City Girls: An endearing documentary on small town women making it in the city

City Girls, directed by Priya Thuvassery for Chambal Media, was screened at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala.
Umra and Kulsum in City Girls
Umra and Kulsum in City Girls
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Looking at the two young women on the screen talking about their lives after moving to the city, I feel a yearning. I am told it’s not just me. Many who watch the film – men and women – say that they have been through the same: moving from a small town to a big city, feeling afraid, learning to survive, or returning home. The film – a documentary titled City Girls – tells the story of two women in their early 20s, Umra and Kulsum, who made their move from a village in Uttar Pradesh to the city of Delhi, because they wanted to be away from home and free. In Thiruvananthapuram, where the film is screened at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala (IDSFFK), Umra, and the filmmaker Priya Thuvassery, are swarmed with stories of kindred people.

“We work together, Umra and I, for Chambal Media. It is a feminist media house run by urban and rural media practitioners. We make content that mainly focuses on rural women, rural landscapes. We are home to Khabar Lahariya, women-run independent news media,” Priya says, introducing herself.

Priya is a known face in documentary festivals. Her earlier works -- My Sacred Glass Bowl and Coral Woman – had featured in previous editions of the IDSFFK. City Girls came to her when Nirantar, sister organisation of Chambal, asked for a seven to eight-minute video on the theme of ‘city’ for their non-profit programme, Third Eye. When discussions happened in the office, they decided not to look anywhere else when they had Umra with them. They knew her story partially – she spoke of her village Banda in UP and her move to Delhi. She also spoke of Kulsum.

“At first she was very conscious when she was on camera. When I felt she was not comfortable I kept the camera away and we just hung out, cooked and shopped together. Kulsum was living with her, but I had not thought of having her as a character. Once, when I put both of them together, they started a conversation and soon forgot about the camera. After that first conversation, I realised Kulsum is the second character we need. Kulsum was at a place that Umra would have been when she first moved to the city,” Priya says.

Umra and Priya

Umra had by then been in Delhi for a few years. Listening to her talk about life in the city, Kulsum too wanted to come. In the documentary, Kulsum says she is still new to the city and would not go out on her own. At the post-screening interaction, Umra says she has learnt the ways of the city, and she has grown confident. However, it wasn’t always easy, and she was tempted to go back home many times. Everything had intimidated her. But she persevered, not wanting to go back to a life that had limited her in many ways.

It is endearing to hear the young women talk with so much worldly wisdom. In the film, both of them say how it is not the place that matters what it brings – Delhi means so much because of the freedom it brought to their lives.

Priya says she is lucky as a director to have got these two women who spoke their hearts so beautifully. “They didn’t ask me to but I deleted a few shots because I am very protective of them. We show their social media accounts in the film, which are locked profiles. They are that private but they gave me access to their space,” she says.

Umra says she is no longer afraid, and even wants her family to watch the film. It might take longer for Kulsum. At the end of the film, you see Kulsum pack her bags to go back to her hometown, even though a few nights earlier, she was shot sitting in the middle of the street for a photo. “I wanted to showcase the other side too, that not everyone makes it. But Kulsum does. Afterwards she came back to Delhi again, found a job on her own and stays by herself now,” Priya adds. 

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