Today, Maheshwari is studying at a college in Bangalore, India, with the goal of becoming a cardiologist. How she got to that stage in her life is small a miracle given her background-- her parents worked at a quarry, and her family members never finished school beyond eighth grade. As Maheshwari, who is from the village of Bengili, once wrote: "My family thought I would join work with them—a simple ignorant quarry woman worker."
However, at the age of four, Maheshwari was selected to attend the Shanti Bhavan boarding school, which provides disadvantaged children with educational opportunities that would normally be out of reach. Maheshwari's last week at the school leading up to her graduation, and her final visit to her home before departing for college, are documented in new 11-minute short film by co-directors Christen Brandt and Kate Lord titled Magho (Daughter). The documentary will have its premiere at the Centre for Social Innovation Pop-Up Space in Manhattan on Thursday, and the ticket proceeds will go towards Maheshwari's college scholarship fund. (Watch the trailer below)
Both filmmakers are from Brooklyn: Brandt is the director of international relations at She's The First, a New York-based non-profit organization that finances the education of girls in developing areas around the world; Lord is a photo editor at The Wall Street Journal. The two women went to India last year to visit Maheshwari and the Shanti Bhavan school, which is a partner of She's The First. It was an essay written by Maheshwari, who was among six girls from Shanti Bhavan scheduled to graduate at the time, that led Brandt and Lord to focus their project on her.
“Basically what we were looking for was a girl whose family was going to sit down and was going to talk with us for an entire day and would be open to telling their story,” says Brandt. “By the time we got down there, we settled on Mahesh and we actually met her on the same day we did a majority of the film. "So our second day of India, we were traveling to the school, and on the way, we stopped and picked up Mahesh, drove her home to her house, and hung out with her family for eight hours, just filming straight through.”
According to Brandt, Maheshwari spent her time at the school mostly away from her parents. During that period, tragedy struck the family and Masheshwari learned from the school's housemother that her father had died in a quarry accident. “At that point, her mother really had to take over responsibility for the family,” says BRandt. “One of the things you see her wrestle with in this film is how that changed the trajectory of [Maheshwari's] goals and her life and her ambition, and even to an extent she saw herself as.”
Magho also provides a glimpse of gender roles in India, according to Lord. “It's really interesting to see the different dynamic of women at home in her home village and at school,” she says. “At school, it's a very Western way of thinking about women and the way boys and girls hang out together, and everybody's equal. But at home, women are supposed to be a little bit more quiet, they're supposed to be cooking and cleaning, so it's a very different way of living each side.”
For Brandt, one of the moving moments in the film is the interview with Maheshwari's mother, whose own early life paralleled her own daughter's--up until a certain point. Both lost their fathers at an early age, but while Mahesh's mother got married at 15 and raised children, Maheshwari remained in school.
“For Mahesh, she suddenly felt a very large responsibility toward her family and toward her future goals,” said Brandt. “But her life stayed basically the same. For as much the death of a parent was going to impact you, her daily in and out didn't change, she's not being pulled from school, she's not getting married. If it wasn't for Shanti Bhavan...she would have been in the exact same situation her mother had been.”
While the caste system in India has been outlawed, says Brandt, there is still a stigma. And there is also an economic factor that's tied to education in a country where only 40 percent of its girls are literate. “If you have a family that does have money to send of one their kids to school,” Brandt said, “do you send the boy whose eventually going to grow up, start working and [put] money into the family–or do you send the girl whose going to grow up, get married and go look for a husband? The economic answer is obvious, you're gonna educate the boy. Mahesh mentions this in the film as well–if you're 18 and not married, you're an old maid. You're hardly even marry-able.”
According to the filmmakers, Maheshwari intends to stay in India and help her community after her college education. “The reason why we call the film Magho,” says Brandt, “is because so much of what Mahesh hinges on where she is in her family. Her biggest goal is to help her mother get out of the poverty. Whether she becomes a cardiologist or a pediatric doctor or a nurse, her end goal is to really help the family.”
As far as what she hopes people will come away from Magho, Brandt says: “For me, it's not only the situation that girls are facing in India, the kind of obstacles that they are overcoming...but also education is not as simple as it seems to be. You have all these relationships that are incredibly complex, as relationships are always are.”
“I think this film really shows that Mahesh is a girl just like we were,” says Lord. “We were seniors in high school, too. She is excited to graduate high school and go to college. She's very relatable, which I think is an important thing to see.”