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Saving innocence: Kailash Satyarthi on The Price of Free

Ahead of the web première of The Price of Free, Kailash Satyarthi talks about the inconvenient truths that the film deals with, and his struggle at red carpet events

“I have just returned from Hollywood,” beams Kailash Satyarthi as we meet at his Delhi office. One could sense a tinge of irony in his voice as we usually find him either at the hot spots of child labour across the world or at conferences that talk about the issue. Well, this time he was rubbing shoulders with the best in glamour world at the private screenings of The Price of Free, releasing tomorrow on YouTube. The Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner traces the efforts of the Nobel Prize winner in abolishing child labour across the world.

“The project started around three years back when producer Davis Guggenheim, who won an Oscar for The Inconvenient Truth, approached me for a film on my life and work. He attended the Nobel Prize ceremony in 2014 and fell in love with the subject.” Guggenheim’s team, led by director Derek Doneen, followed Satyarthi for two-and-a-half years. “Not strictly a biopic, it captures my struggle and the work that Bachpan Bachao Andolan does. The crew also followed me during rescue operations, which I still do to re-energise myself,” informs Satyarthi.

He clarifies there is no dramatic recreation of his early life. “Some of the important events like my first rescue operation in 1981 in Sirhind and the murder of one of my close colleagues in 1983 have been presented through animation.” He reminds that when he started in the early 80s there was no UN Convention on the Rights of Child. “It has been a long struggle.” And sometimes it acquired dangerous proportions like the way he and his team were attacked by circus owners in 2004 in Gonda district of Uttar Pradesh.

To explain his work, Doneen followed three rescued children. “Out of many, they zeroed in on Karim, Sanjit, and Sonu because they could express themselves better than others. However, he didn’t interview them. He only followed their interactions with BBA members and child counsellors from a distance. It was quite unlike the Indian media where most try to talk as much as possible to get first-hand information. They understood that rescued children lose trust in the world and it takes a lot of effort to build it again. Even after years of practice, I find it difficult. It is an emotionally draining process.”

Painstaking process

Satyarthi says the team’s respect for norms of child rights was laudable. “For them, capturing the reality was important even if it took a lot of time. There was no effort to dramatise the events. In fact, once I asked them what was going on and why the director was not directing. Then he shared his moral dilemmas.”

Satyarthi had his share of concerns. “I made it clear that the film should not tarnish the image of India in any way. Child labour is a global problem and our foundation is working in 144 countries across the world for the last 20 years. I have been saying that India is a land of 100 problems but it is also the mother of one billion solutions. This movement against child labour was not started by a western country. It emerged from India. Secondly, it should not show despair or pessimism. Every person who watches the film should carry a ray of hope. That though it is a serious and complicated problem, it is possible to abolish child labour and slavery and I think it has profoundly come across.”

Interestingly, Satyarthi has been facing criticism from some sections of the civil society for not realising that child labour is an Indian reality and that it is not always bad for the economy. “Child marriage was also a reality once. All kind of social evils could be justified by giving some logic. Some people justify casteism and dowry as well by saying that they have been there for ages. We have to realise that this is evil and the film very strongly establishes that child labour is inhuman, illegal, and is not good for the economy of any country, including India,” reiterates Satyarthi.

Vicious cycle

The film explains that there is a vicious cycle between child labour, poverty, and illiteracy. “Every single child is working at the cost of an adult labourer. And that adult is usually the parent or a family member. A child is preferred because he is the cheapest source of labour. A child can work for 15 to 16 hours a day and can be exploited sexually or otherwise. Our data shows that around 152 million children are working as labourers today and around 210 million adults are jobless. Isn’t it strange?”

On the positive side, Satyarthi says there is a growing understanding against the practice of keeping children as domestic help. “I remember when the malls started to come up in Delhi NCR, upper-middle-class families would go shopping with a child domestic help in tow. She could be seen standing outside the eatery holding a baby or the shopping bags. We lodged a number of complaints and initially, the police also saw it as interference in personal life but slowly people realised that there was something wrong in this practice.”

These days Satyarthi has no time for films but there was a time in the 70s when the electrical engineer used to watch Amitabh Bachchan films. “I identified with the characters he played. I was equally angry with the System. I had no time for prem-mohabbat ki kahani. Both of us haven’t aged, I guess,” he laughs. However, during the promotion of The Price of Free, he found himself handicapped. “I don’t recognise the people from the glamour world. At the Cannes Film Festival, I failed to recognise actress Cate Blanchett. When she asked to take a selfie with me, I thought she was a media anchor. Others around me were surprised as I was not showing any excitement. I went through the same process at the screenings during the recent visit to New York and Los Angeles. For the film media, I am a celebrity, who would pose in front of 100 flashbulbs, which I fail to live up to. I am weak in this subject.”

Miles to go

Despite all the attention, Satyarthi doesn’t feel that he has peaked. “I have not achieved what I wanted to. We have not been able to eradicate child slavery yet. Of course, the number of child labour has declined in the last 15-18 years from around 260 million to around 150 million. I have also been successful in getting the abolition of child labour, slavery, and trafficking incorporated in sustainable development goals and the global development agenda. Now the global commitment is that all forms of child labour should be eradicated by 2025.” But, he adds, India is still a hot spot. “We should realise that the Nobel Prize was not for me; it was for India. And, it will truly make sense when we would ensure that child labour is eradicated from the country,” sums up Satyarthi.

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