Periods, which are now largely accepted and acknowledged as a natural process of growing up, are still used to present a great obstacle for young girls in some parts of India where the first onset of menstruation is celebrated with great pomp and rituals, to celebrate the girl’s ‘becoming’ a woman who is now ready to become a mother and produce babies.

As if that is the sole function of her life - producing babies.

And that is just the beginning of her troubles. After the first initiation celebrated with much pomp and show, in Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and other parts, every month the girl has to live within a world spilling over with taboos.

I have seen as a girl, the wife of a famous bharatnatyam dance teacher sitting in one corner of a separate room on a folded blanket she would spread out at night. She was not allowed to enter the kitchen or touch her children or husband, and had to survive on a near empty stomach. No one bothered about her because they were growing up witnessing this practice which has neither any scientific base nor human sense.

Within this ambience, where the practice is still celebrated in several parts of Tamil Nadu, the winning of an award by the short film Kanya (girl) which specifically deals with this topic, comes as more than a pleasant surprise. It has won Apoorva Satish the best student film award at Imagineindia 2021.

The story is about a teenage girl called Kanya, who is training to be a national level swimming and diving champion. She loves to swim and is very good at it. She also plays cricket with the neighbourhood boys and enjoys life to the brim.

Then, one day, while swimming in the pool, she gets her periods and her life takes a somersault while she does not know what hit her. Very reluctantly, she is forced by her mother and other members of the family to go through the rituals, and is shocked when told that swimming is no longer right for her and she cannot play cricket with the neighbourhood boys.

The 15-minute film ends with a poetic, almost lyrical twist as we see Kanya, bejewelled, dressed up in a sari like a bride, jumping into the lake on the last day to make a very powerful statement against the practice.

Born and raised in Chennai, a colourful conglomerate of urban villages, Apoorva was fascinated by the power of the Tamil film industry in state politics, igniting a passion for creating films that are socially and politically informed.

To hone her creative skills as a filmmaker, Apoorva travelled to Sri Lanka, Israel, Italy, Jordan, England and the USA to work on fiction and non-fiction projects. In 2016 she was selected to attend the International Filmmaking Academy in Bologna under the tutorship of award-winning directors Danis Tanovic and Claudia Llosa.

Kanya is a visually rich film which underscores the point that dialogue may be redundant when visuals do everything. The short film offers a model lesson in cinematography, especially in the underwater scenes. With minimum dialogue and music, it effectively drives home the point Satish is trying to make: that the practice does not have the sanction of the girl concerned, and therefore deprives her of the right to free expression, which includes the right to protest.

Explaining her trigger for making a film on such a delicate subject, Satish says, “Gender stereotypes have a significant impact on girls, especially during puberty, as this is the time when they learn what it means to be a woman through labels laid down by society – such as beauty and subservience. The onset of puberty triggers increased pressure from society to conform to hegemonic sex-typed identities and roles.”

She adds: “Youngsters become primarily aware of these gender stereotypes and roles during this age and begin to assume and accept them as ‘universal truths’. Consequently, girls struggle with self-esteem and self-confidence twice as much as boys during puberty, because society sends out a message that vigour, power and authority are for men, not women.

“These stereotypes not only promote inequality between sexes but also encourage youngsters to believe and accept imbalances in power within relationships later in their lives. Gender stereotypes are so deep-rooted in our culture that they even become a part of our language. Empowering girls during this time of their lives when confidence is at its lowest would be powerful, relevant, and purposeful.”

In a brief but touching scene, as Kanya is moping with her chin resting on a table, she asks her brother why he did not need to go through these rituals. “Coming of age is only for girls,” he says, as that is what he was brought up to believe. Does this not suggest that boys do not “come of age?” He feels sad that his sister will not be able to swim again but he can do nothing to change the order he has grown up to accept.

According to Satish, “the world is at a turning point where gender equality is not just a women’s issue anymore but a human rights issue. Therefore, it is also important to instil a sense of equality in the minds of not just adolescent girls but boys as well, by supporting them to understand the effect gender stereotypes can have on their options and roles in sport, at school and within their families.

“This aspect will also help them develop realistic expectations about future relationships based on mutual respect and equity. Kanya is a story of liberation and the phenomenon of moving beyond the conventional status of a woman in a patriarchal community.”

Apoorva recently received her MFA degree from the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in the Czech Republic. Her graduation film had its world premiere at the prestigious Busan International Film Festival in 2020 followed by a European premiere at the Raindance Film Festival in England.

Many documentaries, docu-fiction and short features are being made on the subject of menstruation to highlight the health and hygiene aspects of periods, which is also important. But few films focus on the sociological conditioning it imposes on young girls before they can understand what being a woman really means, and how it goes much beyond the ability to breed children!