I didn’t know much about Manish Jha’s Matrubhoomi before I entered the hall to see it. I knew it was set in a dystopian society where there were hardly any women left, and that it involved a dark, twisted take on the Draupadi story - one woman shared by five men. I knew too that Time magazine had named it one of the 10 best films of the year, but that didn’t count for much (these being the same guys who put Devdas in their top 5 list for 2002, mentioning the "pretty, colourful frocks" worn by Madhuri and Aishwarya among the notable things about that movie).
Matrubhoomi starts quite well, with a number of striking scenes: the grotesquely effective image, for instance, of a man dancing in drag for the benefit of a group of sex-starved males (the mere image of a woman enough to inflame their senses); men falling over each other at a wedding for a glimpse of the 12-year-old "bride", who then turns out to be a little boy; a much-anticipated weekly porn film screening, with the all-male audience gazing at the screen as much in fascination as in lust (this scene reminded me of the 1980s cult film Cafe Flesh, set in a post-Holocaust world where "Sex Positives" - the few remaining people who can have sex without falling violently ill - perform onstage for the majority of "Sex Negatives).
After the porn screening one of the men gets up and enters a nearby barnyard to expend his lust on a cow. This metaphor - a holy animal, a supposed object of veneration, becoming a vent for frustrated sexuality – resurfaces through the film, and is particularly relevant in a story where a woman is subjected to repeated abuse in a household where the garlanded portrait of another woman (the deceased mother) occupies pride of place. It’s an old motif - the woman as Mother vs the woman as Whore.
But Matrubhoomi starts to go downhill when it moves from the general to the particular. We are introduced to a family headed by a corpulent sethji (Sudhir Pandey), looking worriedly for a bride for the eldest of his five sons. A young girl, Kalki (Tulip Joshi), is discovered by the village pandit: we first see her singing in the forest, dressed in white, plucking and polishing fruit, the picture of glowing innocence, and we just know her fate is to be defiled, and defiled again.
From this moment on the film enters a realm filled with cardboard-cutout sterotypes, and it never recovers. Kalki is effectively sold into "marriage" to all five brothers. Four of the brothers are leering beasts and see her as nothing more than property to be sexually divided amongst themselves (their father wants a share of the spoils too). The fifth brother, the youngest, is painfully noble and teaches her how to read, write and most importantly love; the scene where he enters the bedroom when it’s "his turn" and, instead of forcing himself on her, covers her head with her pallu, is as cringe-inducing in its own way as the rapes that preceded it were. He seems to have come not just from a different gene pool from that of his brothers but from a different planet altogether; we are never given any sort of explanation why he is so Good while the rest of them are so Bad (unless it has to do with the fact that he’s the only clean-shaven one of the lot). It’s a lazy bit of scripting, and the problem is it makes it impossible to take the film seriously. None of the characters (good or bad) is believable, so why care?
I was annoyed when, after several scenes of gratuitous violence, Matrubhoomi finally ended with a solemn, self-congratulatory title disclosing statistics about the abuse of women in India. This isn’t a bad film but it’s an irresponsible one. It does try to address a serious issue (an issue that must be addressed) and make statements about the hypocrisies of Indian society and its attitude to women. But for the most part it does this in such a synthetic, superficial, overwrought way that it defeats its own purpose; it makes it all too easy for people to look away, shrug and say "well, that isn’t a story about us, it doesn’t apply to our lives in any way."
What I found sad was that most of the things the film depicts aren’t as hyperbolic as the fantasy setting might suggest. But the treatment makes it seem like they are.
P.S. Here’s another blog review of the film.
P.P.S. I’m a little surprised that so many people think the film was too visceral and difficult to watch. Quite the contrary, I thought it did a sugar-coating job precisely when it shouldn’t have. Tulip Joshi manages to look luminous even when she’s chained to a post in the cowshed, surrounded by dirt and waste.