Newborns: A Film by Megha Ramaswamy
When a film is described as a documentary about acid attack survivors, the gut punch comes before anyone hits play. We know the story will be dark. We expect the scenes to be shocking. In Newborns, however, director Megha Ramaswamy doesn’t focus on the monstrous crime the women suffered and instead creates space for reflection on what it’s like to reclaim life thereafter.
Acid attacks came to Megha’s attention in 2013 when she read a news story about Preeti Rathi. A Delhi resident, Preeti traveled to Mumbai for a new job as a lieutenant nurse with the Indian Navy. Ankur Panwar, a neighbor of Preeti’s back in Delhi, snuck on the train and threw acid on her face just minutes after the train alighted at Bandra Terminus. She succumbed to her injuries after a month in the hospital. Upon his arrest several months later, Ankur explained he did it because he was jealous of Preethi’s professional success.
Megha couldn’t shake off this story, not only because of the awfulness of Preeti’s ordeal but also what seemed like the public’s general lack of awareness about such crimes. She felt compelled to take action. She started researching the history and prevalence of acid attacks in India (where at least 72% of acid attacks involve women), and eventually connected with Delhi-based NGO Stop Acid Attacks. SAA campaigns against acid violence, researches and reports cases around the country, connects survivors to medical and legal support, and lobbies for government action and retribution on behalf of survivors. Newborns came to life through Megha’s experience volunteering alongside survivors in SAA’s programs.
An experimental short film, Newborns uses interior monologue, poetic devices, and close-up shots to convey a mix of strength and lingering fear. The film opens with hundreds of birds cawing over a dimly lit sky, while a young woman’s voice shares a poem about Rashmi. Though we never encounter Rashmi face-to-face, her story—of how she loses her shoes wherever she goes—haunts the rest of the piece. The next scene takes us to the city, on a bus commute. The poem’s speaker switches to a whisper and introduces an elephant that brings Rashmi’s shoes home. She goes on to describe how the elephant’s eyes are black, a lamb’s blue, and the wolf’s red. Such imagery of eyes dominates the film and evokes a sense of always being watched. On the same bus, we overhear a conversation between a woman and a man, presumably the bus conductor. “I bet you see many people on this route,” she says, “but we have memorable faces.”
Meanwhile, repetition suggests conviction, such as in the description of facing the wolf’s red eyes in a lonely lane. And shots with a level angle position the audience eye-to-eye, exactly where we should be. We—the audience and society in general—may stare, yes. And they will stare back—speaking directly to the camera, refusing to be an “othered” creature to be observed or flinched at.
The title Newborns implies a grasp on new life, and it is inspiring to see the women’s strength despite what they endured. There is no sensationalist plot line to follow here. What we’re given is emphasis Megha Ramaswamy delivers commentary on what it’s like to see and to be seen. And what we see anew isn’t a victim or survivor or hapless woman but a reminder that we are human first and need to look at each other with dignity.
Newborns is available to view in full for a limited time, courtesy of Vimeo’s presentation of TIFF’s Short Cuts, and you can also view the trailer below. To learn more and join efforts to end acid violence, connect with Stop Acid Attacks.