Director Vanessa Roth talks to Moneyish about “Daughters of Destiny,” her new Netflix series on Shanti Bhavan, the school that transforms India’s illiterates into its new middle class
Vinceya Edwin grew up in the Bangalore slums, the daughter of a rickshaw driver and housemaid who lived in a thatched hut with a roof made from coconut leaves that flooded when it rained. Shilpa Raj was born in a rural village to an uneducated father who counts digging graves, herding elephants and bootlegging moonshine among his jobs. Today, the former works for retail giant Amazon as a product investigator while the latter boasts a graduate degree and is about to embark on a book tour of her memoir.
Their journeys from poverty to a rising middle class were made possible by Shanti Bhavan, a school on the outskirts of Bangalore. Founded 20 years ago by Indian American social entrepreneur Abraham George, the residential school, whose name translates in Hindi as ‘haven of peace,’ takes in underprivileged kids from the age of 4 and raises and supports them through college. Its alumni have gone on to careers with Mercedes Benz, Goldman Sachs and Amazon and to work as a lawyer, psychologist and author.
108 of Shanti Bhavan’s alumni have graduated from college, a rate of 98% of all their students who’ve pursued a higher education. That’s a number made all the more remarkable by how the criteria for entry are that kids live below the Indian poverty line, agree to board at the school and have parents who promise not to prematurely withdraw them. This story told in “Daughters of Destiny,” a four-part Netflix documentary series scored by Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” composer A.R. Rahman that premieres this Friday.
While Academy Award-winning filmmaker Vanessa Roth is best known for documentaries that explore the American education and foster home systems, she felt that the Indian institution follows in a universal tradition. “The issues the children faced being the first generation in their family to do something new is something that people from any part of the world can relate to,” she tells Moneyish.
That said, Roth does note that the female Shanti Bhavan alumna she profiled faced huge obstacles, even when compared to the underprivileged America communities she’s worked with. As many of them hail from the lower rungs of India’s caste system, “the stakes and challenges they were up against are more extreme,” the Brooklyn-based director says.
Both women are now in their early 20s and reside primarily in Bangalore as part of India’s newly emergent middle classes. But their route there wasn’t easy. They were taken in by strangers when they were barely toddlers, and only got to see their families during school vacations and scheduled parental visits. Edwin notes that she would probably have been married off early or become a housemaid like her mother if her father hadn’t snuck her to the school when she was 3-years-old, in spite of her family’s objections.
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Raj recalls village elders telling her father that the school was run by kidnappers who wanted to harvest her organs. “But he’s endured hardships through his entire life and his inner instinct told him to be brave and let me go,” she says. And having completed a psychology graduate degree, she feels it’s worth it. “I dress differently and I carry myself differently,” says Raj, whose dream is to create another school just like the one she attended. “My community now sees me as a girl who’s completely empowered.”
But empowerment comes at a price. While Edwin’s closest co-workers know about her background, she doesn’t tell her most of her largely affluent colleagues about her past. She also finds it hard to enjoy the Bangalore high life the way they do, in part because she uses her money to support her family. “They’re always talking about big fancy hotels and I can’t connect with them,” she says. “I assume they won’t see me as an equal.”
India’s village schools improved as the country booms, with the country now boasting a literacy rate of over 70%, up from 48% in 1991. But Shanti Bhavan’s boosters say it’s of an entirely different caliber. That’s because the school doesn’t just teach arithmetic and the alphabet, but also life skills ranging from eating with a spoon and fork and to using an indoor toilet. “There’s a lot of people involved in bringing these kids up,” says Roth. “They spend a lot of time focusing on building the whole person, teaching them to be good people to themselves and each other.”
And the effects of this education spill beyond just its recipients. Raj now works three days a week as a counselor for mentally challenged kids in Bangalore, while also teaching English part-time at her alma mater. Edwin’s career at Amazon has allowed her to buy her family a new home and pay the medical bills of her sick father. “I’ll always have this education and skillset,” she says. “No one can take that away from me.”
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