Monday, September 03, 2012

Half a girl – notes on Jalpari: The Desert Mermaid

In the fine new film Jalpari: The Desert Mermaid (directed by Nila Madhab Panda, who also made I am Kalam), a Delhi-based doctor named Devendra takes his two children, the tomboyish Shreya and her little brother Sam, to his ancestral village. At one point Shreya (played by the excellent Lehar Khan) gets into a fight with the local kids – all boys – who don’t even realise at first that she’s a girl. The adults intervene; a village elder disapprovingly remarks that a chori should behave like a chori, and Devendra sharply responds “Maine chora-chori ka pharak nahin sikhaaya apne bachon ko.” (“I haven’t taught my children the difference between a boy and girl.”)

Within the context – and given the film’s themes of sexual discrimination and female foeticide – one completely approves of these words. On the face of it, all Dev means is that he treats his daughter and son as equals. It’s an attitude that explains his alienation from a place where girl-children are viewed as a burden, and by the film’s end we certainly understand why he denounced the village chiefs as regressive and the village itself as banjar (barren). But for me this scene raised another, very subtle question. It’s possible to wonder: is this sensitive, caring father carrying his own demons? Has he become so frustrated by the treatment of women in his village that he has played a small, unconscious part in moulding his daughter’s personality – in keeping her out of touch with her feminine side?

It’s a contentious thought and I feel hesitant bringing it up. After all, there is nothing wrong with Shreya being a tomboy if she is also happy and emotionally secure (which she certainly is; Dev – a widower – is a great dad, and theirs is a well-rounded family life). Perhaps this is just one of those phases that children from not-very-strict families go through at an age where gender distinctions seem irrelevant. Or perhaps she hero-worships George/Georgina from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books, a couple of which we see in her room. But I think this story about gender inequality and its far-reaching effects does draw our attention to situations where a girl can achieve (a superficial form of) respect and parity only by being “one of the guys”, or by practising a particularly male form of aggression.

In one of the film’s first scenes we see Shreya dressed as a mermaid for a school dance performance, and enjoying herself, but there’s something about this scene – filmed like a fantasy sequence – that places it outside the ambit of the film’s “realistic” narrative. Within that main narrative, we gather that Shreya has a strong aversion to girls’ clothes. In the village, she gets the better of the local boys by meeting them on their own turf and beating them at their “boys’ games” – but later, when she is dressed up for the kanjak puja, they smirk at her and we can tell that she feels suddenly vulnerable. The mere fact that she has been seen in a salwar kameez enables them to exercise some hegemony over her, and even leads directly to a scene where her own adoring brother is willing to exclude her from the marble games he is playing with the other boys; it’s as if, in his eyes, she has become a creature from a different species.

Notwithstanding the initial discomfort of the kanjak ritual, Shreya does concede – when shagan money and sweets come her way – that “profit hai ladki banne mein”. But though the local men pray to a goddess, it’s obvious that there is not much “profit” in being a regular human girl here. This is a place where women are mainly anonymous, confined to their houses, performing an ornamental role during festival dances or traipsing down a path behind a water-divining sadhu, faces covered, chanting mystical songs like Homer’s sirens. (Or like mermaids – which, one might remember, are women who are only half-people.)


Dev, the children and their nani (Suhasini Mulay, still as radiant as ever) have come here for something of a holiday but also for Dev to get work underway on a proper hospital for the village. Taken on literal terms, there is something discomfiting about the idea of an “enlightened” family of city-dwellers brushing away the cobwebs in the collective mind of a “backward” village – it’s a simple-minded polarity. But it’s possible to argue that the film has entered fable mode and this is not so much a “typical village” as a representation of the darker, more oppressive corners of the human mind. The children fantasise about an idyllic setting with “bade bade trees, lush green fields and ducks in ponds”, but they are soon disabused of such ideas: “Pond toh kab ka sookh gaya hai”. There is very little water anywhere (what there is will be shown to be poisoned by prejudice and murder). There is resistance – not least from the local vaid – to the encroachment of modern medicine. And the children hear about the existence of a wicked witch who lives near a mysterious taalaab over the hill.

I suppose a spoiler alert should come here, but I don’t think I’m giving too much away by disclosing that this taalaab is eventually revealed to be a gruesome bog into which unwanted female life is flushed away. And that the fearsome daayin turns out to be a Boo Radley figure: the outcast turned into a bogeyman by the sort of rumour and gossip that is really a cover-up for unpleasant things being done by supposedly “respectable” people.

The reason I don’t think a spoiler alert was needed is that there are enough cues strewn through this well-observed film. The wordless glances during tense scenes involving the sarpanch’s pregnant daughter-in-law, for example. And some of the children’s interactions, which play like dress rehearsals for their grown-up lives. The village kids are led by the cocky Ajith (a super performance by Harsh Mayar, who was the lead in I am Kalam) who says “Inn choriyon mein dimag hee kahan haiga” (“These girls don’t even have a brain”). Though it’s tempting to dismiss this as childish prattle, one immediately senses the sorts of conversations this boy has grown up hearing from the adults around him – and also the sort of adult he is likely to become himself.

A few things didn’t work for me. The Dev character is a first-generation migrant to the city (he slips easily from his urban twang into the village dialect), but he is also relatively young and I thought it implausible that he has, in a very short span of time, built such a prosperous and cosmopolitan life for himself in Delhi. I also felt the ending was poorly paced, with everything being wrapped up a little too quickly and neatly. Given that the final 15 minutes have the feel of a dark fairy tale (complete with a stygian swamp for discarded souls), the horror-film potential might have been realised at greater length.

But perhaps Panda and his team didn’t want to make the film too creepy given that it was intended to draw in younger audiences. In any case, at the very end, it returns to the cosy idea of being a child's adventure story – something out of the Famous Five perhaps – where nothing really bad can happen to the main characters. It was a mazedaar holiday, Shreya writes to a pen-friend in the closing scene. But feel-good though this ending is, one doesn’t forget that she is among the privileged ones, free to choose her clothes and her personal identity. Most other choris – or mermaids – aren’t so lucky.


  1. Hi Jabberwock: How do you come to know about such movies and how do you get to see these movies usually ? Some of the movies that you write about doesn't seem to be released via the usual commercial channels and the mainstream media writes nothing about it. So was just curious.


  2. Eswarprasath: Jalpari has got a commercial release, a very small one though - it is playing at a few halls in Delhi this week.

  3. hi, how do you avoid being repetitious while writing reviews/articles. I think you usually work on a weekly deadline and there is a tendency amongst reviewers to use stock phrases--but you always manage to write a "different" review each time. any tips on this?

  4. Sudipta Bhattacharjee6:20 PM, September 04, 2012

    Liked your review Jai. Somehow all the other reviews gave me the impression that 'Jalpari' would be one of those movies which are 'laudable' only because of the 'message' and not because its a good movie. Your review seems to suggest otherwise.

    Agree with anonymous about the non-repetitive nature of your writing style [have you read Rajeev Masand's reviews? you will proably get the point:-)]. I know you have explained over various previous blogs that you painstakingly work on your writing skills (and hence the impressive output week after week) - but I would be really grateful if you could share a couple of specific tips that you think are worth remembering while articulating one's thoughts through written words

  5. Sudipta and Anon: thanks for the compliment, but really, it's all relative. I can think of dozens of stock words and phrases that I overuse in both speech and writing; to some extent these things are unavoidable.

    (Since you bring this up: I noticed recently that in two book reviews I wrote in the space of 4-5 days - this one and this one - I used the phrase "moving/flowing beneath the surface of..." in a somewhat portentous way.)

    That said, of course I've made it clear that I take reviewing very seriously (when I have a decent word-count to work with, which has usually not been a problem ever since I began blogging). And taking it seriously includes taking the actual writing seriously: trying to be lucid and clear-sighted and, when possible, even a little "stylish" (in the conventionally used sense of that word). It can be a time-consuming process though, because I don't think I'm a naturally skilled writer (if there is such a thing) - for instance, clever turns of phrase don't come easily to me. And so, I do completely understand why reviewers working on very short deadlines tend to fall back on timeworn phrases. Unfortunately that often affects the quality of the thought being expressed - form and content being inseparable, etc - and it adds to the increasing perception that criticism is not "real" writing, which is a pity.

    The only meaningful advice I can ever think to give someone who asks for writing tips is: read well and read varied things, and try to understand how the better writers achieve their effects.

  6. thanks for the insight Jai. One more thing--lot of advice is there on reading other works--and I have heard it from more than one person (and on more than once occasion) that reading is important to write well. But the way I see it, there are two issues: (both of them equally important to me)

    -Unintended plagiarism: In your blog, you often write about reading other reviewers, and some of them are internationally famous. How can one avoid some unmindful copying--or should I say, reusing the same type of phrases as the other writer? (My own instinct tells me that a good way to avoid this is to read genres other than the one you intend to write--so by my logic you should read not film books as much as say, travel books, or crime fiction, or general journalism books. And use only theoretical books to improve your knowledge)

    -The actual process: In the end, we read (for this context only) to write well. But what about the actual writing process--shouldn't a budding writer spend as much time writing as reading? It is good to do something which is complimentary, but doing the actual thing is just as important (for example--it would be of great help if a batsman has good stamina--he can build his stamina by running exercises and yoga etc. but he will also have to do batting practice [what i call the 'actual process'] to be a good batsman). In your case this might not be applicable as you are a professional journalist and you end up writing for assignments. But to an untrained writer, I think, writing (and editing his own work) should be just as important as reading.

    Would love to read your response to these queries.


  7. Anon: I don't think reading genres other than the one you want to write in is a solution to unconcious plagiarism. And it can be highly disadvantageous in the first place: most of my understanding of film criticism has come from reading good film criticism (and by this I don't mean "theoretical books", if you use that phrase to mean academic books or textbooks - I've stayed very far away from those). To some extent, avoiding unconscious plagiarism is a lifelong struggle for any good, conscientious writer who has also read widely. There are no foolproof ways of avoiding it, but one should be on guard all the time, and place a premium on expressing one's own original thoughts.

    Incidentally, these days, when I know I'm going to write about a particular book or film, I'm careful not to read reviews by anyone whom I hold in high regard until I've finished my own piece. Not because of fear of plagiarism but because I don't want to second-guess myself or feel disheartened because someone else has had a similar thought about the book/film (and perhaps expressed it better than I could).

    About the process of writing: I certainly didn't intend to suggest that a good writer should spend all his time reading and consequently not getting any writing done! To my mind, it's understood that a good writer is most likely to be someone who has a strong hunger for writing in the first place, and who has therefore been doing it in some form or the other since a fairly early age - even if it's only jotting down rough thoughts in a notepad. And of course practice is hugely important. I think of everything I write as practice (even if it's a structured essay for a high-profile publication), and that's a process which will continue all my writing life.

  8. thanks, for the comments.

  9. Though you mentioned it was contentious, I totally agree about unconcious gender imprinting. I so look forward to seeing this movie now. In some liberal families, girls do feel a vague pressure to discard their feminity. And these are the remnants of parental psychological baggage most of the time. When we were young, I do remember very clearly that being more "boy" than the boys was the best way to be taken seriously. A certain aggression and competition came with the the territory.
    "Jalpari": Just perfect. It ties in perfectly withe Anderson fairy tale too. After all, it is the story of a girl who gives up her voice to be part of a man's world. Great review!

  10. Hi Jabberwock - First of all, thanks for the review. It was mainly because of this review that I bothered to buy the CD, and I believe it was money well spent. Jalpari is just the kind of film that slips your notice if you aren't writing about movies for a living or hooked to music channels 24X7.
    However, I do have my own quibbles with the movie itself. Like many well-meaning "message" films, this one makes it too easy for the audience to take sides. While the exact nature of evil lurking in this village is revealed as some sort of suspense twist, you already know the good guys from the bad ones. The old guard Sarpanch, the Vaid, the Bengali cook's mother-in-law are just the kind of people you'd expect to be complicit in a foeticide racket. The benevolent boxer on the other hand, can be just as surely counted on to come to the rescue when our little protagonists find themselves in peril.
    So the big 'revelation' in the climax doesn't really reveal much to us about the issue of foeticide. The epilogue that informs us about the abysmal sex ratio of that region of Haryana too, isn't enlightening - if anything, it confirms a certain stereotype. The film doesn't tell us anything about the kind of people who think they are justified in aborting female foeti - like the possibility that some of the 'nice' people in the story, the ones who support Dev in his mission, the ones who seem to be fond of Shreya, could be among the ones ushering their daughters-in-law to the ominous mobile clinic.