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Devadasi: Interview with Sarah Harris

by Matt Strachan

In Devadasi: Prostitutes of God, Sarah Harris explores Southern India’s pseudo-religious sex slave trade, where young girls are illegally sold into prostitution as ‘servants of God’ (or Devadasis) and sacrificed to the Goddess Yellamma. It's a practice that dates back to the 6th century, but continues to exploit modern India’s most poverty-stricken families.

Still from Devadasi: Prostitutes of GodMatt Strachan: How did you decide to make a film about the Devadasis?

Sarah Harris: It’s a slightly long and convoluted story, so I’ll try and keep it short. I left my job and ran away to India – I wanted to go and do something completely different. I found out about this organisation that works in Southern India to rescue victims of human trafficking and rehabilitate them. On my first day there I met a group of women who, I was told, were temple prostitutes, so immediately my ears pricked up. I’m a journalist as well, and I thought “I’ve run away from my job, but I’d love to find some interesting stories while I’m here”. So that was the first time I heard about them. I talked to them and I found out a bit more about their lives. Then I arranged a trip to Northern Karnataka in South India and went to interview them. So that was the first step, and that was in February 2008. I wrote an article for Vice Magazine, and I blogged a bit about it and stuff. But I did think that it was too much for just an article – it was a documentary waiting to happen, and I’d never done it before, so I came back and talked to Pegah [Farahmand – credited as producer/camera] about it, and we decided to go back out to India and make a short film.

MS: How did you go about finding and meeting the sex workers featured in the film?

SH: Because I’d been volunteering for this charity in South India that works with victims of sex trafficking, they were my in-road into that world. They made all the introductions and gave me a bit of an insight into the history and who the Devadasis were, why they did it. It just seemed completely unbelievable to me that young girls were being sacrificed to this Goddess. So they helped me, and gave me an introduction into that world really. I met these first women and then we were in touch with local grass roots NGOs who took us to very remote villages in Northern Karnataka – red light districts, brothels – we found ourselves in some quite odd situations.

MS: What was the strangest experience you had?

SH: We went to a meeting of Devadasis in a town called Sangli in Maharashtra, and this town has, I think, the second highest rate of HIV infection in Southern India or something ridiculous like that. They’ve got this huge red light district and a huge population of Devadasis. We met this Devadasi collective – these women who are trying to empower themselves as sex workers. And so we kind of stumbled across this meeting, went in and met this 6’2” cross-dressing male Devadasi called Pandu. At that moment we didn’t know that male Devadasis existed, so that was a huge shock – that almost changed the whole premise of the film in a way, because we didn’t realise that happened. He was in this glamorous sari serving us chai, and then he invited us to his house the next day, which is featured in the documentary.

MS: You’re credited as co-producer of the film as well as host, but nobody is credited as director. What was the thought process behind this?

SH: That’s probably because there wasn’t a director really. It was just literally Pegah and I doing everything together. I suppose she was the director really, but I set everything up. I orchestrated the interviews, where we were going, what we were going to do and the structure in that way. But Pegah was the one who came in with the knowledge of filmmaking and producing – her background is quite different to mine.

In a way I think that inexperience and slight naivety probably really helped us, because we weren’t afraid – we just did it. It was just a subject that we were fascinated by and we wanted to make a film about, so we just did it. I think possibly if you’ve got years of experience, you wouldn’t necessarily dive into something like that so casually.

MS: Towards the beginning of the film, we see you struggle with a poor interpreter. How did the language barrier affect your access and ability to empathise with the people you spoke with?

SH: There is obviously an issue of language, and having an interpreter there makes things a lot easier. The thing that I think is really difficult is some of the cultural differences – the way that we would approach these very touchy subjects is quite different to the way an Indian person would approach these subjects, and there’s ways that they talk about issues such as prostitution and sex that is very different to the way we would.

So, just as an example, when we get into these really difficult subjects, like HIV or something like that, they go from talking about ‘I’ to talking about ‘we’ – that was quite difficult. There’s almost like a distancing of themselves from what they’ve been through, these very traumatic experiences.

I’ve lived in India for two and a half years now, and there are ways of getting people on your side and making a friend. We were very keen to spend time with our interviewees and have lunch, have chai, spend time with their families, spend time in their home, get a feel of what their life is like – it wasn’t just diving in for an interview and then leaving immediately.

Still from Devadasi: Prostitutes of GodMS: Did you ever want to spend more time, and focus more heavily, on anybody in particular?

SH: I would have liked to have spent more time with all of them really. I think that you always feel that as an interviewer - you always feel as though you’re scraping the surface. And in that dynamic between the interviewer and the interviewee, there’s always stuff that you’re not going to quite get to the bottom of. In particular, probably Pandu – the cross-dressing Devadasi. We could have easily followed him for a month, and I’m sure it would have just been incredible, just to focus on him – he’s a film in himself really. He really took to us, and actually was really upset when we left. He was quite choked up – he felt that he’d made some friends for life.

Also, I think the two young teenage girls – Mala and Balavva. I would have liked to have spent some more time with them as well, because they were very shy so it took a while for them to warm up. I would have liked to have spent a few more days finding out about their day to day life.

MS: You come from a background in print journalism and the making of this film stemmed from research into an article you were writing at the time. Do you think video is gradually replacing text to satisfy online consumption habits, or was your decision to make this film distinct from any wider trend?

SH: One of the reasons I did it is because I’m very interested in documentary, and I very much see it as an extension of what I’ve already done. Obviously there are different skills involved, but my work up until now has been a lot to do with interview and research. In a way a lot of the skills are transferable from print to broadcast. Certainly I’m aware that I need to be a lot more versatile than I originally thought when I first got into journalism – I thought that journalists just had to sit and type using Microsoft Word and that would be it. It’s not like that anymore – the world is changing very quickly and you have to adapt.

MS: So what’s your next project?

SH: I’ve been talking with a couple of other filmmakers about doing another film in India, one about a cycle ride across India with victims of sex trafficking – a thirty day bike ride into villages to raise awareness. It’s actually former prostitutes who are doing it – it’s almost a ready-made story in a way, that journey. I’m talking to a Canadian filmmaker about that at the moment, but other than that my work is still very much in print, so we’ll see what happens.

Devadasi: Prostitutes of God is available to watch online at VBS TV.

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