96-Year Old First Grader the Hero of 'Barefoot Empress'


Last updated 5/25/2023 at 6:40pm | View PDF

Karthyayani Amma, pictured with her young classmates, shows that it's never too late to achieve your dreams in "Barefoot Empress."

"Barefoot Empress" is a 15- minute film about Karthyayani Amma, better known locally as Amma, a woman who lives in the village of Haripad in the Alappuzha district of India. As a young girl, she was unable to attend school but she never gave up on her dream of getting an education.

At the age of 96, Amma decided to achieve her dream by enrolling in first grade at the local school. Later that year, she was easily the oldest of the more than 40,000 students who took the fourth standard equivalent examination, which includes testing in reading, writing and mathematics. (Her great-grandchildren, 9 and 12 years old, helped her study.)

The result was that Amma scored 98 out of a possible 100 points, the top score among all students. She was named as a Commonwealth of Learning Goodwill Ambassador in 2019, and was awarded the Nari Shakti Puraskar by Indian President Ram Nath Kovind the following year.

Amma's story attracted the attention of director Vikas Khanna, who was able to inspire others to join the project.

"Vikas' grandmother didn't have an opportunity for an education," co-producer Doug Roland told The Good Life. "He really felt compelled to tell a story that was close to his grandmother's story in India.

"He told me the story and I was intrigued," he added. "It just made sense for me to come in and get involved."

Roland quickly learned "that Amma's story isn't as rare as it should be. Girls disproportionately aren't able to get the same education that the boys are."

Roland first started "helping peripherally," bring-ing his experience as an Academy Award-nominated director (for the short film "Feeling Through") to advise the production as needed. His involvement in the film grew and he soon became a co-producer, with author and alternative medicine advocate Dr. Deepak Chopra serving as executive producer.

Roland considers Amma and women like her as "great role models because they defy people's expectations of what life is in your nineties."

Sadly, Amma has "physically deteriorated since the film," said Roland. "She has lived a very long life, a very difficult life, and her energy level has declined."

Amma's difficult life inc-ludes being married and having six children, becoming a widow, and working as a street sweeper and maid. The story of her life has become an inspiration to women to get back to school and further their education.

More importantly, the filmmakers have partnered with the nonprofit organization Leap to Shine to rehabilitate classrooms in India, and provide students with basic educational supplies and healthy meals. The partnership also seeks to train girls in culinary skills (a career path with few barriers to women in India) to become financially independent.

"Barefoot Empress" has also become a movement to bring five million Indian girls back to school over a period of three years.

The film can be seen online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIPdBjSCWKU


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