“Kranti learnt how to walk and talk here,” says Sevanti, the assistant teacher at the school inside the Chanchalguda prison for women in Hyderabad. “Now he talks non-stop.”

Kranti, barely four years old, is making faces at the ceiling while waiting to escape so that he can run around the jail premises, play with broken pipes or mimic the jail superintendent by walking with his hands behind the back. He grins and peers into the camera, and it is clear that neither the frame nor the prison walls can contain his energy.

Malati Rao’s documentary Born Behind Bars follows the stories of children like Kranti, who are born and raised in prison to women who are serving time there. Produced by Films Division, Born Behind Bars takes us inside Chanchalguda prison, where children stay with their incarcerated mothers until they turn six, after which they are transferred either to a hostel or to a children’s home.

“A lot of Kranti’s mannerisms come from the people he sees in authority,” Rao, a writer, director and producer and teacher of fiction and documentary films, told Scroll.in. “He is a performer and he has this swagger that is impossible to ignore. But most importantly, he was interested in communicating with us. He is also older than the other kids and hence, more expressive too.”

Does he realise where he is? “Kranti is too little to know too much at this point,” Rao said. “It is just another home for him. Kranti will deal with the judgements that come with being a child of a prisoner in due time.”

Kranti in Born Behind Bars. Image credit: Films Division.

It all began when Rao, a Master of Fine Arts graduate in Film and Media Arts from Temple University in Philadelphia, read a newspaper report about children in a Gujarat prison being taught under the Right to Education Act. Her previous documentary, Free and Compuslory (2012), explored RTE, and her interest was piqued by the extension of the social welfare programme to prisons. “When we got there, we filmed a little both in Ahmedabad as well as in Baroda and the idea germinated there,” Rao said. “I was really interested in the life of the women and realised that there is a strong connection between women, poverty and incarceration.”

But once Rao completed her first research trip, the prison authorities wrote to her asking her not to pursue her project. “I think there had been a prison break in Ahmedabad around that time,” Rao said. “But I was intrigued enough, so I applied to as many prisons as I could.” The Hyderabad prison responded favourably, and it helped that Rao was fluent in Telugu.

“I wasn’t interested in doing some sort of scoop film – I was interested in observing them, being with them and showing what life was like inside for them,” Rao said. “According to the guidelines set by the Chakravarthy panel, there are a number of rules regarding the right kind of nutrition and facilities for these children. Now, how much of this gets implemented is always questionable. But, to a large extent, I felt that the prison system itself is under a lot of pressure and the children are not really a priority for them. They are stretched and under-staffed but from what I observed, they weren’t treating the children badly.”

Born Behind Bars. Image credit: Films Division.

Rao’s filmography includes Some Roots Grow Upwards (2003, co-director), Sarah+ Dee (2007, assistant director), Patang (2011, assistant director), Free and Compulsory (2012, writer and director) and Handmade in India (2014, writer and director). A graduate from Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi, Rao has worked extensively in television and has taught film and screenwriting as well. “Law, women and education are three themes that I seem to keep coming back to in all of my work,” she said.

Born Behind Bars contains some of her preoccupations. She introduces us to kids across age groups, some of whom are aware of the crimes for which their mothers have been convicted. Rao asks them simple questions about themselves and then slowly ventures towards tougher, more personal topics.

The filmmaker is often a silent listener as Kranti either babbles away or shares the occasionally horrifying story, such as the one time he saw an inmate being beaten up. Other children open up about their thoughts, their parents, what they’ve seen and what they wish they hadn’t seen. Two older girls who are visiting their mothers in prison chat about school; another tells her mother about what it is like in her hostel’s TV room – what the boys prefer watching versus what the girls like.

Throughout, Rao creates rare moments of intimacy in a world where the women and their children are always being watched.

Malati Rao.

“You know how there are these shoots of banyan trees on the sides of the roads – nobody waters them but they grow and survive and they are hardy,” Rao said. “This metaphor works for these kids. There’s no telling what they’ll encounter or what kind of baggage they’ll carry but they are hardy and are already connecting with the world and surviving. To me, that’s pretty powerful.”

A number of misconceptions Rao had were cleared after she set foot inside the prison. “I had read about how these children, because they have been inside the high walls of the prison, haven’t seen the sun rise or set, at least for the first six years of their lives,” she explained. “I had just become a mother, so even I was discovering motherhood and learning a lot. When I spent time with these children, I realised that they don’t really care about sunlight at their age. All that really matters to them is the world around their mothers. The mothers are the primary caregivers in their case and as long as the kids are near them, they felt secure. So I underwent some changes in terms of how I processed their lives in there as well.”

The challenges of filming ranged from dealing with the formation of a new state – she was still shooting when Telangana came into being in 2014 – to promising the privacy of the prisoners. Her team wasn’t allowed near the barracks. “Unlike other more developed countries, we do not have the right as much to explore our public systems in the way that you can demand that in other countries,” Rao said. “You can’t say I pay taxes, hence you owe it to us. That kind of transparency is not there here.”

However, these constraints shaped the film in several ways. “When the women realised that their faces weren’t going to be seen, they were more at ease and less self-conscious,” Rao said. “With children, you just need to spend more time with them. Initially, they are interested in the equipment. After a while, they are interested in talking.”

Free and Compulsory.