The Afghan Girl – An Ancient Saga

Feature Article

Photographs, phot + graph which is Greek for “light + writing”, are marvellous means to capture moments almost forever – a print may fade, a digital file may vanish – that shares, and if seen keenly expresses, the truth.

The truth has as many versions as the fish in the ocean, each one equally powerful, waiting to reveal itself to the one awaiting.

What did the Afghan Girl reveal to me?

The Afghan Girl, photographed by Steve McCurry.
It is ‘the most recognised photograph’ in the history of the magazine.
©National Geographic

This photograph was taken in 1984 by photojournalist Steve McCurry for the National Geographic magazine in a refugee camp for Afghani people in Pakistan, where he documented the ordeal of hundreds and thousands of them.

“Haunted eyes tell of an Afghan refugee’s fears”, these words, imprinted on the magazine cover, talk about her Present i.e. the war-torn Afghanistan of 1984-85, but her eyes are talking about an ancient saga which was and which still is unfolding.

It is the tale of a fierce innocent soul that struggles to survive, that dares to live.

Dorothea Lange who took the iconic photograph titled the Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936) while she was documenting the lives of Americans and migrants during the Great Depression also captured something similar; the struggling life of a thirty-two-year-old migrant mother of seven, her tired yet firm gaze reflects perseverance.

Talking about her technique as a documentary photographer, Dorothea Lange said –

“My own (sic) approach is based upon three considerations – First: hands off! Whatever I photograph I do not tamper with or molest or arrange. Second: a sense of place. Whatever I photograph, I try to picture as a part of its surroundings, as having roots. Third: a sense of time. Whatever I photograph, I try to show as having its position in the past or in (sic) the future”.

Dorothea Lange

An idea/ a concept with which I cannot agree more for both these photographs are real, deeply rooted in their culture and have a position in the past and the future… amazingly the present has faded.

The image of the Afghan Girl has stayed with me for all these years and somehow I can relate to her.

I am afraid and at the same time curious when I see this image, afraid because her fierce glare raises so many questions that cannot be answered and curious because I (and we all are in fact) am a part of this ancient saga.

While documentary photography documents facts, it is interesting to see that the fact when it comes to every living being is more alive and beautiful than a tailored presentation; there is a hidden true story behind every image documented.

In 2002, the mystery behind the identity of the Afghan Girl was resolved as the National Geographic team found out who she was.

Sharbat Gula, photographed by Steve McCurry (2002). [Source – Public Delivery]

Sharbat Gula aka the Afghan Mona Lisa lived a difficult life like millions of refugees in the world and only in 2017 was given a home by the Afghanistan government.

Similar was the story of Dorothea Lange’s migrant mother, who later lived a much secure life.

The subplots run along with the main storyline.

A pure photograph picks one strand from the ocean that has the power to reveal what the unfathomable ocean hides within.

For me, the Afghan Girl and the Migrant Mother are two such photographs.

The World of Steve McCurry exposition in Palais de la Bourse/Beurspaleis of Brussels in May 2017. [Source – Wikipedia Commons]

[Recently I completed a photography course (MoMA – Seeing Through Photographs) online and learned more about this fantastic field. I had researched and written about the Afghan Girl for an assignment.]

Weekly Newsletter

A weekly dose of stories! Get the posts from the Chiming Stories in your inbox and read it when you can. Subscribe now, it is free!

Recent Posts

Mother India – Epic tale of an ordinary woman

Film Analysis

Nargis as Mother India. [Source – BollySpice]

Mother India (1957), a benchmark in Hindi film industry, glorifies our country, which had then seen just 10 years of independence; it celebrates the Indian women – a daughter, sister, lover, wife, mother, an individual and the goddess; and in the most dramatic, impactful manner it presents the magic of cinema.

This epic film is written by Wajahat Mirza (who also wrote the dialogues for Mughal-e-Azam), S. Ali Raza (who wrote films like Aan and Andaz) and Mehboob Khan (the director). It was a remake of Mehboob Khan’s film titled Aurat (1940), based on the story by Babubhai Mehta, to which he profusely added a strong sense of nationalism – like in the song ‘Dukh Bhare Din Beete Re’ we see an outline map of India literally drawn on the land using haystacks, with people inside, waving joyously and Radha, along with her two sons, standing at the centre on a pedestal, with sickles in hands.

Though 172 minutes long, with a total of 12 songs (by Naushad; lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni), Mother India has a very well written, crisp screenplay. It begins with the protagonist, Radha, an old lady, considered as the mother of the entire village, taking the audience into a flashback, as if saying, ‘come, listen to my story’.

We see now a younger, beautiful Radha who marries Shamu. At first, she comes across as a shy and subservient bride, her husband being her lord, but wait until Radha hears about the loan that Shamu’s mother took from the devious moneylender, Sukhi Lala, right then Radha confidently offers her jewellery, her gold bangles to pay off this debt.

The tussle between a family in debt and a corrupt loan shark, between Radha’s values and absolute degradation of every moral standard, only intensifies as the story moves ahead. Radha’s family grows, their needs increases, but so does Sukhi Lala’s interference and with Panchayat’s support he declares his right on Shamu’s farm and its produce.

Birju, Radha’s second son, is a rebel right from the beginning – he wants his farm and Radha’s gold bangles back at any cost. Foreshadowing this, Birju troubles Sukhi Lala as a kid, not ready to give him the harvest, calling him a thief and grows up to become Sukhi Lala’s doom.

The tight plot doesn’t give respite to the viewer for Radha has not one but many battles to win; Shamu’s arms are crushed in an accident, humiliated by Sukhi Lala for living on his wife’s mercy, he leaves Radha and their four kids forever; after passing away of her mother-in-law, Radha faces natural disasters – flood and storm hits her land and takes away her two youngest kids.

With only Ramu and Birju as her family now, defeated, she goes to Sukhi Lala and begs him for a morsel of bread. In this highly dramatic sequence, Radha, who had decided to compromise, eventually doesn’t allow Sukhi Lala to violate her; she has a dialogue with the goddess Laxmi –

“Devi, Radha k roop mein aate hue laaj na aayi… mere roop mein aayi ho to apni laaj lut-te hue bhi dekh lo… hanso nahi… hanso nahi… sansar ka bhaar utha logi Devi, mamta ka bojh na uthaya jayega… Maa bankar dekho, tumhare panv bhi dadmaga jayenge…”

(Translation – Goddess now that you have come in my avatar, witness how you are dishonoured. Don’t laugh! It is easy to nurture the whole world and truly difficult to be a mother, try being one, even you’ll falter.)

Radha looks weak at first – like the mother who is expected to sacrifice and is thusly, worshipped – but after talking to the goddess within her, she remembers her individual self; Radha stands up, crushes the evil and soars like a phoenix.

She raises her kids into fine young men; she gets Ramu, a man of principle, married, but worries for Birju, the stubborn son. Once again foreshadowing is used here – Radha warns Birju not to trouble any girl or else she won’t spare him, in fact, after the Holi sequence when Birju tries to get Radha’s bangles back from Rupa (Sukhi Lala’s only daughter) and the whole village beat up Birju for being so insolent, then Radha promises the entire village to punish Birju herself, kill him if need be.

Bloodthirsty, Birju joins some dacoits, kills Sukhi Lala and abducts Rupa. When Radha tries to stop him, with a rifle in her hands, Birju doesn’t listen, sure that his mother can’t harm him; Radha shoots him down – Birju dies in Radha’s arms after giving her the gold bangles.

Here the flashback ends; Radha opens the gate of the irrigation canal, allowing the muddy reddish water to flow in the fields, symbolizing bloodshed that she and the whole nation had witnessed for freedom.

Every scene, every dialogue, every song makes this film nothing less than an epic poem. The three love stories, in its limited space, bloom beautifully – Ramu and Champa represent ‘love’ that triumphs; Birju and Chandra, both opposite in nature, represent unfulfilled love; Radha and Shamu, unite to face separation forever, represent ‘love’ that sacrifices.

Throughout the film, the characters stick to their traits and yet, each character grows. Ramu fights Birju to protect Rupa in the end; Sukhi Lala begs Radha to save his daughter, but still doesn’t say a word about the debt; Birju leaves the village to become a dacoit, hitting his mother when she tries to stop him; and Radha, a mother becomes Radha, a woman and sacrifices her son for a girl’s honour. That is why these characters are still remembered, they repeat their traits, their flaws, just like we all do.

A 21st-century screenwriter could be reluctant to accept Mother India’s melodramatic approach, but what cannot be resisted is its great storyline, life-like characters and true representation of Hindi cinema.

  *[Originally written for the Screenwriters Association (SWA), you can check the same here.]

Weekly Newsletter

A weekly dose of stories! Get the posts from the Chiming Stories in your inbox and read it when you can. Subscribe now, it is free!

Recent Posts