Monday, July 11, 2005

Matrubhoomi review

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.


  1. Isn't odd how often a movie which appears to have been begun with good ideas falls apart in mid-flow? I believe one reason a movie such as this one fails (-- I have DAAYRA in mind as I write this) is that the director/producer shrinks from realism and slips instead into caricature. It's as if no-one can face the starkness of the truth whereas the caricature, however ludicrous, permits closure -- the statement's been made, but no real people are framed by it.

  2. I think the reason is much simpler : its easier to come up with a good idea, much much more difficult to make a movie out of it !
    Right from the point of conception of good idea, it can fail at any of the next steps in converting it into a movie : converting the idea into a story (idea is just an 'idea'..story is the product...think Raincoat..brillian idea..ordinary story), writing a good script+screenplay, writing dialogues (and I've seen so many good movies let down here), choosing a good caste (sudhir pandey..that does it!) and ofcourse good direction.

    Manish Jha may have had a good vision of what he wanted to make, but thats not always enough.

  3. Was I the only one who saw shades of von Trier's Dogville here? Remember having asked Jha that, and he said many others had told him so; i thought the fine wasn't bad, it was completely bereft of any emotion (I watched it over a year ago; so dont' remember much anyway)

  4. Same thing happened with that awful movie -- Kalpana Lajmi's Daman. Started out as a film that was supposed to portray domestic violence against women, turned into a film about a sadistic psychopath who beat up his wife, which has nothing to do with domestic violence since most men who beat up their wives are not sadistic psychopaths but 'normal' human beings who just think there's nothing wrong with doing this. What I hate about such movies is how they take a serious issue and trivialise it beyond recognition, or pretend this happens only to a certain group of people, in this case, women unlucky enough to get married to psychopaths.

  5. Its odd you say this.. a lot of my other journo frens seemed to think that since it had sensibilities to totally repulse you, it had to be a great film.
    I could not bear to watch the trailor.. so not sure will get thru the film.

  6. Two thoughts come to mind:

    1. I remember the time Bandit Queen came about and how similarly quease-inducing stuff was said about that. I watched the movie and didn't feel any of it.

    2. When I first heard of this movie (in an article ages back), I was very curious and totally wanted to watch it. However, ever since it has gotten here, don't feel like it at all. No quease at all just very bored/not interested once I saw the trailers.

    ...they don't call me 'straight curves' (Read: paradoxical) for nothing...

  7. Jaygee: I really didn’t think the film was as violent or sickening as it was made out to be (unless there was plenty of censorship, but I doubt it - you can usually tell these things from the tone of the movie). In fact, like I said in the post, I thought it soft-pedalled in some of its key scenes. But the larger point is, being stark and hard-hitting doesn’t make for a great film anyway, if the script and the characters aren’t believable.

    Straight Curves: yes, it’s surprising how many of the supposedly “visceral and cringe-inducing” films turn out to be mild. Or maybe that’s just because we’ve read too much about them beforehand.
    (BTW, who ‘they’? No one calls you ‘Straight Curves’ - you call yourself that)

  8. yes, I and the voices in my head.

    ps: you SO don't know me!

    *bursts into sobs and simultaneously sends off email too*

  9. Hi, I enjoy reading your book/film reviews. Just wanted to let you know that I read a review of Matrubhoomi in Today (the afternoon paper) yesterday and it sounded suspiciously like yours. The review didn’t carry a byline. I am not sure if it was plagiarism or moonlighting! Cheers, S

  10. hey ano, it was J who wrote the review...

    and they chose to carry the "today reporter" byline coz he's associated with some other paper.

    talk abt ethics in today's journalism!

  11. Anonymous: ha ha, caught! Yes, that was mine all right, albeit dashed off in a tearing hurry, and without having made any notes. A friend who works at Today (and who I saw the film with) was asked to do the review at the last minute, and I volunteered to write it instead - he's leaving them soon anyway and I might be doing some reviews for them as a freelancer. (You know what they say about it being an incestuous profession etc...)

  12. J, srsly, i'd thought u wd delete my comment.
    but now that u've chosen to bare it all, my respect for u has gone a notch higher :)

  13. Comments, counter-comments...AARRGGHH!!!

    2nd Anonymous: My previous comment was to the 1st Anonymous. Hadn't seen your comment at that point. So guess I don't deserve your respect after all, sob, sob.

    And don't make me sound like Isha Kopikar, please! There was nothing to "bare" - this wasn't something we were trying to keep secret from anyone in either Today or Business Standard. As long as the byline says "Today Reporter", no one cares. (You of all people should know about the virtues of Anonymity :))

    No argument about ethics in journalism. But I'm amoral anyway.

  14. erm...i just saw the movie. liked it. in the sense that a topic has been touched that had been ignored for quite sometime. sorry for taking apart a previous comment, but i think branding it a "movie which begun with good ideas and then fell apart" is kind of on the harsher side of jusdgements per se.

    it was a good movie on its own rights. A tad bit ghory in the middle, and then, yes, it does mellow out. but do you not think that the people at whom the message was thrown, should have got it?

  15. Melchizedek: I don't know how to answer that question. Seriously. Friends with whom I've discussed the film have said much the same thing - "we're already enlightened and empathetic, so we're not the target audience and can't judge the effect it might have on others". In that sense I suppose my review is limited by perspective. But the cynic in me can't help wondering: is any film, even a much better one, ever likely to make much of a difference to the people who need to get the message?

  16. hmmm...that will always remain a mystery i guess jabberwock. the apathy around us all is so very much on the rise that it, at times, can get really pointless. but to each his own i say. :D

  17. Surprisingly, nobody mentions Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale here.
    Isn't odd how often a movie which appears to have been begun with good ideas falls apart in mid-flow? Ironic, coming from someone whose name appears in credits of many such films from the 80's, albeit as a graphic artist and one film from the 90's, this time in the writing department.

  18. Thanks for the review, I shall refrain from watching this movie... it is definitely an important issue, but I refuse to believe an extreme case like this will actually happen... I have far more faith in womankind than that! And if the movie ruins it all further, then forget it.

  19. Very nice review, though a bit longer than warranted..and plucks the right context. Found myself agreeing substantially with its tone, tenor, content and even style.

  20. @ anon: What's the connection with The Handmaid's Tale? They seem to be set in two cultural contexts so vastly separate that beyond the common 'women's exploitation' theme I doubt the film and the book have very much in common. Pls to elaborate?

    And thanks for the review, jabberwock. I was torn between my responsibility to the film and sheer disinterest, and I think I'm just going to give in to the latter now.

  21. What I meant when I said it's ridiculous there aren't any women in the film was.. they've shown young boys, teenagers (those two boy servants) but none of them have mothers or grandmothers.. surely, they couldn't have been victims of female infanticide after they gave birth to sons. I'm not talking about young girls, I'm talking about old women who have given birth to all the men in the film.
    PS: v. nice review

  22. The message of the movie is to all male masses, especially to the chauvanistic ways that we tend to exhibit. It's a shame where we worship and revere a goddess like Laxmi and Saraswati, but we have dog and pig mentalities exhibited towards our women.

  23. Time Magazine named it for one of the best movies and I've not heard about it till this day? as a foreign movie lover i must to grab a copy of this movie asap and see it. I'll share my mind on it later one :) thanks!

  24. What is interesting is all the positive reviews this movie received in the mass media. Even though it does not show women, does not mean that the movie is biased towards the rights of male dominance does it?