My best films portraying women as a liberator or crusader against injustice, selected in order of merit.

  1. Mirch Masala(1987)

How relevant this movie is today is expressed with rapes taking place regularly in India in every nook and corner. Oppression of women has reached a crescendo in the era of globalisation, masking itself as development.Mirch Masala literally hits the nail on the head  in giving a fitting blow the hegemony of men over women.

Based in the colonial era in a rural area of Rann of Kutch Smita Patil as Sonbai with most artistic fervour portrays the role of a village woman confronting oppression, with intensity and sensitivity at an unscaled magnitude. .With most artistic direction and casting Ketan Mehta carves a plot in this film portraying the subjugation of women in India to slavery,in context of caste and gender. The Movie superbly probes into the psychology of rural folk, especially women :delving into their subconscious minds.

Confronting opression of the Subedar enacted by Naseruddin Shah Smita Patil as Sonbai takes intensity in her eyes and facial expressions to depth of lightning and thunder but is stil as natural as the twinkling of leaves. Rarely ever in Indian films has a movie done as much justice to the character of an opressed women, making the cast  look so real. The movie reveals the psychology of enslaved women and men folk and the character of a village hierarchy.

The scene when chilli powder is flung on the Subedar’s eyes in the tobacco factory vicinity in  the climax is captivating in regions of the sublime. The plot is brilliantly woven in illustrating how inherent feudal values were in women or the penetration of patriarchal culture.

What is pertinent are that the submissive aspect of woman is not portrayed, but their militant one. not surrendering  oppression never saw a film project a woman to such an extent as an embodiment of liberation Realism is projected at unprecedented magnitude and still an audience is always on the edge of the seats.

The supporting cast of Om Puri as Abu Jian, who is the village watchman and school teacher played by  Benjamin Gilani  play an important role in giving the plot its meaning. The schoolmaster throws light on the need for the village to be liberated some day from the tyranny of the Subedar.. It is watchman Abu Mian who with the courage of a warrior thwarts the bid of the Subedar with his forces to break open the door of the tobacco factory.

The scenes are very relevant when the village head or mukhia though a good person calls of or Sonabai to relent and submit to the Subedar .It is also complimentary that aspects like creating village school or hospitals for dalits is highlighted. Most appropriately the scenes are formulated in the factor of lower caste women’s approach to sex as different from the lust of me. It is also a testimony that the more affluent,Saraswati enacted by Deepti Naval as the wife of the Mukhi joins Sonbai in resisting the Subedar in the climax.

Quoting Siddhi Pathak “Further, the film carefully highlights the notion how men must protect ‘their’ women, and protecting women is a sign of ‘masculinity’. The idea of a convenient religion is also portrayed interestingly when the Pandit tries to convince Sonbai to go to the Subedar saying that sex and pleasure are just ‘moh-maaya’. The same Pandit would’ve otherwise said sex is sinful and even if it is just in one dialogue, the hypocrisy of religion comes out beautifully. “

“The women are real, with real struggles, passions, and pleasures, which is a tribute to the manner Ketan Mehta has galvanised his characters.”

  1. Bandit Queen (1994)

There may be distortions or fabricated elements but this movie is a classic in it’s own right .At the very ground or roots it strikes the chord of the suffering of women equitable with that of medieval times. The Scene dissection is brilliant and cinematography. Few film shave taken realism to such a magnitude. One gets vibrations that it is a true story.Seema Biswas does complete justice to the opression or values inherent in society that breed rebellion or dacoity. No film in the last thirty five years gave such an accurate portrayal of the socio-economic and cultural reality of India, which lay beneath the surface.

I praise Shekhar Kapoor for the virtual absence of any melodrama or catharsis resembling an autopsy or surgery done on a body to perfection. One hardly felt Phoolan Devi was a dacoit .

Great accent is given to the deep penetration of caste in social order, and incorporation in political machinery. Whatever scathing criticisms by Arundahati Roy or even Phoolan Devi ,on the whole I support the film. Intensity, dynamism and art of film making  taken to magnitude rarely surpassed .

Quoting Kevin Thomas in los Angeles Times Regardless  of how close it is–or isn’t–to the facts, this explosive picture is as potent in projecting its myth of the outlaw hero as “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” or “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” Director Shekhar Kapur and writer Mala Sen have bonded dynamic adventure and romance and fiery social protest together with an electrifying effectiveness. “Bandit Queen” is an astonishing, overpowering piece of rabble-rousing, consciousness-raising, epic-scale filmmaking that unquestionably breaks ground in the Indian cinema in brutal candor if not theme.”

A member of the lowly Mallah caste of fishermen and their families in the state of Uttar Pradesh, she is traded by her father to a man 20 years her senior in exchange for a bicycle and a cow. She has in effect been sold into slavery and is promptly raped by her husband. From the start, however, young Phoolan (played as a child by Sunita Bhatt) displays a proud resistance to her fate.

“Yet in running away from her husband, Devi rapidly discovers that now she has no status to protect her from rape by many men, in particular the higher-caste Thakurs. A woman of lesser spirit and strength surely would have died or been driven mad by such incessant brutality and public humiliation, but Devi (now played by Seema Biswas) survives, propelled inevitably into an outlaw gang.”

Somehow I give more credit to the evalution of Shekhar Kapoor and writer Bedi than their critiques  ,including Phoolan Devi. Personally I opposed the banning of the film in 1994.

  1. Bandini (1963)

Film based in the background of the 1930’s, with freedom struggle at full pitch.Kalyani is the wife of  Bikash ,who falls in love with him because of his revolutionary credentials. She murders his wife in rage,who opposes his aspirations.

Probably the best ever performance of Nutan in her entire career. Directorially a masterpiece.Nutan,as prisoner Kalyani  dramatises the traumas of a female prisoner in love with her revolutionary Husband Bikash played by Ashok Kumar  and redemption for her sins. Arguably there has never been a better casting or performance of a woman prisoner undergoing neurosis.Nutan is not an actual freedom fighter but still she exudes spirit of liberation in mystical depths. Nutan’s rejection of Doctor acted by Dharmendra’s proposal, is soul searching . Her very expressions or movements tell it all, whether after commiting the murder of the life of her lover conversing with doctor played by Dharmendra,the jailer ,with Kalyani when giving him refuge or when being released from jail and re-uniting wiht her lover..Nutan reflects inner turmoil or conviction at an intensity of an inferno and ebb and flow of emotional state at unprecedented magnitude. In the moral sense or subtle manner it flickers the essence of spirit of freedom struggle. It is sheer genius how editor Bimal Roy through mere movements like the closing of a door,conveys the meaning. Very rarely has spirit of liberation being sparkled without almost any trace of melodrama or violence.Poetry of film art in sublime proportions with the fragrance of the Roses and intensity of a thunderstorm.

  1. Mrityudand (1997)

Based on the lives of villagers in Bilaspur in Bihar Madhuri Dixit as Ketki Singh  symbolises the plight of opressed women and their thirst for vengeance. The film superbly plights the feuds or rival political gangs in Bihar and how their machinations dictate the day to day lives of the people. A plot is knit entangling how Ketki’s  husband is tempted to join a gang ,who no w have complete control over their lives.Madhuri Dixit’s husband is murdered and the scene when she avenges the murder ranks amongst the most heart touching portrayal sof vengeance on Indian screen.

The central characters are a young couple, Vinay (Ayub Khan) and Ketki (Madhuri Dixit). They are quickly plunged into the midst of machinations by several powerful and unscrupulous villagers. Foremost among them is contractor Tirpat Singh (Mohan Joshi), a powerful, corrupt and ruthless man who oppresses poor people and especially women with impunity. Vinay too becomes influenced by Tirpat, and under this influence spirals down a dark road of domestic abuse, alcoholism, and selfishness that alienates his loving wife and tears apart the whole family, despite her best efforts to fight this.

Principally the movie ilustrates Vinay’s and especially Ketki’s long, hard, and bloody struggle to confront and defeat the forces of oppression and male domination in the village.

In the last 30 years of post-liberalisation period no movie has conveyed a woman’s struggle confronting oppression at such magnitude. It is remarkable in which the struggle against oppression of the Subedar crystallises through the evolvement of the plot.

  1. Mother India (1957)

The movie glorifies the role of the Indian woman or motherhood in proportions of magical heights. I can’t forget the agony and sacrifice Nargis faces in bring up her two sons on her very own hands and the sheer struggle for survival against all odds. The tyranny of landlords and enslavement of villagers by moneylenders is most amply illustrated. No film in such magnitude delved into the reality of rural life and the culture that shaped the lives of villagers. Still I did not rank it at the top because I disagreed with the glorification of a woman killing her son who was a dacoit, as it does not attack the principal cause or core of social injustice. No doubt Nargis is brilliant but she does not portray the role of emnacipation of a woman from male bondage ,which is rampant till today. Vibrations of virtual crusader by Nargis but energy untapped in confronting the injustice of the social system.

  1. Manthan (1976)

The theme is based on the pioneering of the mill cooperative movement with Girsh Karnad allotted the role of stitching it’s base .A plot is superbly weaved amidst powerful obstacles within political machinery.

I do not agree with concept of cooperative movement but still I admire the manner Smita Patil confronts the tumour of casteism and galvanises forces to integrate into the milk cooperatives with Bhola ,enacted by Naseeruddin Shah..Few films have ever illustrated such a depth of inner spirit to enshrine within women villagers of lower castes and their yielding for change. Vibrations of virtual crusader by Nargis but energy untapped in confronting the injustice of the social system.

Manthan is not a simplistic do-gooder story about rescuing a village with new ideas. The film is beautifully  structured, with multiple facets of caste, gender, privilege, and ethics and morals that come with doing ‘good’. Girish Karnad plays the educated, high-society man of science, who comes to enlighten the villagers. His intentions are completely good and pure, but he carries the baggage that comes with being a privileged man. He befriends, Bindu (Patil), a headstrong single mother, who develops feelings for him. However, she is conflicted as she is of a ‘lower’ caste, not to mention the fact that the doctor is married. Dr Rao and his team face false accusations and village politics while trying to grapple with their own idealistic ways of thinking.

 Harsh Thakor is a freelance journalist. Toured India, particularly Punjab .Written on Mass movements ,,Massline,Maoism on blogs like Democracy and Class Struggle and frontierweekly .An avid cricket lover too who has posted writings on blogs like Pakpassion Indian Cricket Fans and Sulekha.com.


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