Rahul Bose does not like to make it easy for us to like him. Or find him. He’s going to hide himself away in the female directed low budget movie with the weird off-putting topic. Like, child-marriage. Fun!
We have had a whole string of movies lately trying to re-invent India’s past as a beautiful perfect lost glory. That fantasy has always been there of course, it was a large part of the fuel for the independence movement. And it’s true, in that there were good things in past India that were lost as time moved forward. But it’s not true in that a lot of the things were bad and there is a reason the world moved on. When you are doing a pretty fantasy of history you can simply ignore or re-write the bad (think Lagaan with its noble Raja, and happy villagers who learned to forget casteism and communalism), or you can present the bad as though it was good (Padmavat and jauhar being a prime example). Most often that “bad” which is re-written as good, is re-written at the expense of women. In the past, women were happy in their purdah, happy to devote their lives to their noble men, happy with their beautiful clothing and jewels. Polygamy, arranged marriages between children, leaving your home forever to live with your in-laws, it was all “good”. And rape only happened by strangers, and was quickly followed by Noble Suicide. And those suicides were also “good”.
This movie is the opposite. The fascinating thing about it is that it is NOT a fairy tale. It is far more historically accurate than the “histories” we have been fed lately. This is not a tale of impossible forgotten time and fantasy, this is the reality that was always there in every history book, waiting to be seen. We just don’t see it, because it is a woman’s story, and women don’t matter.
The movie is influenced highly by Charulata which happens to be the only Satyajit Ray movie I have seen (that’s lucky!) thanks to a film class in college. And also possibly I’ve been told Chokher Bali, which I haven’t seen. But the thing with both those films is that they didn’t go far enough. They showed a sort of poetic ineffable pain of purdah, and being an intelligent woman trapped away from the world with no power to grab happiness. This film rips away that facade and points to the reality that this poetic pretty pain is all we are willing to acknowledge, while the true pain of being a woman is hidden behind it. They were the fairy tales, these version is the truth.
While also being a bit of a fairy tale. There are some obvious metaphors, which is fun. Rahul Bose plays twins, always a kick to run through the “meaning” when a filmmaker chooses to have a literal doubling role. There’s a whole thing with women’s feet that flows beautifully as a theme, picking up on the wedding rituals which already exist (marking the sheet when you walk in, wearing toe rings, etc.). And the filmmakers do not stint on the costumes, jewelry, and setting. It’s only 90 minutes. but each of those 90 minutes of screentime is perfectly crafted, I don’t think our heroine repeats an outfit once.
The outfits have to do some of the acting for her, on purpose. Our heroine is meant to be an enigma, because the people around her have made her so. There are only two speaking roles for woman, also on purpose. This is a world where men are dangerous and everywhere and women have no chance to bond with each other. Women exist as men see them, exist to wander through the world being looked at. Tripti Dimri plays our heroine, but the slightly more difficult role (I think) is the other female part, Paoli Dam’s role. She has to be both unsympathetic and sympathetic simultaneously, to let the audience see her thoughts in a way Tripti never does and to not always find those thoughts pleasant. Avinash Tiwary is our hero, in a very clearly defined “hero” kind of way, trying to go through the motions of filling that role for himself, how he thinks he has to be. The more interesting role, and character, is Rahul Bose. A double role for one thing, and on older man who is more sure of himself. And then there’s lovely Parambrata Chattopadhyay once again in his sweet spot of male ally.
Really, it’s worth a watch! If you feel up to some pretty raw material. It’s only 90 minutes and that is appropriate, it feels like a short story or a fable far more than a novel or full-fledged film. Give it a try, and then come back to discuss it in greater depth.
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Whole plot in two paragraphs:
It’s a very short film, but I am doing two paragraphs because we have a past and present timeline, and it gets confused otherwise.
We open with a child marriage, a sweet little girl (future Tripti) and little boy (future Avinash) meet and play together before the wedding, then he comforts her in the carriage on the way to her new home. Only after her arrival is it revealed that the little boy is not the groom, her husband is Rahul Bose, a grown man of at least 30, while she is perhaps 5 or 6 years old. For the rest of the film, flashbacks fill in what happened in her childhood. She and Avinash grew up as best friends, played together all day, and had a game of writing stories in pieces. As she grew up, Rahul started paying more and more attention to her, grooming her for sex, while Paoli Dam (clearly his previous sexual partner) was upset to be ignored. Paoli helped Rahul be jealous of his younger brother Avinash, Rahul sent Avinash away for school with almost no warning. Tripti in sorrow burned their book of stories, and Rahul saw the scraps in the fire and mistook it for love letters. He beat Tripti with poker until her bones were broken and bloody. The new doctor Parambrata came to care for her and understood immediately that she was beaten, but could do nothing. Rahul left the next day, upset at Tripti’s “betrayal”. Tripti, strapped in and held up by bandages, was raped that night by Rahul’s disturbed twin. The next day, Paoli comforted her and revealed that she was so jealous and broken because she had been raped by Rahul’s twin many times, Rahul was her savior of sorts and he left her and stopped protecting her for younger Tripti. She hurt Tripti, but only because she had been hurt herself. Rahul’s twin is mysteriously murdered shortly after, and now Tripti lives alone in the manor house, doing as she pleases, and carefully running the village and looking after the people.
In the present, Avinash is finally returning home after 5 years away. He is shocked to see Tripti so calm and confident and unlike the fragile emotional young girl he knew. He is also shocked by her closeness with Parambrata. And he learns that there is a murderer terrorizing the village and immediately suspects Parambrata, although the villagers say it is their legendary with woman who walks with backwards feet. To the viewer, especially as the flashbacks role out, it is obvious that it is Tripti killing the abusive horrible men of the village, starting with her rapist. In the end, Avinash tries to take Parambrata away with him for trial, but their carriage is stopped and the carriage driver killed. Avinash runs through the woods in search of the “witch”, Parambrata tries to stop him and make him see the truth but he won’t listen. He finally sees and understands after he has set the whole forest alight and Tripti dies in a burning tree. A year later, Rahul has returned to the mansion and receives a letter from Avinash saying he will never come home again, and he does not want to become a man like Rahul. Rahul goes to bed, and Tripti appears in his as a ghost and bares her teeth at him. THE END.
Like I said, it’s pretty obvious that Tripti is the “witch”. Tripti’s whole story is pretty obvious. And I think that was the point? There’s this fantasy of the female “enigma”, the woman you can never really understand, and blah blah blah. That’s a toxic fantasy. Either the surface reveals nothing and inside she is more tortured and suffering and saintly than we can imagine. Or the surface reveals nothing and inside she is evil and scheming and so on. But either way, the lesson is “ignore the surface, we can never really know the truth”. But YES!!! You can know the truth!!!!
When a very little girl is married to a grown man, that is not a happy marriage, that is not a good husband, that is going to end in rape one way or the other. When a woman is married to a mentally retarded man she dislikes and is forced to care for, that is not good either. When a young man and woman are raised together and love each other in many ways, and are forced to be apart because it is not “right”, that is not a good thing. LOOK AT THE SURFACE!!!!!! The surface tells you that things are WRONG!!!!
That’s the point of Parambrata versus Avinash’s characters. Parambrata has far less information about this household than Avinash does, but he came in as an outsider, he looked at it with honest fresh eyes, and he saw what was happening. Avinash is willfully blind. He wants to believe that Tripti loves her husband because girls always love their husbands, no matter how INSANE that is to expect. He wants to believe that Paoli is unhappy as a widow and misses her husband, no matter how many times he saw her avoid him when he was alive. He wants to believe that Tripti is struggling with her responsibility for the village and it is up to him to step in and “save” her, no matter how much the health of the village and her overall actions give lie to that.
There’s a small moment to bring it home, Parambrata and Tripti are shaking their heads over the household servant who beats his wife to the point of breaking her bones. Avinash says “but he is a good man” and suggests perhaps the wife really did fall down stars. And Parambrata and Tripti just look at him and laugh. The truth is there, the truth is obvious, Avinash is looking away from it because he doesn’t want to see it.
Tripti kills Rahul’s twin, the man who raped her. She kills that household servant who was beating his wife. She kills an older man who was with a little girl when he died (pretty obvious what was happening there, especially as he was found in a bathtub). She kills the carriage driver, who she had previously warned not to miss-treat his first wife after marrying a second and then his first wife killed herself. Again, it’s right there on the surface.
Most movies put us in the position of Avinash, we are lost and confused and miss obvious clues, and then learn the truth and go “oh! Of course! we were blind and should have seen, we should be better in future”. That’s good, that’s a good lesson, to tell us to think things through and see the reality. But this movie decided to do something different and put us in the mindset of Tripti, looking at Avinash and going “how can you not see it? how can you be so blind to what is in front of you?”
It’s bigger than this one film. All the things we accept without question, and I include the non-desi Indian film watchers in this, because we are told we should accept them, we should look past the surface and see that it is all perfectly fine. Child marriages may not be in many films now, especially not child marriages to grown men, but what is accepted over and over again is the idea of an innocent young woman marrying a successful NRI. There’s a difference of degree with the marriage shown here, but it is fruit of the same tree. Why do we say “oh look, the hero got his teenage sister engaged to an NRI doctor! Good for him!!!!”? Why don’t we say “that 19 year old who has never left home is being sent off with a 30-something to a whole new country. That is shocking and terrifying and just plain WRONG”?
Our heroine’s rape happened outside of marriage. The film carefully built up the way Rahul taught her to serve him even as a little girl without necessarily having sex with her. At least, not penetrative sex. And then we see her as a teenager and Rahul is flirting and playing with her hands and seems to be “courting” her in a way. When Rahul’s twin rapes her, there is blood the next day, which could be meant to indicate a broken hymen, or just rape. However, seeing as there are no babies from the marriage, and seeing the way Rahul seems to be courting her differently as she matures, I think we are intended to interpret it as Rahul playing up to her and preparing her for sex, before suddenly reversing himself and beating and leaving her. So her rape is “wrong”, she was a pure innocent wife until her evil brother-in-law forced himself on her. But Paoli comes to comfort her and reveals that she experienced the same violence, only within marriage, and given over to it by her parents. She repeats what they told her, “he is a little crazy, but it is a good family, you will have jewelry, you will have silks, it is a good name”. That’s something we still hear now, isn’t it? The reluctant bride’s family convincing her that it doesn’t matter if the guy is bald, or old, or any other reason it is a rich family, she will be happy and spoiled and all will be good.
There’s another parallel here I kept thinking about, Raj Kapoor’s Prem Rog. In that one the young bride was gently being courted by her new (age appropriate and very nice) husband and had reached the stage of kissing him when he suddenly died in an accident. And a few days later, her brother-in-law raped her. Raj handled the rape beautifully, we had the terrifying build up as she sensed the “wrongness” and tried to get away, and then all we see his her foot, cut on broken glass, struggling and bloodying the sheets. When it was over, the sister-in-law took responsibility for it happening and our heroine left that household for her own safety. But, what about the sister-in-law? Merely because she is married to him, she is supposed to not care that her husband is a rapist? Because he is married to her, he will not rape her?
Rahul does not rape her, not like his twin brother does. But the lifelong grooming until she reaches sexual maturity, that is another form of rape. And that, again, is something we hear about all the time with marriages and ignore. A good match, she is young enough that he can train her. She will adjust. Or the idealized child bride who worships her husband from childhood onward, dreaming of the day they will be united. That’s grooming, that’s what sexual predators do to children they prey upon. If this were modern day and between your child and their teacher, you would be calling the police. But since it is in the pretty costumes past of fiction, it is “romantic” it is “traditional” it is fine.
And there’s Tripti and Avinash’s “romance”. In other stories, it would be poetic and tragic and lovely. But this movie brings it down to the ground. First, they fell in love primarily because they were the same age and intelligence. It was isolation, not true romance. We see how dull both their lives are, how happy they are to have a playmate of a similar age. And second, there was no tragic impossibility to their romance. Avinash makes it impossible in his own mind, even when Tripti directly confronts him with his jealousy, he still clings to the fantasy that she “loves” her elderly husband who has abandoned her. All he has to do is admit the truth of her words, reach out his hand to her, and they can be together. Nothing is standing between them but his own pride. And not tragic beautiful heroic manly pride, just stupid manly pride, immature pride. When we look at tales of lost impossible romances, were they really impossible? Or do we just hear those tales because that is what was repeated in order to convince us they were impossible?
The widow’s ashram where Paoli is sent, is that a torturous place for her or a peaceful escape? There is a child widow who runs past as they are talking and Tripti happily tickles and plays with her until she laughs and leaves. It’s not the tale of woeful widowhood we usually see. In the same way, we have so many films of the “sad” and “lonely” wife, dreaming of her husband returning. Is that really the case? Or did they not really care about this person who was forced on them and they hardly know? Were they like Tripti here, happily and confidently creating her own life and feeling nothing but relief that her husband was gone.
This is a fairy tale that is about revealing what isn’t a fairy tale. Sometimes the “witch” doesn’t have magical backwards feet, sometimes she is just a woman who was beaten so badly by her husband that her ankles twisted backwards.