocking and weirdly somewhat progressive in the motive behind the villain’s origin story. But the twist, unfortunately, is too ambitious for the movie as it tacks on another genre and theme earnestly, but still clunkily.
“Polite Society” tackles not only what it means to fight for one’s dreams but also what it means to have just one ardent supporter. As Lady Gaga famously said, “There can be 100 people in a room and 99 of them don’t believe in you but all it takes is one and it just changes your whole life.” Well, Ria’s Bradley Cooper was her very own sister who seemed to abandon her, and her faith in her, when she chose a different path. For Lena, the film opened up the question of marriage and the weight it bears in the life of a South Asian woman. Ria’s lack of understanding of the pressure it places on Lena is the start of the change in their relationship — the start of Ria’s coming of age and the start of Lena settling firmly into her adulthood.
Standouts from the cast include Ria’s best friends, played by Seraphina Beh and Ella Bruccoleri, who commit to the story and characters with such hilarity and conviction. They add the lightheartedness and playfulness the film needs, and it is refreshing that never once do they use Ria’s cultural background as a way to make fun of her or dismiss her.
It is also heartening to see Lena and Ria’s parents being some of the most supportive South Asian parents seen on screen. At the end of the day, it is not the external family pressure that impacts the decisions made by the sisters but rather their own satisfaction, or lack thereof, with their own lives that become the driving force of their actions.
“Polite Society” is written and directed by a South Asian woman for South Asian women, and is definitely worth a watch when it releases in theaters this April.
“After so Long” is a poetry film created for Simha’s EP, which is streaming on Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music. The poem was collaboratively written by Simha, a U.S. native, and Jae, who is based in India, during the 2020 lockdown. “After so Long” was recited by Simha and their parents. In 2022, I directed and produced the film through my studio, Star Hopper. “After so Long” premiered on Nowness Asia in March 2022.
This film is a worldwide collaboration among trans and queer south-Asian artists from the United States, India and Canada. It was recorded, shot and filmed during the lockdown of 2020 and 2021.
Awake at 10 am but out of bed at noon,
I want to be here where I lose myself in these sheets
Glancing through half-shut eyes
At the gold pressing past my window
The glimmer remarks on the ledge of my bed
But the voices are so loud
Like dust collecting in the corner of my room
I am unaware to why I’m still here
With the chilling doubt of the breeze…
I’m swept into lucidity After so long
Mil rahi hoon mein aaj iske saang barso baad,
(Today, I’ll be meeting them after so long)
Koi paata nahi diya tune
(But with no destination sight,)
(What should I do?)
(Where should I go?)
Shayad agar mein chalne lagoon,
(Perhaps, if I keep walking)
Inn yaadon ki safar mein
(Down this road of memories)
Mujhe samajh mein ayega,
(I will find out)
Yeh rasta kahaan jayega,
(Where this road leads)
Inn aari tedhi pakadandiyon pe baarte hi jaana hai,
(Through the twists and turns of this winding roads, I must keep going on)
Mujhe mil na hain aaj uske saath,
(I wish to meet them today)
(After so long)
I feel like I’m retracing my footsteps
From these concrete stretches
To broken cement walls
Chips and cracks forge their way for new designs
I see the old abandoned buildings
That once held the warmth of bodies
Now just hold memories
Supporting the nature’s resilience
In vines and moss
After so long
Dhoondli shishe mein jaaga leli hai
(These isty mirrors have offered refuge)
Bikhri hui laatao ne,
(To these scattered vines)
Zameen pe uchi ghaas pe
(Amidst the tall grass stretching from the ground)
Lehrati kamsan kaliyaa
(The swaying little buds)
Bheeni bheeni khushboo bikhereti
(Spreading honeysuckle scent through the air)
Phir wahi mausam,
(I lose myself in reminiscing, the same season)
(The same heart)
(After so long)
Phir bhi mein chal rahi hoon aaj
(Still, I keep carrying on today)
Khudko khudse milane ke liye
(In the pursuit of my higher self)
Inn galiyo se guzarna hain aaj
(I must pass through these streets today)
Chaalte chaale jaana hai aaj
(I must keep going on today)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor paar
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
(After so long)
Kabhi hum milenge kisi mor pe
(Someday, we’ll meet again, somewhere on this road)
(After so long)
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