Determined Midwife Challenges Cultural Preference for Sons in The Daughter Tree


by Sam Kolesnik

Neelam Bala in  The Daughter Tree

Neelam Bala in The Daughter Tree

Director Rama Rau’s new documentary, The Daughter Tree, takes a balanced look at a cultural preference in India for having sons. The statistics cited in The Daughter Tree are staggering; they state it’s estimated there will be 32 million single men in India by 2020. Rama Rau takes a look at this development and its aftermath primarily through the eyes of Neelam Bala, a passionate and outspoken midwife. 

Menka, a woman in her fifth pregnancy, is bluntly asked by the midwife if she keeps getting pregnant to try to have a boy. Menka openly admits that she really hopes for a son this time. She explains that her other children consist of daughters and one handicapped son. She says “they say” that she should have a son so that there is a boy to take care of the family.  

This idea of “they say” is a recurring theme of The Daughter Tree, alluding to the societal and cultural pressures on families to have sons rather than daughters. The reasons stated range from the financial burden of having to save for a dowry to wanting a son who can inherit and tend to the family’s property. One woman shares an anecdote about three sisters inheriting their father’s property only to have it stolen from them by other men in their village since they did not have a brother to defend it.   

Rama Rau smartly juxtaposes the cultural preference for sons with the cultural expectation of marriage. In the village of Jhoju, three single brothers lament their village’s lack of marriage prospects. The village has a much higher percentage of marriage-aged men than it does women. Rajinder Singh, the youngest brother, remarks that to be unmarried is to be an outcast in the village. It’s not a far leap to interpret some irony here. “They say” you should have sons and not daughters, but in the same breath “they say” you should get married. These two cultural pressures appear to be working against each other in Jhoju.  

Neelam Bala tirelessly works to change her own village’s perception of having daughters. She tells her patients not to worry about what other people will think. In a village meeting, she asserts that daughters are not burdens and that they should be welcomed with the same joy as sons. Despite Neelam Bala’s undeniable passion for her work and cause, culture can be slow to change. 

Rama Rau shifts gears and shows another way of life when she spotlights the village of Dharhara where baby girls are celebrated with the planting of trees. Neelam Singh, a nurse in Dharhara, remarks, “A girl always brings good luck.” This offers a contrasting view to the other villages The Daughter Tree focuses on, though how Dharhara arrived at a different cultural perspective than say, Jhoju, is not deeply explored. 

The Daughter Tree provides a grounded examination of factors shaping the cultural preference for boys, while at the same time documenting the problematic aftermath. In some villages daughters are greeted with celebration while in others, they are met with sorrow. The documentary is worth watching for Neelam Bala alone, who shines as its principal heroine -- a woman thriving in spite of gender role limitations. The midwife, with her genuine love for her village and enduring passion for her work, feels like both protest and solution all at once. When the closing credits roll, it’s hard not to think, “If only there were more Neelam Balas in the world.”