Sponsored by the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, the November 10 screening of the documentary The Revolutionary Optimists evoked deeply personal memories for at least one student in attendance: Courtney Ahmed ’18, a current senior who traveled to India this past summer to intern with the humanitarian organization that is the subject of the film—Prayasam, or “Their Own Endeavors.”
While Prayasam targets the same demographic as many of its counterpart organizations do, focusing most of its efforts on the disadvantaged children of the Kolkata slums, its philosophy is a unique one. In Prayasam programs, which range from dance classes to one-on-one tutoring in the maths and sciences, individual agency and initiative is emphasized above all else. Although Prayasam provides guidance to the children who participate in its programs, whether they succeed—and what, precisely, they succeed at—is ultimately up to them.
The children who are the subjects of The Revolutionary Optimists, for example, undertake very different endeavors: two, Sikha and Salim, raise awareness of the dire need for a source of clean water in their neighborhood; another, Kajal, works in a brickyard rather than going to school to support her family; a fourth, Priya, teeters on the brink of marriage at the astonishingly young age of sixteen, just one of the many pitfalls of life in the slums. In the context of the old saying “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” Prayasam is much more concerned with the act of teaching than the act of giving.
It is these pitfalls that Amlan Ganguly, Prayasam’s founder, so earnestly tries to make the children of the slums recognize—and, more than that, overcome. A former lawyer, his circumstances, both past and present, could not be more different from those of the impoverished children he works with. He began life with what to them would have been unimaginable privilege: a house that was formerly a governor’s residence, an education at the best institutions the nation had to offer. Prayasam was an answer to the contrast he saw between his lifestyle and those of the people around him.
In conversations with the children in the documentary, Ganguly often seems to channel his inner athletic coach, such is the pep-talk style his lectures often take. He doesn’t sugarcoat the realities of life in the slums: the oftentimes-vicious cycle of poverty and abuse that can persist for generations, the astonishingly high rate of child marriage, the health hazards a dearth of clean water and unsanitary living conditions can pose, the exploitation of children for labor. However, he emphasizes the value of a positive outlook and a belief in personal influence as a means through which the children in his care can hurdle this myriad of obstacles, hopefully into a better life.
The results generally speak for themselves. By the end of the movie, Salim has made it to Parliament to speak before the committee members about his community’s urgent need for clean water, and Kajal, who is unable to attend a traditional school because she works during the daytime, has reinvigorated her educational prospects through intensive late-night tutoring sessions. (Priya, however, marries her boyfriend in a bid to escape her abusive family.)
Don’t let the movie’s testimony alone inform your opinion of Prayasam, though; speak with someone who has seen firsthand the effects of its programs. Luckily enough, we happen to have one such person on campus. In interviews with Ahmed, her enthusiasm for the organization—born of a wholehearted belief in the authenticity of its positive impact in disadvantaged communities—comes through in tangible waves. Although, as just a summer intern, it is “hard for her to say how Prayasam has shaped its youth members over a period of time,” the work ethic and intellectual curiosity of the children she did have a chance to meet—“especially the girls”—was extraordinary.
From here, Ahmed segues into praise for Prayasam programs for their commitment to gender equality. There in the heart of India, a country plagued by sexism, “Girls were working alongside boys in making and directing films, planning and executing projects, traveling to communities, speaking in public, and expressing themselves in group settings.” To see this happening particularly in the underprivileged communities is uncommon given the second-class status of girls and women in India, which I came to learn a lot about. I would definitely say that because of Prayasam’s efforts in empowering girls and giving them the platform to voice themselves and achieve great things, girls of the underprivileged communities have become much more confident and have higher self-esteem than they would otherwise.”
Re-watching The Revolutionary Optimists, Ahmed was impressed by how closely it reflected her own experiences with the organization and its employees. “The only differences between Prayasam now and the movie’s portrayal is that Prayasam has grown and evolved since then,” she says. “It’s gotten much bigger and there are many more projects besides the Area Health Minders [which Salmi and Sikh participated in] and the Allahdi Dance Group [which Priya participated in]. The main character of the film, Amlan Ganguly (the founder), was exactly who I expected to be upon meeting him in person, so the film did him justice as well as the children and the whole organization, which makes sense given that Amlan and the members of Prayasam were heavily involved in the film production.”
While Ahmed had seen the documentary before she began work with Prayasam, the firsthand experience with the organization she garnered through her internship allowed her to see “the film through different eyes, with a much more informed gaze.” Ahmed sees the film’s honest portrayal of the children as one of the most valuable aspects of the film. “Nothing was downplayed about their environment, but most importantly, nothing about their poverty was exaggerated or allowed to take away from their power, their agency, their voices,” she says. “This is probably the biggest threat that many [non-governmental organizations] inadvertently wage against the impoverished constituents they try to help: they portray them in a negative light, emphasizing their poverty to elicit pity from outsiders, without thinking about this portrayal’s effect on the very locals themselves: a negative self-esteem.”
During her internship, Ahmed’s primary role was in documentation, “traveling to schools in Malda and writing reports on the Meena Manch platform within those schools, reporting on community events, interviewing youth filmmakers, editing project applications, and writing letters to sponsors,” among other responsibilities. In a way, then, her role within Prayasam mirrored that of filmmakers Nicole Newnham’s and Maren Grainger-Monsen’s: depicting (albeit in different mediums) the powerful impact of the organization. Because that’s ultimately the purpose of The Revolutionary Optimists, in Ahmed’s eyes: “to portray a healthy, honest optimism, which does not filter out poverty, but rather is the chosen mode of representation, by the very people who are being represented. What you see and hear on screen is empowered self-representation. And that is why it felt so authentic to me in the first place.”
Photo of Ahmed introducing the screening by Alexandra Iglesia ’21.