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She was only thirty-one when she lost her life to complications during childbirth. Smita Patil who reigned the Bollywood film industry during the 70s–80s along with her contemporary artists like Shabana Azmi, Aparna Sen was a perfect example of a feminist woman and let’s see how true the statement is through the movie “Mirch Masala”.
Mirch Masala was released in the year 1987. It is set in the pre-independence era and speaks of male tyranny, caste discrimination, women oppression, feminism, mounds of chilli powder and rustic Gujarat. Smita Patil plays the role of Sonbai, an independent, beautiful, insightful and aggressive young woman whose callous husband leaves her alone in the village for a job in the city. During those days, the village was controlled by a chauvinistic Mukhi played by Suresh Oberoi who in addition to the village also keeps his wife in control.
But that same Mukhi is powerless in front of a newly appointed ruthless, cruel subedar played by Naseeruddin Shah. The Subedar has a strong fetish for woman and soon spots Sonbai at the riverbank. Sonbai’s kind gesture of providing him water is interpreted by him as an invite for sex. He then asks her for the intimacy and she gives a befitting reply in the form of a slap.
This crushes his male ego and he sends out his entire team to bring Sonbai to reclaim his botched reputation. Sonbai runs and takes refuge in the chilli powder factory where she is employed. The chowkidar of the factory Abu Miya played by Om Puri protects her and the other women who are held hostage in the factory. The movie ends with Sonbai and Subedar coming face to face with each other. Subedar having his last laugh thinking he has overcome his prey but the women proved otherwise. Two women run out of the factory holding two ends of cloth holding chilli powder and thrusting that powder in Subedar’s face/eyes.
It is said Ketan Mehta directed this film upon hearing several stories of woman heroism in the Colonial era during his travels to Gujarat. The film depicts woman heroism with Sonbai and the other women refusing to compromise to the needs of the Subedar. Not for once, Sonbai is shown wallowing in self-pity even when her selfish husband leaves her alone in the raucous village.
Mukhi who prefers spending his nights at his harlot’s place comes home only for food and bath is shut out by his wife Sarasvati played by Deepti Naval. Not only that, Sarasvati takes their only daughter to the village school as she wants her child to be educated which angers Mukhi. Male tyranny and dominance on women are showcased by the characters like Mukhi and Subedar but characters like Abu Miya and village schoolmaster played by Benjamin Gelani speaks of feminism. Abu Miya was the only man protecting Sonbai when the entire village menfolk turned against Sonbai asking her to surrender to the lecher Subedar. Amidst many tussles, the village schoolmaster still manages to run the school though he gets beaten up by Subedar’s men.
Caste discrimination is also depicted several times with the Subedar mercilessly collecting tax from the poor village labourers. He beats up one of them when he accidentally breaks his gramophone record. The caste dynamics is further strengthened with scenes like Mukhi’s brother falling in love with a girl from the lower caste and Mukhi humiliating the girl’s father brutally. The women working in the factory are from lower castes hence were considered easily available. Lakshmi, played by Ratna Pathak Shah, who is also employed in the factory is also from the lower caste and visits the Subedar to fulfil his lust. The abuses hurled at Sonbai for fleeing away from the Subedar’s clutches are Kamjaat, Dayan etc.
Such powerful was the movie that in a review, Julie Merin Varughese observes the strength, countenance and self-independence of Sonbai’s character that magically united the women against the oppressive and tyrannical Subedar. There are very important messages in this for us, the womenfolk.
Firstly, just because the odds are against us, we should not bow down to a majority view that is against our own personal convictions. Secondly, a revolution might be late in coming but if one persists with undeterred courage, then surely, one day, the world will be with us.
It is amazing that an Indian film director could capture the essence of the power of womanhood so beautifully and realistically. He deserves all the applause and appreciation for displaying the courage of being ahead of his times.
Smita Patil’s reel life was no different from her real life as well as reported by Wikipedia. Apart from acting, she was an active feminist and a member of the Women’s Centre in Mumbai. She was deeply committed to the advancement of women’s issues and gave her endorsement to films which sought to explore the role of women in traditional Indian society, their sexuality, and the changing face of the middle-class woman in an urban milieu.
She was a Women’s Rights activist and chose to work in parallel cinemas rather than the commercial ones with Shakti, Namak Halaal being exceptions. She chose films where the role of the woman was characterized as independent and unfettered. She broke the stereotype that actresses need to be fair skinned. She was a news anchor for Doordarshan and was applauded for her poised work. She was first noticed by Shyam Benegal and started her journey with Bollywood with films like ‘Charandas Chor’ and ‘Nishant’. In her short span of life, she has acted in more than 80 Hindi, Marathi and Malayalam movies.
In the end, I would like to say that while all of us are busy watching commercial blockbusters, but there is no harm in watching such thought provoking movies once in a while and remembering Smita Patil as a great actor and feminist.
The image is a still from the movie Mirch Masala
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