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May 29, 2018

Caste Changes

A revolutionary school in India is changing lives and society forever.

By: 
Libby Slate


In India, where the social caste system is still in place, 300 million of the country's 1.3 billion population are members of the Dalit caste, formerly called the "Untouchables" and considered the lowest of the low.

They toil in such menial-labor locales as matchbox factories and rock quarries, supporting their families on less than $2 a day.

Since 1997, there has been a beacon of hope for a select few. That was the year a residential school called Shanti Bhavan (Hindi for "abode of peace") opened in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, with administrators choosing its first class of 12 boys and 12 girls, all four-year-olds from the Dalit caste, to live at the school and receive a proper education, thus paving the way to self-determination.

The school was founded by Dr. Abraham George, an Indian who moved to the United States and became a success, then at age 49 sold his software company to a Fortune 500 company to return to his homeland and fulfill his long-held dream of making life better for others.

The stories of this unique school and some of its students are told in the compelling four-part Netflix Original documentary, streaming now, Daughters of Destiny: The Journey of Shanti Bhavan, which chronicles five girls of varying ages over a period of seven years as they take classes, return home for vacation visits and prepare for lives unlike any their families have ever known.

Director-executive producer Vanessa Roth, who won an Oscar as co-producer of the 2007 documentary short Freeheld and specializes in projects about social issues, was inspired to make the program after learning that a friend was going to volunteer at the school.

Parents of potential students didn't understand its purpose at the beginning, founder George recalls in the film, fearing the worst. "They said, 'Are you going to take our children's kidneys, and eyes?'" he says. "I said, 'No. I'm going to give you my heart.'"

And ever since, he has – staying at the school for six to seven months of its 10-month academic year, and recruiting son Ajit to be director of operations. "We want to produce children who will completely change Indian families," he explains. "They struggle every day to make a living. There's a lot of hardship. But these children will change that completely, forever."

It's an assertion, not just a dream. Once the students graduate college – as 97 percent of Shanti Bhavan alums have – and attain jobs, they give 20 to 50 per cent of their salary back to their families and villages. "I came to the conclusion that you have to multiply your work," George says. "If you help one child, that child should help another 100 more, or 1000 more, or maybe even a million more, if you're a national leader."

Even though the potential is enormous – graduates are now working in the fields of law, journalism, health care, IT, business, education and engineering – it's wrenching for the four-year-olds and their mothers alike to have to part on the first day of school, as shown in the film's opening scenes. A girl named Thenmozhi, seven when the documentary begins, confesses that she misses her mother, and a few years later is having trouble with her studies. Can she remain at Shanti Bhavan?

Teenager Shilpa feels "very lucky," she says, to have been chosen to attend. Her mother wanted her to remain at home. "It was my father's decision to let me go. It contradicted everything he [believed in]. When I was born, he didn't want me because I was a girl – then, this same man is telling my mother to send me to school."

Preetha, a teen who likes to sing and near the end of the program is shown rehearsing the song "California Dreamin'," muses that "people who do not have an education do not have the opportunity to expose their talents. Maybe [my mother] was a good dancer, but she never had the chance."

On one of her visits home as a young adult, Manjula, 14 at the beginning of the film, is informed by her mother that her grandmother has asked, "Are you going to get her married, or let her study?" Her mother's answer: "Let her study. She will get a good job."

And Karthika, a teen whose father was murdered, she believes, because he was of an upper caste and married her mother, a lower-caste woman, has been learning a different sort of lesson along with her studies: that of earning respect, and a place in society. "[Those who discriminate] – I don't know what kind of humans they are," she says.

Indeed, instilling the confidence and self-respect to rise above the caste system and thrive despite their roots is another core lesson of Shanti Bhavan. "Where they come from is an accident of birth – it has no bearing on what they are today," George says.

As he tells the students in a graduation speech at the documentary's end: "Fundamental to every human being is the idea that you are free, and you shall live your lives as such.

"The path to freedom is a meaningful education. When you leave Shanti Bhavan, I want you to go with the belief that you're possessed with the ability to control your path, and lead the way for others. Do not forget that the power to change is in your hands."

For its powerful depiction that one man with a passion can make a difference, and its many-layered storytelling about the influences – external and internal – that shape lives, the Academy is pleased to bestow a Television Academy Honor on Daughters of Destiny: The Journey of Shanti Bhavan.

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