Weekly Classics: Mirch Masala
The shocking gang rape and murder of a young girl in New Delhi recently, made news headlines around the world. Her being raped was horrible enough, but adding to that was the manner in which she was brutally beaten with an iron rod, which made the incident even more despicable. Yet despite the assault, she stubbornly and courageously clung on to life for another two weeks and died just before the year came to a close.
Naturally the incident horrified many people and led to a number of protests in India, which showed that no decent or civilized person would nor should tolerate a crime as grim as rape. Another thing that the Delhi rape case brought to the forefront was the predicament that many women in the subcontinent face when it comes to harassment, and being viewed by some as mere sex objects. Needless the say, if any modern society is to move forward it is important for women to march alongside men rather than hang on to their coattails. Chairman Mao Tse Tung once said that women hold up half the sky, although some would have you believe that women are simply grass meant to be walked over.
The thing that really piqued my interest was that, according to reports, mostly men came out to protest against the rape. The slogans they chanted were for an end to violence and harassment against women and justice not only for the victim, but for other women who face the same predicament. It made me think that it was almost a flip side to what I remembered seeing in Ketan Mehta’s classic 1987 film ‘Mirch Masala’, where the men simply cowered away and decided that handing a woman over to a would-be predator is no big deal. That is not to say in any way that the Delhi rape case is the same as what happens in movies, but the parallel of one strong woman who makes a difference in society is quite striking.
The movie is set in a village in the colonial rule of the 1940’s and revolves around the story of a peasant woman named Sonbai (Samita Patil) who stands out from the other women in her village because she is strong and forceful. Her dusky looks match her feisty nature and reflects the independent character of her nature. She’s not afraid to look at someone back in the eye and give a response word for word. Unfortunately, her personality and looks catches the eye of a vicious subedar (tax collector) who is smitten by her and desperately wants to bed her. The subedar (Naseeruddin Shah) is not a man who will take no for an answer, considering the fact that he imposes back-breaking taxes on the local populace, without any protest, he feels that he will eventually get his way.
Having earlier on spurned the subedar’s advances and refusing to give in, Sonbai runs from her would-be rapist and takes refuge in a local chili grinding factory where only the women in the factory and its watchman Abu Miya (Om Puri) come to her defense. Despite being warned to hand her over to the subedar, the old man refuses to budge and is prepared to guard her with his life. He locks up the gate to the factory and is adamant that he will not be cowed by any threats hurled at him by the subedars thugs.
The village, like much of the subcontinent at the time, is an entirely patriarchal society, where the men call the shots and women are expected to obey. The local chieftain or mukhi (Suresh Oberoi) is second to the subedar in terms of power within the village and in terms of morality. He doesn’t mind openly being unfaithful to his wife and expects her to do whatever he wants. This includes not asking questions as to where he has been all night and his commandment that their young daughter not attend school. In the mukhi’s eyes, the role of the woman is to stay at home and follow orders.
But it turns out that the mukhi has to follow orders of his own given to him by the subedar, and right then the most pressing order, deals with his raging libido which can apparently only be tamed by the feisty Sonbai. The subedar issues an ultimatum to the mukhi, hand over Sonbai to him, or risk being terrorised by his men and crushing taxes.
Unlike Abu Miya, the mukhi is not prepared to take a moral stand on the issue and calls for a meeting, in which all the men in the village, with the exception of one educated teacher, decide that for the good of the all the villagers, they should hand over Sonbai to the subedar. Apparently, they think that feeding a crocodile with some tasty meat will tame him.
When the decision is given to Abu Miya, he lashes out at all the men in the village, calling them cowards and a disgrace. Knowing that Sonbai will be raped by the subedar, he rejects the decision taken by the village and decides to take a stand to the death. All the while through this moral crisis facing the village, tough questions are asked as to when do you say enough is enough. Should people be timid and let things happen as they are meant to be? Or do you fight back as one woman does in this film? Cowards the villagers might be, illiterate they definitely are but that doesn’t mean that one segment of a society should be trampled over for the greater good. Sonbai may be the one who fights back, but she also exposes hypocrisy within her society and forces its people to take a long hard look at themselves.
Samita Patil was a great actress and one of the finest to ever grace a movie screen. The character of Sonbai reflected her own nature in many ways. She never conformed to norms of society and was a strong personality in her own right. Being a feminist she believed that a woman’s role is set first by herself rather than a patriarchal system in which she is born. Sonbai was a tailor-made role for her and was sadly her last great performance. She is completely believable as the proud village woman who fights for control over her sexuality rather than giving in to the demands of her would-be rapist.
Naseeruddin Shah was also very good in his performance as the vile and lecherous subedar. He may not have looked like an evil man in the film, but his arrogant and abrasive manner really did make him someone to despise. Through a twist of his outrageous whiskers and the tone in which he delivers his lines, you really do want to see him get his just desserts. Suresh Oberoi was also very good as the village mukhi, who despite having a position of power, never has any moral authority to exercise that power in a just manner. Though the people in the village obey his commands, they never respect him, exemplified by the fact that even his own wife is sickened by his cowardly nature.
Other than Samita Patil, the one person who really stands out for me is Om Puri as the courageous Abu Miya. Proud and as defiant as the woman he vows to protect, he’s almost like a brick wall refusing to budge before the torrent of pressure imposed upon him by the villagers. He is quite frankly the only real man in the film. A happy coincidence is that in real life, Om Puri was one of the people who came out in support of the Delhi rape victim and was very vocal in his disgust as to what had happened to her.
‘Mirch Masala’ is a very aesthetically pleasing film, slowly deliberate like art films are meant to be. Nevertheless the slow pace does not stop you from being riveted by the story, the way it unfolds and more specifically the questions that it asks the viewer to ponder over.
Raza Ali Sayeed is a journalist at Dawn.com and can be reached at email@example.com