The stars of Netflix documentary series Daughters of Destiny talk about subjects familiar to most teenage girls and young women: getting good grades at school, dealing with the attention of boys, deciding what they want to be when they grow up.
But the burden they carry is far greater than many viewers could imagine. These girls come from communities in India that are to this day seen as “untouchable” by many. Their families often work in hard labor, and are stricken with debt – and it is the girls’ job to turn their families’ fortunes around.
Daughters of Destiny follows five students – Manjula, Karthika, Preetha, Shilpa, Manjula and Thenmozhi – as they move through a school system designed to break the cycle of poverty. Shanti Bhavan, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, takes in 24 children each year from surrounding communities of Dalits, the lowest caste in India.
The school only takes one child from each family, feeding, housing and educating them from the age of four until they enter university. The school’s founder, Abraham George, says the children must use their education to lift their whole families, not just themselves, out of poverty.
News Deeply spoke to Director Vanessa Roth about filming Daughters of Destiny, and the challenges its stars continue to face.
Women & Girls: How did you hear about the school, and what prompted you to film there over a period of seven years?
Vanessa Roth: I was introduced to Shanti Bhavan by a friend who was going to volunteer there. I was intrigued by the idea of this school that took kids at the age of four from the most impoverished backgrounds in India, from families that have never had the opportunity to go to school, and the expectations the school had of those kids. I was intrigued to look into how those kids developed in the two worlds they were living in [at school and at home].
The idea was always to do something long term: I’m very interested in human development, and how adults’ ideas of kids shape kids, and how kids then grow to make their own choices in life.
Women & Girls: Shanti Bhavan teaches both genders, but you focus specifically on five girls and their families. Was it always the intention to only feature girls?
Roth: We actually filmed the whole time with boys and girls, I had not intended to make it about the girls. I didn’t want to focus on gender, I wanted to focus on the development of a person and the idea of family, the relationships and individual growth. But as we kept filming, and as we started editing, I realized that maybe subconsciously or naturally, something happened where we had stronger footage and more footage of the young girls and women.
Though the stories of both boys and girls are important to tell, the girls have gender, caste and class that they need to overcome. It’s something that adds to psychology, emotions, education, health care, every issue. When you talk about women and girls in the world, these girls have all of these things to live with and to navigate their lives through.
Women & Girls: One of the strongest threads in the series is the relationships between the girls and their mothers.
Roth: It struck me so deeply. These girls looked at their mothers as these powerful, strong forces in their lives, and at the same time, as people who the girls felt they had to take care of: the duality of the role the kids would play in their moms’ lives.
The other thing that struck me over time was that the love and concern the girls have for their mothers overrides anything about education or traditional values, or the differences they have with their moms. The children respect their moms so much and their moms are people who have been in hard labor, or bonded labor, and in lots of debt. They look at Shanti Bhavan as a way to give their daughters a better life.
Women & Girls: This is a film about the school at Shanti Bhavan, but it touches on so much more: honor, shame, domestic violence. How did you cover these issues without getting outside the main story, which is fundamentally one of education?
Roth: I would question that it was all about education. It is a school, and education is an important through-line, but it’s about a place – to me that was the starting point to go into the complexities of all the things you mention. At the core, this is not just about education; it’s about the complexity of these young girls’ lives.
The main point was always to tell the stories through the eyes and the voices of the girls themselves, and not have this be a story told by experts or the adults in the situation. I don’t think I had a chance to sway into all these other issues, I just followed where the girls’ stories led us and let them speak for themselves.
I find it simplistic to say that all these families and all the kids are just like any other families and kids, but I wanted to show that we don’t see enough coverage of people who live in poverty being treated the same way as you would tell the story about any other family.
Women & Girls: One of the takeaways from the film is that Shanti Bhavan’s model is still unproven. We see the girls get an education, we see them go off into the world and get to a better place themselves, but the model is more ambitious than that: To lift their families, or as Dr. George says in the film, 100 more people, out of poverty. Do you have the sense that this is going to happen?
Roth: There’s part of it that’s too early to tell. When we were trying to figure out the title of the series, one of the draft titles I loved was “Carry 100 More.” On one hand, I find it a grandiose vision, but the kids take it very seriously. They are told that and they work towards that.
As I’ve gotten to know the school, Dr. George and the kids more, I see that’s partly an expectation, but it’s partly an a ideal. When a person has the opportunity to get an education, to read books, to learn to think critically, to express themselves and to make choices in their lives, the domino effect of that person in the world multiplies in all kinds of ways and that may be economic, but it may not be.
From what I’ve seen at the school, they’re still learning how to support the kids as they keep growing. We will have to see what happens, but at the moment the kids who have graduated are going on to great colleges, they’re going on to jobs that they’re happy with, and they’re also going to different parts of the world. While that’s true, they still have a lot of emotional, psychological and developmental hurdles to overcome.
There is no safety net, they don’t have room to slip. Their families are in a lot of debt, a lot of the parents are in bonded labor. One of the girls, Karthika, has now become the guardian for her niece and is paying for her schooling, as well as healthcare for her family. The responsibility they have from the moment they walk out of Shanti Bhavan is a very heavy one.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.