The struggle of two women in different parts of India – Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh – to assert their rights as mothers forms the theme of two disparate films that are sharing a bit of the limelight at the ongoing 31st Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
Veteran scriptwriter and debutante director Chitra Palekar’s Marathi film, Maati Maay (A Grave-Keeper’s Tale), and rookie filmmaker Rajnesh Domalpalli’s Telugu entry, Vanaja, unravel the sorry plight of low-caste women in a feudalistic, tradition-bound society through a brace of stories that are far removed from each other in space and time and are yet strikingly identical in spirit and intent.
|Atul Kulkarni and Nandita Das in a still from Maati Maay.|
Both films are severely flawed, but are, in the ultimate analysis, honest, gutsy and effective efforts to bring to the screen tales that rarely, if ever, find their rightful space in the world of the profit-driven, entertainment-oriented Indian cinema.
Neither film pulls any punches. Maati Maay, an adaptation of Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi’s disturbing story, Baayen (Witch), suffers a bit owing to its overly literal screen rendition, but it is scripted, executed and performed well enough to get its point across without too much being lost in translation.
The tragedy of Chandi (Nandita Das), the only heir of a family of children’s grave-keepers in the rural backwaters of India, approximates the hapless state of any woman anywhere in the world who needs to struggle against age-old prejudices, economic deprivation and gender inequities merely to survive with dignity.
Chandi’s husband, Narsu (Atul Kulkarni), a lowly and unlettered government employee, loves her. The rural society that she is a part of needs her services. And she, on her part, performs her duty with diligence and a sense of unwavering piety. But when she becomes a mother and has to nurse her own newborn, her ancestral job inevitably becomes a liability. Society and circumstances conspire to reduce her to an outcaste, who is branded an evil spirit and banished to the edge of the village.
Much the same fate befalls a much younger village woman, Vanaja (Mamatha Bhukya), only 15, in Domalpalli’s unusual film. Determined to rise above abject poverty and hone her skills as a Kuchipadi dancer, she wangles a job in the weather-beaten yet imposing mansion of the local landlady Rama Devi (Urmila Dammannagari).
The son of the mistress of the house, Shekhar (Karan Singh) returns from America to pursue a career in politics. As the young danseuse feels the first stirrings of sexual desire, she is subject to a brutal rape by the young man. The child quickly turns into a woman as she bears a child, but like Chandi, she must abdicate her right as a mother.
In Vanaja, Domalpalli, a Master of Fine Arts from Columbia University, uses a bunch of non-actors for his sustained exploration of the complex issues of gender, sexuality and feudalism. He pulls off the difficult experiment without too many glaring blotches.
He employs Andhra Pradesh’s celebrated classical dance form as a metaphor for womanly assertion. On the one hand is Rama Devi, a Kuchipadi expert, who controls everything around her; on the other is vulnerable and exploited yet proud and assertive Vanaja. The dance is loaded heavily against the latter, but she does not – indeed she cannot – give up the fight.
Maati Maay and Vanaja, both part of the Discovery programme of the Toronto film festival, are grim cautionary tales, but at one level they are also reminders of the regenerative essence of a woman’s willpower.