Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Mirch Masala: A tale of Sonbai

This post was first published on PFC. You can check the comments it got on the website itself.

mirch masala

Sonbai walks in the lanes of an unnamed village with a ghada (metal matka, water container) on her head. She is in the middle of her hen-party, with all members skillfully balancing the ghadas on their heads, and you know that Sonbai is a leader.

As the group of these exotically dressed women pass through a gang of by-sitters loitering around the quintessential banyan-tree-chowraha combination, they are welcomed with derogatory remarks. One of the men calls her a diamond yet unpolished. Sonbai pretends to ignore and avoids a retort, but not without uttering a few disapproving obscenities to her friends and followers. The leader knows how to handle those men whose idea of contempt of a woman comes from low self-respect and a pretense of strong masculinity.

As the group of women disperses to walk towards their ‘destiny’ation. Sonbai has business to attend to, and she walks up to the baniya store to buy some oil. The baniya demands money for the goods purchased; in an undertone, he probably insinuates acceptance of other favors in the absence of currency . Sonbai dodges any implied meanings, cajoles him with purpose and walks off with the desired quantity of oil with a smirk on her face. She cannot tell the baniya off, as he employs her and her husband. As the boss sees the luscious back of Sonbai walking away, he can’t help but yell out his frustration with a risque remark; “Sasuri puri raat jagati hogi marad ko” – reason why once again her husband didn’t show up for work. Yes, she can do that. She has the beauty and attraction capable of doing that, but they are reserved for but one man.

And she meets the man sleeping outside what’s almost a hut. Sonbai gets playful, and teases the husband. The husband is grumpy over the hopeless working conditions in this hopeless land. He wants to go to a city to find a good job. Sonbai is clearly unhappy with his dream, and pleads, shows love and plays about every card available up the sleeve of a woman in love.


A gang of sepoys pass by an insect-infested scarecrow standing in the middle of a farm. The scarecrow has just been beheaded by a farmer’s stone. It doesn’t mind it, as it is not a living organism.

There are women at the lake feeling water in their ghadas. The sepoys, now visibly lead by someone arrive at the lake and all women scatter, expectedly. Un-expectedly one maintains her ground, looks in the eye of the leader. The leader, a lanky figure with commanding eye stares back. His eyes hold more bewilderment which turns into lust quickly, still not just letting it out. Both the alpha male and female exchange dialogues; – the male wants to quench his thirst and the woman wants him to behave properly, not like an animal. The woman gives him water when he promises to comply, but when he is done drinking, we know the woman played nicely and won. The leader, called Subedar, was not able to get what he wanted. Not yet.


smita patil in mirch masala

The Subedar would not live without having Sonbai. He promises destruction that no one could afford. Sonbai would not give away her pride, and the man who is supposed to protect her is not around. The men who are supposed to protect her have given in to the will of the man who holds the gun. Some woman who are aged, mature and with a knowledge of the schemes of the world also try to persuade Sonbai to give herself in to the Subedar, for the greater good of the village and its people. No, is the answer. Always. Firm. What happens after that, is the clash between only the power and the seemingly weak, but also between the conventional wisdom and someone who have just found their way of doing things.

The 1980’s saw a very consistent and continued rise of parallel films in Hindi film industry. On one hand we had films that still linger in our memory as Torture series, on the other hand a fistful of directors fresh out of film institutes, full of attitude and josh to change the world were giving a new voice to their dreams, hopes, frustrations and struggles.

One from the crop of those directors was Ketan Mehta. His first film, Bhav ni Bhavai and second film Holi (with Aamir Khan) were two different subjects completely unrelated in nature, with the central theme of rebel. While the rebel had a form of subdued frustration in the first one, the second took it to another level of aggression.

His third film, Mirch Masala had a different class raising its head against the societal norms. This is a story which can be described as a microcosm of India at any time in the history. The women in the film have been conveniently denied their rights, and not only by men but by conventions. There are male characters who do not quite agree with the stronger members of the society, but their voice is oppressed. How they find their own voice against the society is a theme Ketan Mehta once again tries to explore with. The original story is written by Chunilal Madia and screenplay by Ketan Mehta and Shafi Hakim. There is a Zaverchand Meghani flavor to the subject matter, but to do justice to writers they maintain their own style.

At times you feel that all the characters are a little bit too obvious. A villain is a villain and he is supposed to be bad. So he is bad, with a wicked mustache. Often the “Men bad, women good” is not so subtle. An educated men is like one in the frogs’ party. He is ridiculed for his unconventional views, harassed and he also wears spectacles. So we are to understand that the villagers do not value education or anything that challenges their existing thought process. But Sonbai is one character that makes up for any nitpicking flaws.

The cast includes Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah, Deepti Naval, Supriya, Deena, Ratna Pathak, Raju Panchal, Om Puri, Raj Babbar (in a cameo), Suresh Oberoi, Ben Gilani, Paresh Rawal and Mohan Gokhle. There is Amole Gupte in a small role, and he is also AD of the film. The acting is adequate from the supporting lot. Naseeruddin Shah acts well but his character is sort of uni-dimensional. Om Puri acts as a character of an age that he even today does not look, but very convincingly. Deepti Naval is good, and so are sisters Supriya and Ratna in their bubbly, naive villager act.

Show stealer is without any doubt Smita Patil. Here she looks so sensuous you wish why she didn’t do a few more ‘Jaane Kaise Kab Kahan’. She looks so strong in her character as a woman who after all her village life knows her ways, you wish why she did not go for politics as a parallel career. And you realize what we are missing in the roles of women today, and the actresses that depict them. Watch it for Sonbai and Smita Patil.

Next: Further analysis of other characters. I was so 'smit'ten by Smita Patil that this post got dedicated to her, and one of the strongest female characters in Hindi cinema. Next post will try to dissect the character of Deepti Naval as opposed to Sonbai's, as well as the metaphors in them.

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