The four-part Netflix documentary “Daughters of Destiny” is a celebration of a pioneering school for the children of Dalits, members of the lowest group in the oppressive caste system that still shapes Indian society. Much of it takes place in classrooms and dormitories. But it’s at its best when it leaves the school grounds and follows the children home, into a harsh and unchanging world whose realities seem hopelessly at odds with the ideals of the school.
The Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project, founded in 1997 in Bangalore by the Indian-American businessman Abraham George, is a boarding school that accepts 24 preschool students a year and provides a free education (and food and housing) through 12th grade. It’s an educational institution and a social experiment: a demonstration that Dalits can thrive academically, a proposition that still needs proving in India, and an attempt to pull Dalits out of poverty by preparing children for jobs that can support their extended families.
This puts tremendous pressure on the Shanti Bhavan students, and that’s the central drama of “Daughters of Destiny,” which the writer and director Vanessa Roth shot over the course of seven years. Following five girls of different ages — one who enters as a 4-year-old, others who graduate and embark on jobs — the series can feel like a montage of crushing expectations, guilt, resentment (only one child per family can be admitted), and generational and cultural standoffs.
“Daughters” succeeds because Ms. Roth got so close to, and spent so much time with, her subjects, who are extraordinarily charismatic and open. It also suffers a little: In building the four-hour series around their stories, she doesn’t quite succeed in giving it a shape. The issue of caste drifts in and out of focus, and the material that’s strictly about the school and its goals tends to be a little eye-glazing.
(She also doesn’t directly address the question of why she focused on five girls at a coeducational school — it’s odd to see boys in every shot but never hear from them — though she makes the point that the combination of caste and gender discrimination is particularly odious.)
Her access, however, results in fascinating, even mesmerizing scenes and situations. The mother of a new Shanti Bhavan student talks about her daughter, looking straight into the camera, while assembling an endless succession of matchboxes, her fingers a practiced blur. A graduate prepares a lawsuit that would give ownership of a quarry to the Dalits who both work and live there — one of whom is her mother.
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