“I am that girl who shoots bullets into the sky and makes doorways of freedom, hope and relief.”
That’s Preetha, reading out a poem she has composed to the students at the Shanti Bhavan school in India. Founded almost 20 years ago in Bangalore by businessman Abraham George, the college was intended to do one thing: give a leg up to those in the Dalit caste, the lowest of the low in India’s society, undesirable, overlooked and, as we soon see, severely undervalued. Part human rights project and part educational establishment, it’s a noble venture that tries to both help Dalits find their own way out of poverty and demonstrate to the rest of the country that they can do so.
Daughters of Destiny, a documentary that follows the school and some of its students, is understandably doe-eyed about the whole thing, coming across at times as a promotional video to highlight the stellar work the school is doing. Director Vanessa Roth, though, stops that from ever becoming the dominant tone, prising out the human stories behind the feel-good headlines – filming five girls over a period of seven years, she’s just as committed as George to doing some life-changing good.
We meet Thenmozhi, the youngest recruit to the school, Manjula, a teenager studying for exams, Preetha, who wants to be a singer, Karthika, a mature young woman with a sharp legal mind, and Shilpa, a 24-year-old graduate of the scheme. Jumping between their tales, we get a real sense of how much their families depend on them – Shanthi Bhavan not only represents a way out for these children, but also a way to support their parents, who are also struggling to make it from one day to the next. But while the flitting across multiple narratives means the show’s structure is a little wayward – a more detailed examination of India’s caste system would be welcome – the sincere affection that’s on display is irresistibly moving. Slumdog Millionaire composer AH Rahman’s music gently amplifies the heartfelt impact of seeing their parents happily slaving to support their offspring – aware that with only 24 students admitted every year, Shanti Bhavan’s beneficiaries are a lucky select few. (There is sadness and inequality on screen as well as positivity.)
It’s immensely rewarding to see these daughters grow over the series’ epic arc into the very dream that they all share – one that’s summed up beautifully by Preetha’s poem, read out passionately, as she becomes more confident in her creative voice. It’s the humility that goes with their success, though, that really hits home: even as Karthika lines up a future that could dramatically change the lives of her parents in a very practical way, she still remembers where she’s from, and how fortunate she’s been.
“I know people who have got through, like, way more difficult circumstances to get to law school,” she tells us, casually. This is inspiring, uplifting television.
Daughters of Destiny is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.