A world without women

Print edition : July 01, 2005

Tulip Joshi as Kaalki in Manish Jha's Matrubhoomi. - PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Matrubhoomi , a powerful depiction of the systematic decimation of girls in a patriarchal society, announces the arrival of a new talent in filmmaking.

TIME called it one of the ten best films of the year 2003. The film was Matrubhoomi, hardly seen in India except at film festivals. It now hits the screens across India - dubbed into six languages, including Tamil, Telugu, Bengali and Bhojpuri. Manish Jha is luckier than most other young filmmakers with a cause. Thanks to Boney Kapoor and Sridevi, hitherto strictly associated with Mumbai fare, who are distributing this hard-hitting conscience-awakener to a wider audience, hopefully reaching out to the interiors.

Films like Matrubhoomi are usually confined to the festival circuit, at home and abroad, preaching to the converted or the curious who might drop in at the multiplex to see what the buzz is all about. It would be interesting to see how a futuristic projection of a world without women in rural India is received by the larger audience, because the cause espoused with anger and sorrow by Jha is something our patriarchal society does not want to hear, let alone see.

Rage is rare in our homogenised world that has become anaesthetised to oppression. Jha's first feature film is filled not only with the shrill outrage of a young man who is shocked by the systematic decimation of girls in our feudal, son-worshipping society but also has the commitment to convey this outrage through a film that subverts conventional sensibilities. In fact, the futuristic nightmare he presents with such grim determination aims to lacerate our collective conscience that prefers to look the other way when confronted with inconvenient facts. Matrubhoomi has the great virtue of a first film - passion - and also a few of the flaws - a blinkered script oblivious to implausibilities and grim determination to tell a grimmer story with unrelenting grimness. But genuine passion for a large theme is a precious thing at a time when most young filmmakers are chasing NRI dreams and honing their MTV skills to that end. Jha restores our faith - increasingly frayed by cynicism - in the idealism of youth.

Futuristic films are supposed to be an escape into fantasy, even if they do make passing or pointed references to current attitudes and cultural fashions. They are usually not grounded in current social reality - a reality rooted in centuries of accumulated prejudice and burdens of history. Jha's film is more a doomsday warning - of the approaching apocalypse of moral collapse and sexual depravity caused by selective decimation of women - than a futuristic sci-fi scenario. The film describes the nightmare of what happens to a society that systematically kills girls - after they are born, if they have not been finished off in the womb itself. Our past foretells the future. The past Jha resurrects is from the Mahabharata, of a Draupadi married to five brothers - in this case, not out of the choice of a swayamvar but because there is a dearth of brides in a sex-starved patriarchy. Will this enhance the value of women and the girl child? So the proponents of sex-determination tests would have you believe, as they try to offer a sociological rationale for the morally indefensible practice of selective abortions.

Matrubhoomi shows that our society will soon be a nation without women at the rate we are exterminating girl children. Jha's imagination conjures up a rural society so starved of women that rich families will pay lakhs for a bride and cunning purohits will even try to pass off boys as girls. Already, men have no recourse other than masturbation, pornography, homosexuality or bestiality to satisfy their lust. Into this revolting, sickeningly raunchy world, Jha introduces Kaalki (Tulip Joshi) - a flower fresh young woman, so miraculously preserved by her impoverished but tender father. She is guarded behind high walls like a fairy-tale princess. Venu, the wonderfully accomplished cinematographer, lavishes lyricism on the first images of Kaalki, as she cavorts like a wood nymph in a verdant orchard. It is the oily, obsequious purohit who spies her and, unwittingly and paradoxically, we are made accomplices in this act of voyeurism. We can almost hear the purohit's brain calculating his profits, savouring the coming transaction, when he will play middleman to the highest bidder. Is the avaricious purohit the serpent in this threatened Eden? Or is he a lecherous rakshas eyeing a fragile sylph in her arbour? The purohit is a repulsively reptilian character given to gluttony and prurience, so snake he must be.

We, the viewers, are enchanted by these lyrical images and the shock is visceral when the director unleashes the subsequent acts of unrelenting brutality on her tender person.

Sans crude imagery, the film skillfully depicts the brutal treatment meted out to Kaalki-

The purohit negotiates an alliance between Kaalki and the personable, seemingly sensitive Sooraj, the youngest of a rich landlord's (Sudhir Pandey) five sons. The marriage has the older brothers - they are all frustrated randy goats in heat - up in arms. The father increases the dowry amount (now paid to the father of the bride, not the other way round but there is no marriage without money changing hands, neither now nor in the future) and Kaalki is forced to be a modern-day Draupadi. Five nights are taken care of by five brothers and the father stakes his claim to the remaining two nights, as a deprived (depraved?) widower. Jha uses a mixture of farce, satire and good old shock tactics to hit us over the head with his thesis. Kaalki's nightly rape is suggested rather than crudely shown. The only person who arouses her affection is Sooraj who is tender and understanding. He is appalled by her fate - a domestic drudge by day and sex-machine by night. Sexual jealousy raises its head and fratricide is the obvious outcome: the nasty older brother gets Sooraj killed.

Kaalki's only solace is the young boy who helps her in the kitchen. This cheeky adolescent is the catalyst for the simmering caste conflict to escalate. The purohit - a constant visitor to the house - treats the lower-caste servant with contempt and the boy has his revenge: he pees into the sherbet that the purohit slurps with gluttonous glee. Caste wars explode after Sooraj's death. To escape the coming inferno, and her unbearable fate, Kaalki tries to run away with the servant. Her once tender father has been bought over by money and refuses to protect her. Kaalki is captured and shut up in the cattle shed. In the new caste equation, the lower caste men of the village also claim sexual rights over Kaalki. In a sequence that owes visually to Shekhar Kapoor's Bandit Queen, her gang rape is discreetly suggested, avoiding any touch of voyeurism. In fact, Jha shows a lot of restraint in the actual depiction of violence. Much more is conveyed through language that is abusive, brutal, and often scatological.

The shifting of narrative gears is rather jerky and Jha is too much in a hurry to reach an apocalyptic denouement. The raunchy humour, a counterpoint to the violence, gradually vanishes. You recall an earlier scene of a young boy being passed off as a bride at a rare wedding in the village - everyone is wondering where this girl came from - until some pulls off the bride's dhoti. The hitherto envious men break into ugly and raucous laughter - it sounds like an evil chorus portending the horror to come. But when horror is piled on horror without let up, it benumbs and uncomfortable questions arise. Where, for example, are the older women of the village? Because you do see boys in their teens and their mothers must be around somewhere. Jha simply evades such simple logic to hammer his point home - that men, without women, turn worse than bestial. True, but far more effective was the opening sequence. Here, a newborn female infant is ritually fed milk and then drowned in a pitcher of milk, after an invocation to the unseen deity for better fortune next time.

This prelude, with an anonymous man, is chilling and cinematically stunning. We ask: could this unseen deity be a goddess? What is this cruel paradox of a civilisation that deifies women as Shakti and yet kills its girl children? If Matrubhoomi had toned down its brutality for a little ambiguity, the film could have been even more effective. The opening sequence could have resonated through the film. But this is a choice Jha has made and he commands respect for not prettifying or worse, sanitising his thesis.

Though Jha makes the victims of patriarchy - the oppressed woman and a lower caste servant - natural allies in their struggle to survive, it is not only the upper castes who believe it is their prerogative to treat women as worse than chattel. The lower castes also join in, after inciting a caste war, and treat the hapless woman as community property. The final irony is that Kaalki gives birth to a daughter in a world where the Mahabharata war seems civilised by comparison.

Matrubhoomi won the Fipresci Prize at Venice. This is not the only international prize Jha has won. His short A Very Very Silent Film (a pavement dweller is raped through the night by the many passers by till it is discovered to be a corpse the next morning) won the Prix du jury at Cannes in the year our media went gaga over Devdas (ignoring the quickly emptying halls) to the exclusion of everything else - including the arrival of a major new talent.

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