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A friendly look at attempts to change cultural attitudes in a place notorious for accepting violence against women, Inka Achte’s Boys Who Like Girls focuses on men of three generations in a Mumbai nonprofit. The observational, in-the-trenches doc doesn’t attempt to paint a nationwide picture, instead reading between the lines as two grown volunteers coach a teen from a troubled home. Very in sync with global concerns (from the developing world to Georgetown prep schools) about how boys might be raised differently, the doc has limited theatrical potential Stateside but will be welcomed by advocacy groups.
Harish Sadani is a mild-mannered, fiftyish man who started MAVA (Men Against Violence & Abuse) more than two decades ago. Meyer tells us nothing about its origins (avoiding interviews or narration in favor of watching the group in action), but we can see that, despite receiving praise, the group remains on the brink of failure. Halfway through, Sadani admits as much to a young colleague named Aspar, who loves being a social worker but needs more income to support himself. Later, we follow Harish to a conference in Denmark; he looks for funding partners there, but meets larger groups that (though they compliment his work) will not give money to projects run by men.
Back home, Aspar corrals unruly groups of boys ranging in age from prepubescent to high school. At one gathering, they draw a chalk outline of a woman on the floor and name all the parts of her anatomy. As the kids crowd in, contributing all the slang they can muster (“milk factory”?!), Aspar wonders aloud why there are so many names for her genitalia, and why most are swear words.
One of the students, and the dramatic heart of the film, is earnest Ved, a kind-faced kid who in the first scene talks about his unreliable father. Dad might go out for a shave and come home drunk, or he might not come home at all; as we’ll see later, the rest of the family monitors his comings and goings with dread. Meanwhile, the boy does what others see as women’s work — going to fetch water so his mother can rest, cooking dinner even if others won’t eat it.
Achte observes some of the ordinary moments of Ved’s life —practicing dance moves when no one’s around, going to the waterfront with a friend and trying to talk to girls — and doesn’t force anyone to vocalize their biggest worry: Seeing his mother be mistreated is hardly a guarantee Ved won’t reenact that dynamic later in life, especially if he’s not able to get into university and escape his family’s poverty.
For now, such a future is hard to imagine. Ved is enthusiastic about the right of women to be treated with dignity: He and other MAVA members write bare-bones plays commenting on sexual mores and perform them in the street. As we see the impassive faces of older men watching these plays, it’s hard to guess how much impact they have; but they clearly reinforce positive values in the performers’ minds.
Viewers will want to know more about Harish — to learn something about his own upbringing; to see how he turned out so different from many of his peers. But that kind of portrait isn’t on Achte’s agenda. The biggest question on her mind is, with someone trying to change a culture of violence here in India (a lethal 2012 gang rape in Delhi hovers over the movie), why aren’t wealthy philanthropists in the West climbing over each other to give this man money?
Production companies: Napafilms, UpNorth Film, One Eyed Turtle
Director: Inka Achte
Producer: Liisa Karpo
Directors of photography: Sari Aaltonen, Riju Das, Malini Dasari
Editor: Livia Serpa
Composer: Jorgen Meyer
Venue: Bergen International Film Festival
In Hindi, Marathi and English
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