A country of over a billion, India isn’t a stranger to the baby-boom. Over the last few years, this fertility has been captured into a new business – known as commercial surrogacy or “wombs for rent”. Commercial surrogacy is legal in India as of 2002. Combine that with India’s relatively affordable and high standard of healthcare for developing countries, and couples from developed countries are coming to India (and similarly positioned countries in the developing world) to fulfill their parenting dreams and aspirations. A recent story in Mother Jones shared the following difference in costs – “[An India]clinic charges about $15,000 to $20,000 for the entire process, from in vitro fertilization to delivery, whereas in the handful of American states that allow paid surrogacy, bringing a child to term costs between $50,000 and $100,000.” The same story also estimated that this is a $2.3 billion business for Indian clinics.
What about the women that “rent” their womb? Who are they? How do they navigate the socio-cultural reactions to the physically visible pregnancy? What does this mean for the clients who seek out surrogates in India and other countries? Is there a legal framework to keep in check the exploitation associated with surrogacy? I spoke with India-born and US-based filmmaker Arpita Kumar about her take on these issues in her latest film ‘Sita’, along with the challenges of capturing such a powerful and complex story on camera.
Q: Give us a glimpse into the story of Sita.
A: The film pries open a small window onto a day when the repercussions of a young Indian woman named Sita’s desperate act for change disrupts societal order. When Sita rents her womb out to a Canadian woman, her commercial surrogate status opens a can of legal and ethical worms. My audience for this story is both Indian and global. There are no villains in this film, just people who have their reasons. Therefore, we empathize not only with Sita here but the Canadian woman who has struggled for all these years to have a baby.
Q: How does Sita fit into the dialogue around gender and class in India?
A: The surge in medical tourism and commercial surrogacy in India is largely because this artificial reproductive technology (A.R.T) is cheapest though not necessarily the safest or most ethical in India. Most Indian commercial surrogates are women struggling financially. Similarly, the intended parents who travel half way around the world to rent a womb are not rich. They seek a commercial surrogate in India because either it is illegal back home or they are unable to afford it. However, the inequality of the global economic structure is such that it allows for a middle-class American or Australian to rent the womb of an underprivileged Indian woman. There is significant difference in what it costs to employ the services of a commercial surrogate in the U.S. compared to the services of a commercial surrogate in India. There is always the question of the quality of services provided to the intended parents and there is a lot of news around a surrogate often running away with the child born out of surrogacy. However, very few films capture emotional and psychological effects of commercial surrogacy on an Indian surrogate. Rarely is there a film that highlights the Indian surrogate’s point of view as she journeys through the surrogacy. Rarely is inquiry made about her subjectivity, or her awareness of the dangers to her health and psychology, the legal complications she might get embroiled in. These are the dialogues Sita hopes to initiate.
Q: Tell us about your work as a reproductive rights activist and why you chose this cause?
A: My reproductive rights activism has been largely through my work that draws inspiration from gendered narratives of the body and its reproductive control. I grew up hearing heartbreaking stories from my mother about how her educated, upper –middle class patients would put their health at risk and seek illegal sex-selective abortions. The women had no say over their pregnant bodies and its reproductive rights — a family patriarch or matriarch made the decision for them. Later, one of my first jobs in the U.S. was with Planned Parenthood, and it amazed me that an organization that provides reproductive health care and education to nearly five million women, and men worldwide finds its funding under constant threat because it advocates a woman’s right to choice. The constant threat to ban abortions in the United States reveals once again how state and religion control and maintain the female body. Commercial surrogacy is another control of the female body but this time through commerce. Through my film I don’t advocate against commercial surrogacy. In fact, commercial surrogacy can be a blessing for couples struggling with infertility. However, my film highlights how the commodification of a woman’s body can lead to potential abuse and health risks.
Q: Let’s talk about being a female film maker – this is another one of those industries where the lack of prominent women directors stands out. Is it tough being an Indian female filmmaker, especially when your subject broaches such a sensitive topic?
A: It is tough being a filmmaker despite your nationality or gender. However, yes, white men dominate filmmaking like so many other professions. It is harder then to break into a world where you are not the standard. Therefore, it becomes even more important to make films against the grain. My films have strong female lead characters and highlight narratives that raise questions about equality and female agency. I work and seek out people who work in a similar way and have similar work ethics. During my shoot in India, my entire crew was male and my cast was female. However, I have a dominant personality and it definitely helped empowering my presence on the set.
Q: Tell me about filming in India for Sita compared to your previous experiences. Anything that particularly struck you as brilliant, odd or surprising?
A: My main actor, Garima Bhardwaj, transformed herself physically from a middle-class Indian woman to a woman from a financially and socially disadvantaged background to play Sita. In the film, Sita is from rural Uttar Pradesh and Garima was very impressive in how she transformed the way she dressed, walked, talked, and held her body. However, the most shocking and absurd thing was the reaction of people in Delhi to Garima. We were shooting in a posh hospital and once Garima was in costume and make-up, the security guard would not let her in the hospital. It was shocking and a great revelation for all of us because we realized how somebody like Sita’s womb is desired in this hospital but not Sita herself. Sita is too poor to gain access in such a space. But, the hospital was not the only space. Our next shoot location was a temple and the temple priest practically chased her off the steps thinking she was an “untouchable.” Once again, a shocking and horrifying indication of how marginalized Sita is and how often abused and mistreated.
Q: What’s next?
A: We are about to embark on the international film festival circuit. Where and when Sita’s film festival premiere takes place depends on which festival we get accepted into and where we find distribution. Some prestigious festivals in Mumbai and Delhi are on our list so stay tuned and wish us all the best as we begin our festival journey. You can follow us for updates on our website http://sitathefilm.com or on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SupportSita.
Photo via the Support Sita Facebook page.