An attempt to make a documentary film on Khasi matrilineal society is difficult. For one has to present contrasting views without prejudice.
Aditya Seth was able to achieve this objective.
The established filmmaker from Mumbai did extensive research on the subject. He came to Shillong in 2014, and started filming the documentary.
Are They Better Off, screened at Riti Academy of Visual Arts, fluidly tells the story of Khasi people. Though without a narrator, the personalities interviewed produce a narrative that provokes multiple questions and interpretations.
Seth’s cinematography is spectacular as he captures lives of local Khasi women in Shillong, Cherrappunjee and Bengaluru. Three women feature prominently in the film — Hulda Lind Kynta, Selinda Kharbuki and Jubelee Kharmujai.
The film chronicles Khasi society right from its nascent stage preceding British colonialism. The Khasis had their own rites, rituals and culture, the matrilineal system being one.
Christianity with the coming of British and Welsh missionaries was accepted by Khasis. It did not come into conflict with existing norms.
However, Seth, in the film presents the Seng Khasi in recent years opposing conversion. The Seng Khasi of the indigenous faith seeks to uphold the principle of Tip briew Tip Blei, or to know man, to know God. This contradicts Christian belief in Christ.
The matrilineal system traces its origin in the indigenous faith’s principle of Tip Kur Tip Kha, to know one’s maternal kins and to know one’s paternal kins. It is said that in olden days, the husband had to fight in wars, and made the wife look after the family and property. He also made the baby trace its lineage by using the wife’s surname. The kur or kin of the wife hence are very close to the couple.
The film gives a long introduction into the dynamics of the matrilineal system. But this is to familiarise foreign viewers.
Kynta’s view that Khasi women are respected in society is contradicted by Kharmujai, who had been denied her inheritance despite being the youngest daughter or the khatduh. Kharmujai also expresses her plight living in penury.
While from Kharbuki, we get a different picture. Kharbuki, residing in Bengaluru, says though she is the khatduh, yet she does not want to stay in Shillong and inherit property. She wants to focus on her career as a professional in the metropolitan city criticising her state’s lack of oppurtunities.
Kharmujai also echoes the same. Struggling in life, she says she plans to shift to the mainland to get a job.
A villager, weeping, presents a contrasting opinion. She went through a divorce with her husband, and struggles to feed the family. Working as a daily wage labourer, she says in the past her husband, an alcoholic, was violent and used to beat her.
Founder of Impulse NGO Hasina Kharbhih echoes this view saying women,in such cases,are not privileged in Khasi society.
The Syngkhong Rympei Thymmai’s (SRT) founder Keith Pariat says, in the film, that Khasi men are depressed because of differential treatment. This is because the husband has to stay with his in-laws and is deprived of property rights.
Founded in April 1990, the SRT has over 2000 members who prefer to stay anonymous in society.
A young Khasi girl in the film says she is disillusioned with Khasi men because most engage in drinking and gambling. She says, with a smile, that she would instead marry an outsider or dkhar.
But this would lead to problems in society as the child born from her would lose tribal identity.
What is not being stated in the film is outsiders marrying the youngest daughter to get property indirectly or open businesses in her name.
Khasi society today has many cross-community/cultural marriages. This has been a cause of worry for many Khasis who prefer to keep their tribal identity intact.
Now matrilineal society is at a crossroads due to mixed marriages and imitation of other cultures by taking identity from the father which creates confusion for future generations.
Patricia Mukhim, editor of The Shillong Times, in the film says Khasi society is not matriarchal because women do not hold primary power in roles of political leadership.
In Khasi society, the uncle has the power to distribute property and wealth, and also is central in decision making for the family along with the father. The father is considered the head of the family.
The film shows Khasi society at a transformational stage where on account of education, economic compulsions, love relationships etc, things are slowly taking a turn.
The film offers contrasting views and perspectives from different personalities making the viewer to question and interpret. It also paves as a gateway for people in the mainland to comprehend this society.
Seth, speaking to Sunday Shillong, says, “I want to showcase this society to the world, my criteria being comprehensiveness”.
Funded by Films Division of India, the documentary took Seth two years to film.
“I wanted to allow many views and opinions for multiple interpretations”, he says.
On being asked what was central in the film, Seth says, “It also focusses on failures of the system which lacks a balance”.
Seth adds that the response has been positive with the film being screened in various festivals.
Seth has directed various award-winning documentaries of which Bahadur-The Accidental Brave was awarded Best Documentary at the Dada Saheb Phalke Film Festival 2012 and Best Feature Film Award at The Indian Independent Film Festival 2013. He has been making films, documentaries and serials, for more than 25 years now, which cover various social issues.
This article first appeared in Sunday Supplement of The Shillong Times January 28, 2018 (link: http://www.theshillongtimes.com/2018/01/28/questions-on-matrilineality/ )