A farming community in Madhya Pradesh auctions off girls aged 9 to 14 to men that place bids on their virginity, says Taher Ali, who, deeply hurt by the reality, has set out to produce a feature film "Modhi" in the hope of bringing about a change. The movie's name means a girl in the local dialect.
"When I realised there is a community in Madhya Pradesh that auctions off girls to men that place bids on their virginity, I was shocked. What shocked me even more was that this was being perpetrated by the girls' own families under the garb of custom but actually for money," Ali, who hails from Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, told IANS in an email interview.
"The fact that such a community existed in a place I grew up in, deeply hurt me. It was heartbreaking and I decided to get this heinous act in front of the world. Ignorance is how negative practices continue to exist and as a filmmaker, it is my primary duty to expel this ignorance," he added. "Modhi" pronounced 'morhi' is his first film.
According to the film's description, the traffickers of the young girls are usually their own mothers who have been traded too when they were young. So for them, it's just a "rite of passage".
It was when he stumbled upon a story written by an acquaintance on the issue that Ali first got to know of the reality.
"Then, I researched on this topic further to be able to verify all the facts being covered. I have chosen to keep a few things under wraps like the exact location and religion of the community mainly because I don't want the film to become a part of any political propaganda. I want the focus to remain on the issue of human trafficking.
"The religion-centric approach that news outlets and political agencies have taken while covering recent events like the (Kathua rape) tragedy takes away from the fact that all crimes are crimes and their religion does not matter. I have willingly chosen a humanitarian approach as opposed to a divisive one," said Ali, who won the Mr India World 2012 title as a model.
Ali clarified that he hasn't met the people who indulge in it directly. During the film's recce, he went to the Kalidasa Academy in Ujjain where people were already working on a play on this community, reaffirming him the reality.
"I couldn't go and speak to the people who do it directly as it's not out there in the open. It happens very discreetly. People who come to bid are those who have been coming for many years or their ancestors were invited too. It's a tradition followed by a farming community," Ali said.
He believes filmmaking lends a power to make the audience aware and to make them empathise.
"When you watch a film on-screen it has more impact than just words in an article. Remember 'Rang De Basanti' and the change it brought in the youth of this country? There are so many such powerful films that come to mind.
"As a filmmaker, I do not have the ability to change laws and bring justice, but I do have the ability to take my message to people who can."
Ali said "people of this community follow this tradition as if it is God's written word, so if you intervene, there will be (bloodshed)".
"The challenge is to educate them and to make them believe in better. A grassroots effort to eradicate is needed here and not a one-off violent fight with a few men. But as a filmmaker, I believe in the power of cinema, and together as a society we can correct this."
Ali, who is taking the crowdfunding route via Wishberry to wrap up post-production of "Modhi", aims to raise Rs 700,000.
"I want to finish this film at any cost to be able to share this message with the public. And that's why I started running a crowdfunding campaign. I want to invite the people of this country to join me in spreading awareness about this topic.
He hopes to screen the film at NGOs and activist centres, government schools and colleges all over the country. Of course, the larger vision is to take it to film festivals and to give it a release on digital platforms to "start a dialogue and to ensure that people do something about this horrific practice".