Amlan Ganguly and child activists
Amlan Ganguly with several of the children featured in The Revolutionary Optimists

Amlan Ganguly is a visionary. This lawyer-turned-community activist is not only changing a neighborhood, but also changing the way its youngest residents envision their lives. In this character-driven and highly cinematic documentary, acclaimed filmmakers Nicole Newnham (The Rape of Europa, Sentenced Home) and Maren Grainger-Monsen (Worlds Apart, The Vanishing Line) reveal Ganguly’s critical work in a Kolkata slum neighborhood. Filmed over the course of three and a half years, The Revolutionary Optimists follows Amlan and three of the children he works with through adolescence as they challenge the idea that marginalization is written into their destiny.

Filmmakers Maren Grainger-Monsen and Nicole Newnham
Filmmakers Maren Grainger-Monsen and Nicole Newnham

We recently spoke with Nicole Newnham and Maren Grainger-Monsen about their experiences making The Revolutionary Optimists, which premieres Monday, June 17 at 10pm (check local listings) on Independent Lens.

What impact do you hope this film will have?
We hope the film touches and inspires people with its message that community organization and empowerment, and a commitment to slow change — across generations — is necessary to solve the pressing problems of the world.

We also hope that the film will make significant impact in health and foreign policy by showing that the major problems in global health are interconnected to poverty, education, and gender issues — and that when these issues are addressed as a whole, rather than as a silver bullet, then real concrete progress can be made. The youth in our film were victorious in getting clean water for their community and doubling the polio immunization rate by tackling all these issues in this holistic way.

Through engaging with this story, and through our multi-platform project, Map Your World, we hope that youth and communities around the world will take steps towards transforming their own communities.

What led you to make this film?
We wanted to make a film that told the story of the visionary people in global health who are fighting to make the changes that the world says is impossible, but everyone knows are essential. When we read about Amlan and Prayasam’s work organizing and empowering youth to transform public health in Kolkata’s slums, it instantly jumped out at us as a great documentary subject: to be able to show how the inner transformation (empowerment) of a child could lead to the external transformation of a community — a better world.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
Some of our biggest challenges came from trying to make this film in such an intimate way with the barriers of distance and foreign language translation. We were helped immeasurably by our collaboration with cinematographers Ranu Ghosh and Ranjan Palit, who worked with us as cinematographers but who are also both extremely talented documentary filmmakers based in Kolkata.

There is an obvious challenge in terms of making U.S. audiences see the relevance of the struggles of India to their own lives. Subtitles are a distancing problem.

But throughout our tour, and to our delight, we have been heartened to see children from 9 years old through high school ages in the U.S. instantly make a connection with the film, asking themselves: “what am I doing to change my community?” The film also provokes great conversations about our relative privilege in the United States and how seriously we do or don’t take ourselves as citizens or changemakers. It provokes profound responses about resilience and resignation.

Interestingly the issues portrayed in the film: clean water, child labor, extreme poverty, early marriage — are definitely discussed among audiences who are eager to learn more or to get involved in solving them, but audiences also are finding universal relevance to their own communities and lives.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
First of all we were incredibly privileged to be working with the trust of Prayasam, who had spent 15 years building trust in the communities. We worked to make people understand and trust us by striving to make them real partners in the work, by spending the time — literally years — working with them, by having our fantastic DP do a photography workshop with the children of the community, by doing short films along the way based on the feature that we shared with them and the world through TEDxChange—which allowed them to see the impact and benefit the film could have.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
We had to take out some truly lovely scenes of Salim and his mother that fleshed out his character, and his neighborhood beautifully when we cut our feature version down to a broadcast hour. We also followed the entire process of the Allhadi dance theater project’s production, and filmed a beautiful performance that ended up on the cutting room floor. I hope we can release that as a DVD extra because it’s really wonderful.

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
Nicole: I am always incredibly moved by Amlan working with the girls in the “River of Life” scene. His generosity in sharing his own personal story with them, his gift of listening and great attention to their struggles to forge their own paths is to me the core of what makes his work so invaluable. And I am especially moved knowing that the girl he encourages to stand up to her father, who had decided not to educate her is now succeeding in her education, and a happy young woman.

Young Indian women in a pensive pose
Priyanka, one of the film’s subjects.

Maren: When Amlan stands behind Priyanka as she watches the other girls perform, unable to participate, and then he goes on to talk about how he will not give up on her. He says that even if Priyanka’s new mother in law won’t let her participate in Praysam and the dancing, that Priyanka can lead the way with her children, and teach her mother- in-law a new view of the world. This shows me the depth of Amlan’s commitment and patience, which is what it truly takes to create change.

What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
The audience response has been overwhelming. People are genuinely moved and inspired. We were happy to find that the film really works for younger audiences, who relate to the children in the film and are inspired to reconsider a sense of their own agency when confronted with this story. We had several families bring their children to the film in theaters, and then bring them back to see it again.

When Shika and Salim saw the film, their response was that they have to work harder and do more. They saw so much more potential work to be done. The film is also being shown by Prayasam to other communities it works in and it has inspired some fierce competition between Prayasam’s newer youth groups who want to show that they can improve their communities too!

Can you share any updates about the people featured in your film?
Shikha and Salim were invited to Oxford to present their work at the Skoll World Forum and to Abu Dhabi to present their work at the World Vaccine Summit with the Gates Foundation. They just passed their national exams with high marks and are entering their last two years of high school.

Priyanaka is married and now has a baby girl. Amlan has set up an additional dance studio near where she lives and hopes to hire her to teach there. So far, her mother-in law and husband have been unwilling to let her, but he does not give up hope.

Kajol, an Indian girl in a colorful sari runs against a blurred background
Kajol, one of the child laborers and budding activists featured in the film.

Kajal continues to work full time and study in the evenings. She and her mother have since moved to a different brick kiln.

Amlan has set up a new “OnTrack” program at Prayasam that teaches the kids the skills they need to get jobs and to become the successful change agents of tomorrow. Prayasam now operates in 16 communities in Kolkata, and touches the lives of hundreds of children.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
The combination of knowing that the film can be used to make real significant change, and a love of the craft of telling a compelling story with beautiful imagery.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Public television has the biggest reach of any of the broadcast venues, and reaches underserved audiences. To be part of the Independent Lens series is a real honor, and we were especially thrilled to be included in Community Cinema, where we saw communities around the country engaging with the film in a profound way with an array of panelists and discussions ranging from global health to youth activism to women and girls’ rights.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
Laundry, gardening, cooking, keeping up on other documentaries!

What are your three favorite films?
Nicole: To Be and To Have, Harlan County, Chronicle of a Summer
Maren: Picnic at Hanging Rock, The English Surgeon, Harlan County

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
The most important thing is picking a topic that you completely believe in and are willing to stay with for the years it takes to complete an independent film. These projects are from the heart and soul.

What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?
Punjabi chai in clay cups drunk on the street of Kolkata between shoots!

Watch The Revolutionary Optimists on Monday, June 17 at 10pm on PBS (check local listings).

Learn more about Map Your World, an interactive community map-making project inspired by the film.