What is it? A deliciously shot documentary series about an Indian school trying to break the cycle of poverty, one child at a time.
Why you’ll love it: Any story involving hope for a brighter tomorrow is welcome at the moment, but Vanessa Roth’s seven-year project to follow pupils from the Shanti Bhavan school in Tamil Nadu is particularly involving, thanks to its articulate participants.
It opens with a bunch of weeping mums, leaving their four-year-old daughters to settle into the dormitory on their first day. The girls will live at Abraham George’s institution until graduation and university beckon, something that is just a dream for their siblings. The school accepts only one child from each family, in the hope that their improved life chances will benefit the whole clan.
Having made his fortune in the US, George started the school 17 years ago in a bid to improve the outcomes of families in the lowest caste in India, the untouchables. Roth focuses on the females, who are usually denied education, and returns to them over seven years, observing and interviewing these clear-eyed young women as they aim for financially beneficial careers.
The music of Indian composer AR Rahman adds a suitably epic quality to the already breathtaking camera work. But Roth doesn’t get too distracted by shots of otherworldly quarries when her lens has the bright, brilliant eyes of her subjects to focus on.
Thenmozhi, seven, is a talkative sprite with the school’s uniform pixie-crop, who wants to have “a job called … science”. Manjula, 14, is approaching exams, but when, later in the series, you see her beginnings, it becomes clear that her whole family are waiting for her to get a good job and save them from spiralling debt.
Preetha is a regular teen who dreams of being a singer and struggles to focus on the drier aspects of academic life. She knows she will have to get a proper job one day, but, for now, she is rehearsing California Dreamin’ for the graduation show.
Shilpa’s dad didn’t want her because she is a girl, but her mother was against her move to Shanti Bhavan. With hopes of becoming a journalist, she part-narrates the series like a Tamil Nadu Carrie Bradshaw. And she has obvious talent.
Karthika hopes to become a human rights lawyer so she can help the people in her village to reclaim rights to their land.
By episode two, Thenmozhi is a still-enthusiastic 10-year-old. The older girls are coming to the end of their time at the school and looking to future studies. The girls rise up through education while their families remain socially static, breaking their backs at tough jobs while their daughters look to the stars. Sibling resentment is mentioned and Shilpa breaks down when she talks about what happened to her sister Kavya; a truly tragic story that still causes deep unhappiness in her family. She was a little girl with “uncontrollable energy and unexplainable dreams”, says Shilpa. The young writer’s poetic soul is cut through the series like a seam.
The uneducated lower-caste women wait for suitors while mothers-to-be pray for boys, the passivity of their lives in stark contrast to the Shanti Bhavan girls. They are living in a hot, dusty Jane Austen novel unless fate chooses to throw them a lifeline.
By the end of the series, Thenmozhi is 13 and talking to her friends about boys, although she knows to keep her distance and concentrate on her studies for now. The young men at the school are educated on the treatment of women in India, the “honour killings”, the high rate of maternal death in childbirth. George wants everyone who leaves his school to take a new attitude with them.
The actions of one man have undoubtedly transformed the lives of hundreds of seriously disadvantaged children and their families. If that isn’t worth celebrating in this glorious fashion, then I don’t know what is.
Length: Four 60-minute episodes, available to stream now.
Stand-out episode: The opening one is full of hope and adorable children going about the serious business of being four.
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