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Talking talkies

Friday, April 27, 2018

A new series on classic movies involving screenings and discussions kicked off with Mirch Masala, which focused on a woman’s right to her body and her dignity, a relevant topic in today’s times

It has been over three decades since Ketan Mehta’s film, Mirch Masala, was released to critical acclaim. Sadly, such is the state of present-day India that the movie, which highlights a woman’s right to her body and her dignity, is even more relevant today than when it was released in 1987.

As rapes become almost routine, as leaders cutting across the political spectrum compete with each other to make the most misogynist statements, as parties use the religion of the rape victims to spew hatred, India could do well to remember the struggle of Sonbai and her band of brave rural women, as portrayed in the film.

All these points and more were highlighted in a discussion between Ketan Mehta and journalist Priyanka Sinha Jha that followed a screening of the film. Curated by Sinha Jha, the screening and discussion was the debut event of Talkietive Masterpiece Movies, an initiative aiming to familiarise the younger generations with the rich history of Indian cinema through a series of screenings and conversations.

Set in a village in Gujarat, in pre-Independence India, Mirch Masala is the story of Sonbai – an iconic role essayed by Smita Patil – and her resistance to the lecherous demands of a tyrannical Subhedar – a tax collector – played by Naseeruddin Shah.

Subhedar and his band of armed men set up camp near a village, where he spots Sonbai, and is immediately besotted with her. Sonbai lives alone as her husband (Raj Babbar in a cameo) has migrated to the city in search of job.

Subhedar then summons the village Mukhi (headman) – played by Suresh Oberoi – and demands that he send Sonbai to him for the night. Though set in the patriarchal attitude of the time and the place, Mukhi initially resists the demand, but has to finally give in when Subhedar threatens to make the entire village suffer his wrath.

Mukhi tries to persuade Sonbai to give in, who categorically rejects the proposal saying she would rather die than be forced in this manner.

When Subhedar tries to abduct Sonbai, she escapes and finds refuge in a factory making masala from red chillies. The aging watchman (played by Om Puri) of the factory, bars the gate to stop Subhedar’s troops from entering and abducting Sonbai.

As a standoff ensues and tension mounts, Mukhi, under increasing pressure from Subhedar tries various gambits to get the watchman to open the gate. When none of them work, Subhedar orders his troops to break down the gate through brute force.

In the final moments of the film, when the soldiers break down the factory gate, the village women – till then frightened and divided – spontaneously unite to throw whole sackfuls of red chilli powder on them, killing the Subhedar in the process.

The film was based on a short story by Gujarati writer Chunnilal Madia. While the original story was set in a tobacco factory, Mehta changed it to a chilli factory after seeing and being mesmerized by the red chilli fields in Gujarat. It was shot in a small village called Chotila near Rajkot.

Smita Patil died before the movie was released, and never got to see one of her finest roles on the big screen. The film won the Golden Prize in the Moscow Film Festival.

Speaking at the Talkietive event, film maker Mehta said that what attracted him to the story was the primary question of a woman’s ownership of her body and her life.
Mehta reiterated that the message central to the film was that a woman has the right and the prerogative to say, ‘No Means, No.’ when it concerns her life.

If only, all Indian men and more importantly Indian leaders could understand this!

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