Set against the back drop of rigid age-old traditions and a uniquely progressive school, The Backward Class is a hopeful story that closely accompanies twelfth grade “untouchable” caste students through the turbulence of final exams, graduation & general coming-of-age.
In the depths of rural southern India, in a small school devoted to backward caste students, aspiring graduates Vijay, Anith and Mala are studying. At seventeen years old, they are the inaugural graduating class and are preparing for final exams no class of their background has ever had the opportunity to write, the Indian School Certificate high school graduation exams.
For thirteen years Shanti Bhavan School has educated them with the highest of academic standards. The idea behind the school is simple: given equal opportunities, anyone can succeed. These exams will put this concept to the test. The students are gearing up to prove their potential to the world and there will be no second chances.
Guinea-pigs of an idealistic vision, if the students succeed they will be the first in their families to go on to college. It could also mean success for many others like them – on a local, national and even international scale. Their failure can only lead them back to squalor. With their families living in destitution and their school reeling from the recent economic crisis, it is of the utmost importance that they do well, and no one is letting them forget that.
The five year passion project that became The Backward Class started when director Madeleine Grant first came across the students while travelling and volunteering in India in 2008. Their story fascinated her. At the time, the inaugural students were in grade ten, having started at the school in preschool. Grant became acutely aware how high the stakes actually were for these children during their grade ten exams, the first time anyone in the school had been graded on a national level.
“It was lunchtime when they finished their first exam, and I was standing at the entrance to the dining hall when they started coming in all at once,” said Grant. “I’m not sure who spotted them first, but the reaction was instantaneous. As one, the entire school rose from their meals, bursting into a spontaneous standing ovation that included everyone from the pre-schoolers through to the kitchen staff.” Grant realized that this story needed to be told, and after getting things in order and assembling her team, she headed back to India in 2009 to live and film among the now twelfth grade students, leading up to and following their final graduating exams.
Madeleine Grant will be in attendance for Q&As for all opening weekend screenings at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto. Click here for more information and tickets.