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Aug 1, 2009

Review: Palna's Daughters

by Abi Weaver

Palna’s Daughters (Palnan Tyttäret)

Palna is an orphanage in India where two girls, Devi and Stuti, were taken temporarily, before being adopted by a couple from Finland. We follow everyday life of Devi and her adoptive parents, as they gradually progress with Stuti’s adoption.

Devi is an intelligent, sprightly six year old who enjoys playing with her toys, such as a Krishna doll and characters from Winnie the Pooh. Her Finnish parents have encouraged this mingling of cultures and both Devi and her mother wear brightly-coloured saris. Devi tells us, matter-of-factly, that she is half Indian and half Finnish.

Although Devi is the focus of the film, her parents become a source of increasing admiration. They are completely honest with Devi about the reasons for her arrival in the orphanage. Devi herself gives a heartbreaking account of why she was adopted. Her mother, she says, was unwell and could no longer care for her. She left her at a train station, where she was found by a policeman and taken to the orphanage. Her adoptive mother later elaborates: Devi had tuberculosis and was starving when she came to the orphanage. Much of the early footage of Devi taken by her parents shows a very different child to the one we come to know. Solemn and withdrawn, she looks at the camera frowning. This was not the bright, happy child she became after the adoption.

We come to understand that much of the parents’ patience and compassion comes from a deep love for their children. Indeed much of Devi’s level-headedness appears to be the result of loving parents. The mother recalls how friends of theirs had given them useful advice on how to cope with a young child. However, ‘One night I woke up, looked at our daughter and realised my friends had not told me the best part of having a child: it’s the most beautiful love story in the world.’ When the father recounts the first meeting with Devi he can barely speak for his emotion.

The adoptive parents recall how when Devi was a baby she saw a picture of an Indian woman in a book and said ‘amma’ – this, the first word they heard her speak, means ‘mother’ in Tamil. When she learnt to talk they said that she wanted to talk about ‘amma’ all the time but unfortunately, these memories disappeared with time.

Devi’s ruminations on the role of family are simple but profound – to love, to comfort, for the older ones to help the younger ones, to look after their children and to ‘make sure they’re warm and everything is okay.’ This is a role she eventually fulfils at the end of the film. When the Father meets the children at the airport through tears of joy he observes how: ‘One big sister carries the little one.’

It is not surprising that Kiti Luostarinen’s moving Palna’s Daughters won the Risto Jarva prize at the Tampere Film Festival in 2008. Its touching subject matter is enhanced by luminous photography –  for instance the warm textured hues of the dreamlike opening sequence of the children playing at the orphanage, images that can be recollected at the end of the film. One hopes that Palna’s other sons and daughters are as lucky as Devi and Stuti. Luostarinen has directed several documentaries that explore family, children, memory and love and Palna’s Daughters is an affecting accumulation of these preoccupations. Although the film does not investigate the political or economic situation in India to account for the volume of children in orphanages like Palna, its exploration of individual lives is so poignant and genuine that it makes it a very effective tool for promoting change.

Dr Kelly Robinson
Film programmer (Birds Eye View, The White Bus) and Lecturer in Silent Film at the University of Southampton

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