Big Exclusive: Meet Vaishali Sood, Director Of National Award Winner Documentary On Child Abuse Survivors

Rahi Foundation’s The Little Girls We Were… And The Women We Are directed by Vaishali Sood is a poignant blend of real-life shattering memories and soul-piercing testimony.

My personal belief is that you don’t need to walk into someone’s shoes to understand their pain – all you need is a human heart.

The film poster

One such effort won the National Award this year – the documentary film The Little Girls We Were… And The Women We Are won the best film in the education category at the 65th National Awards.

The 38 minute feature is a heart-wrenching saga of five Indian women survivors of incest and child sexual abuse. Five women who refuse to be called victims or survivors. Five women who would rather be called warriors. Five women who are no longer prisoners to their traumatic childhood, having created an inspiring new life – but who brought tears to my eyes when they recalled their trauma on-screen.

Rahi Foundation is an NGO that has been working to end incest and child sexual abuse, as well as address its long-term impact on women survivors. Founders Anuja Gupta and Ashwini Ailawadi from the Foundation reached out to famous anchor and author Amrita Tripathi, who then brought in her former colleague Vaishali Sood to direct the film with her.

Meet Vaishali Sood

With both Vaishali and Amrita having been formerly my seniors at CNN-News18, I have been fortunate enough to closely observe the kind of passionate work both of them have undertaken over the years, especially in the field of Health Journalism.

When I congratulated Vaishali Sood for the award, she humbly told me, “Thanks Mahima. All of us were in the middle of meetings, conferences, shoots, etc. The news reached us almost an hour after it was announced. This film has changed my life. I am glad I did it. It’s made me more human, I guess.”

Vaishali Sood receiving the National Award

An incredible journey

Vaishali has in the past been conferred with the prestigious Ramnath Goenka Award for Excellence in Journalism, Indian Television Academy and Indian News Journalism Awards. But this time, I felt the palpable feeling of relief, calm, and catharsis, in her voice, instead of just joy. Certain stories need to be told to bring in a desired changed, to justify living in the skin of a human.

“It started out as a 3-min film idea, and as more and more women joined in, we decided to turn it into a full documentary. The film was emotionally a tough one to do. We interacted with the women over skype calls, emails etc. about everything under the sun for days before we actually shot with them. Their comfort was paramount. Their trust in us was paramount. And that was established by these calls and meetings. When picking the crew, our main focus was to get on board people who would be comfortable, comforting and trusting, as these women poured their life story to us. Manish Chanana, our DOP and Durgesh Ghansela, the second camera person, created a comfortable environment – we were almost invisible as the women spoke. The focus had to be just them,” recalls Vaishali.

Vaishali Sood with her team behind the award winning documentary

Vaishali, who is currently the Editor for the Health portal of The Quint, adds that even the experience of being a leading journalist and creative producer for 18 years wasn’t enough to prepare her for these stories. She had to go an extra mile.

Talking with the survivors

“You have to relate to them as a woman, and as a mother of young girls. You have to be patient, and you have to let them talk. As a health reporter/producer you are aware of abuse, you are aware of safe touch, unsafe touch, you know the facts and stats of the number of kids who are abused – but as a mother of 2 young girls, suddenly all this knowledge hits closer home. Fear never leaves you. Your antennae are always up. You are constantly worried about their safety. I wanted to do this film; and while filming I wanted to reach out to the little girls they were, give them a hug and hold them tight, and keep them safe. The film was personal.”

Talking to Vaishali about the film brings out certain uncomfortable memories of my youth, sending a chill down my spine. I have lived the pain, the struggle of being the daughter of a single-parent, yet extremely brave mother. My mother was always worried about the safety of her two daughters in the big bad city of Delhi, and ensured her daughter went to college in an auto-rickshaw the very day after she complained of an inappropriate touch while commuting by city bus.

Haven’t we all faced sexual abuse at some time?

Vaishali’s stinging question in response to my query if she has ever faced any abuse as a child brings me back to the present. “Haven’t we all, Mahima? That inappropriate hug from an uncle, that forced peck as a child, that hand up your skirt in the bus, that hand on your boobs as you cross a lonely stretch of the road. If I close my eyes, I can recall every detail of the face of these men who think nothing about violating you…” as Vaishali recalls, my heart skips a beat. My grip on the hand-phone tightens as I feel numbness in my left fist. I open my fist; my nails have dug deep into my skin – it is raging red with anger, like my heart.

Vaishali brings me back to my senses, “Mahima, are you there?”

“Yes, Vaishali, please go on. Tell me how the film has changed you as a person, as a woman.”

Vaishali remarks, “Mahima, there is only one word that describes these women – brave. They were fabulous, they were brave, they were honest, they were funny, they were brilliant. And they changed my life for the better –  I am more vocal now, I speak up more, I raise my voice, I stand my ground and I am a dragon when it comes to my girls. I am fortunate enough to be in a position where I can help create awareness, and take it to schools and the community. The worst thing you can do for a child is to not speak up on their behalf; I speak up everyday.”

Empathy, not sympathy

Vaishali says this about the women she met while making the film: “But then, their experience is theirs. I cannot even claim to understand. I can only listen, I can open up an empathetic heart (they don’t need sympathy) and I can give them a platform to share their trauma. So, if I have to say anything at all to others who have faced similar trauma – I’ll say ‘Reach Out.’ No one wants to be a victim. But just surviving is not enough. The first step is acknowledging. It’s only when you acknowledge that this happened to you that you begin to heal. Speak up. You’re not to be blamed. It is not your shame.

As Vaishali makes this very resounding appeal, I pray and wish that people stop treating child abuse, incest and even rape survivors in the negative manner they do. A treatment that pushes them into the dark world of depression through life. I feel like shouting out at the top of my voice, “Stop shaming the survivor, damn it!”

Vaishali Sood with the team at the awards ceremony

I bow to the five women whose narration of their trauma has not just won the National Award, but has also given courage to many like them to open up, to vent their feelings and thoughts, and change their lives for the better.

Family support

I ask Vaishali how her family supports her during her work.

“My husband Amit and I have been married for a decade now, and have two young daughters. Our family, my husband, and my daughters are very proud of our limited achievements.” Here Vaishali laughs, adding, “My daughters like to show off that their mommy makes films. They just wish their mom made cartoons instead.”

But then not all women have the privilege to get what they deserve. What’s Vaishali’s message to them?

“Never ever let go of who you are. Not even for your family. Be persistent, don’t lose your identity, and fight for what you want. You’ll realise that everyone else will fall in line and support you, and love you for it. “

And we decide to wrap, but not before appealing to all of you out there to share this journey, and to ensure that at least one person is able to change their mindset towards women survivors of any kind of violence.

Images source: Vaishali Sood. Header image features Vaishali Sood with Amrita Tripathi

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