x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

A life in service of the nation

Yes Madam, Sir is a new documentary that turns its lens on India's first and most famous policewoman, Kiran Bedi.

When the Australian director-producer Megan Doneman was 12 years old, she became fascinated by India's first woman police officer, Kiran Bedi. Bedi's performance during the 1982 Asian Games in Delhi, as that city's chief of traffic, stole the headlines when she towed away the illegally parked car of the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, and promptly held a press conference to announce it. This and other highlights in Bedi's career can be seen in Doneman's non-fiction feature film Yes Madam, Sir. The film, which is narrated by Helen Mirren, was first shown at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, and will go on general release in India in the spring.

Although Bedi had turned down numerous requests for filmmakers to document her life, she accepted this young Australian who arrived on her doorstop with nothing but a camera, which she had purchased at the airport. "I was slightly wishing she would send me packing on my way that day, as I had a sense I was in for a long, brutal haul," said Doneman in an interview posted on her website www.yesmadamsir.com. "I had no crew, no funding and no idea how I was going to pull it off."

It took Doneman six years to shoot 500 hours of footage for the film, which she produced, directed and edited. Doneman first went to meet Bedi during a break from working as an assistant editor on several Hollywood films made in Australia including Jane Campion's Holy Smoke, John Woo's Mission Impossible 2, and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong. Her interest in Bedi was rekindled after she saw an interview on CNN about the reforms Bedi had introduced as the head of Asia's, largest and most corrupt prison Tihar Jail, where she was posted in 1993.

"I was mesmerised. [Doneman's mother] Laraine and I managed to track down Kiran's e-mail address, and I proposed shooting a documentary feature film on her life story. We corresponded for a few months until I had a break in between working on films," Doneman explains. These reforms won Bedi the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1994, and she received a personal invitation from President Clinton to attend a White House prayer breakfast. She has also been voted India's most-admired woman and the fifth most-admired person among all Indians.

As the story goes, Bedi had been sent to oversee the prison in what was interpreted as a form of punishment for her car-towing manoeuvre. It was certainly the most controversial part of Bedi's achievment of the impossible by keeping the Delhi traffic flowing during the Asian Games, simply by enforcing all roadside regulations. Her other notable conquests included single-handedly quelling a riot in Delhi, which was her first posting after joining the police force in 1972. However, her application was only accepted after she threatened Supreme Court action.

Bedi left the police force in 2007. After Tihar, using the $50,000 (Dh185,000) from the Magsaysay Award, she founded two NGOs to help people living in Delhi's slums and the residents of rural India. These NGOs, Navjyoti and the India Vision Foundation, serve more than 12,000 people daily, focusing on drug-abuse treatment, schooling for children of prisoners, education, training, counselling, and health care. Bedi also started a website www.saferindia.com to log complaints regarding any crime ignored by local police.

She also enjoyed a stint working for the United Nations as the police adviser to the secretary general, in the department of peace-keeping operations. She has since represented India at the United Nations, and in international forums on crime prevention, drug abuse, police and prison reforms and women's issues. Yes Madam, Sir covers 15 years of Bedi's life and focuses not only on her career but also on her home life with her father, her daughter, and her estranged husband. Born in Amritsar in Punjab state, Bedi is one of four sisters. She was a highly successful tennis player before joining the police force, and won the Junior National Lawn Tennis Championship in 1966, the Asian Lawn Tennis Championship in 1972, and the All-India Interstate Women's Lawn Tennis Championship in 1976.

Before making Yes Madam, Sir, Doneman also won awards with two short films. Her final year film, a short docudrama portraying the grieving process of a woman who tragically loses her brother (which she produced, directed and wrote), won the classic cinema award for most promising new filmmaker at the Pacific Queensland Film and Television Awards in 1998. Yes Madam, Sir has also notched up a number of prizes, including best documentary at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and audience awards for best documentary at both the Adelaide and Brisbane film festivals.

Bedi's achievements led to her being collectively nominated in 2005 for the Nobel Peace Prize for her "revolutionary and historical reforms within the Indian police, prisons and through her community work reaching out to the illiterate masses". Since retiring from the Indian police force in 2007, she has focused on her NGOs and on travelling the world. "I am a multi-tasker, she says. "I have two hugely demanding NGOs which reach out to over 12,000 beneficiaries every single day. I employ 250-plus professionals. I anchor TV and radio shows. I am a columnist in a national daily. I author books. I take up speaking engagements and donate the fees to my foundations. I travel for the film and I love my family and my home."