Friday, December 18, 2015

Angry captive goddesses in Madhureeta Anand's Kajarya

[From my Mint Lounge column]

I haven’t watched Pan Nalin's Angry Indian Goddesses yet, but the other day I caught a remarkable, under-discussed film that also has a wrathful “goddess” at its heart. She isn’t just angry though, she is distraught and foul-mouthed and usually in an afeem-fuelled haze of self-loathing. She is the title character of Madhureeta Anand’s Kajarya, a village woman who is saddled with the task of getting rid of the community’s unwanted girl-babies.

Fifty-five years ago, Satyajit Ray’s Devi gave us an indelible visual representation of how patriarchy can simultaneously put women on a pedestal and enslave them: the story centred on young Dayamoyee (played by the 15-year-old Sharmila Tagore) whose life is altered when her father-in-law dreams that she is the Mother Goddess incarnate. In no time, she goes from being a normal girl, playing with her little nephew, to becoming an object of veneration, a living idol effectively imprisoned in the prayer room and brought out for darshan when people come asking for favours and miracles.

Much like Devi, Kajarya begins with goddess images – a clay statue, a painting – that are made to look sinister both by how they are framed and by the given context. We see that the village is dominated by men: most of the children seem to be boys; women are largely invisible; the local police chief has a lady assistant who banters with him, but she seems the exception that proves the rule. And then we meet the flesh-and-blood goddess, Kajarya (a mesmerizing performance by Meenu Hooda), who is a puppet in the hands of her “devotees”. “Jai Ma Kali” these men shout in a frenzy, even as they perpetuate their dominance over women.

Into this rustic setting trips a privileged young journalist from the city named Meera (Ridhima Sud, who played the wealthy ingénue in a very different sort of film, Dil Dhadakne Do, earlier this year). She looks and behaves like a card-carrying citizen of the modern world, she speaks Hindi with an accent and is a misfit in the village, but as the narrative progresses our view of her changes too; we become aware of her vulnerabilities and compulsions, some of which she doesn’t face up to herself. She is no stranger to enslavement and objectification, and she has her own form of nasha to help her cope.

There have been some notable films recently about female-infanticide and the related theme of how a society treats its women in various contexts. Take Anup Singh’s beautifully shot and performed Qissa: Tale of a Lonely Ghost, in which a girl-child is murdered not literally but symbolically (her father, despairing for a male heir, not only raises her as a boy but tells the world she IS a boy and comes to believe this himself). Or Nila Madhab Panda’s layered Jalpari: The Desert Mermaid, in which a city-bred girl travels with her dad to the village of his childhood, a place where both women and water – two sources of nourishment that are linked by this fable-like story – are now scarce. That film had a shadowy “daayan” who strikes fear in people’s hearts but who turns out to be an unfairly maligned outcaste. In Kajarya, things are a little more complicated: the “witch” really is a murderer, even if she has been victimized and manipulated along the way.

The divide between city and village, modernity and tradition, is central to Anand’s film, as the story moves between the spaces occupied by its two protagonists. But are these spaces really so different? In one scene, a high-society Delhi woman says that the villagers should use technology to pre-determine a foetus’s sex, instead of killing it after it has been born (“so barbaric”). In another, Meera tells her boyfriend in a disgusted tone about how a group of village men had playing-cards with photos of scantily clad women on them – “you could barely make out the faces, it was just bodies” – and as she speaks, we see a shot of her body (with her face outside the frame) from the boyfriend’s perspective. He then comments on her short dress, saying “Are you going to office dressed like that, or a disco?”

Some of these scenes may feel a little pedantic – perhaps this is inevitable in a “message movie” that combines fictional narrative with documentary – but Kajarya’s most powerful moments transcend message-mongering. They include a climactic confrontation where two women sit in a room, facing each other as antagonists. One of them is the interrogator, but soon the equations shift; it is the other woman who starts asking the hard questions, while the person who was initially in a position of power is forced to admit “Mere haath mein kuch nahin tha”. Here they sit, two goddesses in shackles, all too aware of how they are perceived and represented in male-dominated arenas.

[Related posts here: Qissa, Jalpari, Devi]

No comments:

Post a Comment