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Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Red hot (Mirch Masala)

Mirch Masala is like garam masala, the condiment that spices up most Indian curries. Aromatic, flavoursome and full of colour. Similarly, Ketan Mehta's 1985 film is more than just a visual splendour. Set in remote Gujarat, it leaves a spicy and tingling sensation long after Sonbai's gaze fades out. Your eyes start burning once the haze of the red chilli powder clears, you want to drink a glass of crystal clear water because the arid landscape has left you parched and then maybe, you shake yourself up from your stupor of admiration for a second round of the film. Yes, that tingling sensation is truly worth many more tries.
Notwithstanding the stark depiction of the plight of women in rural India. Notwithstanding the ire at the cruel Subedar. Notwithstanding the resentment for the spineless men in the film. Mirch Masala unfurls magic everytime. Without fail...
In my consideration this is one of the most powerful films to have been ever produced by the National Film Development Corporation of India. With a very parallel treatment it can beat any commercial potboiler with ease. Suspense, drama and entertainment unfold at an unhurried pace as a bunch of women teach a wicked and promiscuous man a lesson for life. Mehta brings under his aegis a bunch of actors who do nothing but good to the film. Rajat Dholakia lends music that adds ample rustic charm to the plot. Jehangir Chowdhury's camera enlivens the dry landscape. It captures the sensual and exotic beauty of the likes of Sonbai, Saraswati and Tara. And of course, it makes the colour red even hotter. A scene where Sonbai is escaping from the Subedar's men, Chowdhury's lens (taut execution by master Mehta) follow Smita Patil as she runs through heaps of dried red chillies. Her tired and scared disposition, her replendant traditional attire is a contrast to her surroundings. It is almost as if the red is reflected in her eyes. A tigress, with talons that have dared to leave a mark on the lecherous Subedar's face, she is all set for a fight. A fight for dignity and survival. There is no background score save the rustle of the spices and Sonbai's heavy breathing... Lipsmacking!
For the uninitiated into the spicy world of Mirch Masala, here's a link to Wikipedia, where you can read up the story. But, I suggest you watch it first. Let the suspense grip you. Let the sights, sounds and smells enthrall. Let the characters mesmerise. And, let Sonbai and her clan make you scream with joy when they triumph over the devil...
Mirch Masala is a melee of powerful performances. Raj Babbar plays Sonbai's husband who has to rush to the city as he has got a railway's job. Within a few minutes he makes it clear why so many rural folk migrate to the metros. A sensitive man, he promises his wife that he will come back to get her. But will he? Sonbai wonders and so do we. Ahh the question of livelihood???
Then there is Benjamin Gilani, the school master. Ridiculed as the Swaraji, he is probably the only man in the village to openly defy the Subedar. A Gandhian, he is not scared to speak his mind and instill wisdom in the rural menfolk, too comfortable to protest and fight for their honour, if not that of their women. I love the scene where Gilani and the two other men (one of them is Paresh Rawal) force the falling of the pillar to which they are tied. This happens to the second symbol of the fall of autocracy, the first being the crisp slap Sonbai thunders on the Subedar's cheek.
There are more than one outcry. But perhaps the most subtle yet strong one is initiated by Saraswati, the village headman's wife, played by Deepti Naval (another gem). She admits her daughter in school, something unheard of in her village. She faces the wrath of her husband but does not back out. She is not the trophy wife who will be at peace with the fact that her husband loves spending his nights with his mistress. In her muted protests I see a revolution that will soon change many anomalies of society. The best is when she groups up other woman to protest against the panchayat's decision to submit Sonbai to the Subedar... Her brave stance, though stamped out in a nascent stage, will motivate other women to cry out for justice and fight for the same...
But there are those women also who find safety in being subservient to the system. Afraid to raise an alarm, they almost force Sonbai to give in. There is Ratna Pathak's character who is giddy after the Subedar gifts her for keeping her mouth shut. She is playing safe, or should we say, accepting the harsh reality that she is just a tool in the hands of men. There's Tara (Supriya Pathak), the young girl who can only wait till her milquetoasty lover musters up enough courage to tell his brother, a man of might, that he wants to marry her. There's Dina Pathak, who advises Sonbai to relent, fearing that the latter's integrity might cost the village its peace and prosperity.
They anger and perplex you, But, they also fight back for Sonbai and demolish the lust that is the root of all worries. They show that when women congregate to fight evil, they are like Durga and Kali. They are the women who men can no longer treat with ridicule and disgust...
Suresh Oberoi (it will take Vivek another birth to be as charismatic!!) is the mukhi of the village. Twisted to the core, Oberoi's booming baritone adds to his fine performance. Not remorseful for maintaining a kept, he almost barks at his wife that if he will not be considered man enough if he does not do so. Civilised society and its rules are strange, huh?
A mediator between the cunning Subedar and the drought-struck villagers, he is one headman who cannot do anything to protect the rights of his men. A toy in the hands of the system, this mukhi is the marvellously spineless owner of false pride.
Well, I was wrong. Apart from Gilani, there is another brave man in the village. Abu Mian will lay down his life to safeguard the honour of the women who work in the masala factory where he is the security guard. Om Puri's makeup is awesome and so is his characterisation. A Muslim who says Ram Ram to greet everyone, he is fast enough to close the door on the pursuing soldiers at the nick of time, and furious enough to drive away all those who try to fool him into giving Sonbai away. He shows what a man should be like, in a village devoid of those who hardly waste a breath on protecting one's honour and dignity...
Whoever worked on the costumes in the film did a superlative job. From the women's colourful ensemble to the men's traditional attires, nothing is amiss. It is like walking amidst these village folk. A riot of colours greet you with aplomb.

Sonbai's portraiture, according to me, is Smita Patil's best. A true Indian beauty, she is exotic to the core and mighty by heart. Not afraid to speak her mind, she is the only one who can stand her ground when the lecherous Subedar comes hunting for water. She is also the fiesty downtrodden who will not sacrifice her honour just because her husband is away. Patil, in an author-backed role, makes Sonbai a daring darling...
Now coming to the one who manages an extra shine amidst this glittering bevy of talents. A villain who is just as spicy as the mirchi in the film, and as cruel as a hungry hyena, Naseeruddin Shah, with his sarcastic grin and handlebar moustache, is the perfect Subedar. His every dialogue is deliciously roguish, his every movement worth a whistle. Diabolical and dreaded, Shah is the film's most prized gem. Sample the scene where he beats up an unfortunate for breaking a gramophone record, the scene where he declares to the mukhi that taxes will be levied no matter what and the one where he fixes his gaze on Sonbai's bare back, only to relish the show of skin and lick his lip with the heinous thought of ravaging her. And also the scene where his gargantuan ego takes a beating (with Sonbai's slap) and he obstinately demands her to be brought to him. A stellar performance by a brilliant, brilliant actor.
The most teasingly wicked scene is where he is going to bed Ratna Pathak. It's funny yet scary. The Subedar keys the gramophone and enjoys the sight of Pathak being startled by the classical song (illiterate villagers and their ignorance). Just when he is going to pounce on the poor woman, the phone gets stuck. Surely the hyena will not have an erroneous background score when he is going for the kill. Shah rectifies the error quickly. Amply satisfied, his lips twitch into a leery grin before he engages himself again in his drastic and dirty game...


  1. My most abiding memory of Mirch Masala is of heat, dust and red chillies - especially when the women grab each corner of the sheet on which the chillies are being dried, and sweep it up.... superb film, and so well worth a rewatch. I must put this on my list!

  2. @Dustedoff: I could almost smell the chillies myself. I love the scene where the women playfully throw chillies at each other. The halcyon scene is juxtaposed with the chase scene (amidst the red hot chillies) between Sonbai and the Subedar's soldiers. What a stunning piece of camerawork.
    This film is one of my favourites. I saw it yesterday. And I want to see it again. It's a mindblowing film by Ketan Mehta.

  3. this is surely making my way into my collection, i love films with feisty female characters, this looks different to the usual zakhmi aurat type female scenario, where the woman is wronged and she then comes abck after years of training or plastic surgery to harm all those who wronged her, i'm a sucker for all those flicks

  4. @Bollywooddeewana: I think you are talking about Rekha's Khoon Bhari Maang. Every thing about this film is perfect. Just watch it, it's awesomely awesome. And after you have seen it, please write about it. I want to read your views on it. Enjoy the film :)

  5. I had read about this film somewhere and have bought the dvd but haven't had the time to watch it yet. It was Vyjayanthimala's birthday on 13th, so am planning to review her Kathputli tomorrow. Next opportunity I get, I'm going to watch this film!
    You know what, I had seen Naseer on the DVD cover, but since you didn't mention him till the end I thought I was mistaken, for a while. I had never imagined him to play a negative role in this. He's usually the understanding and adorable guy esp when he's paired with Smita Patil.
    For a moment I thought I won't read this but I'm glad I did. It has intrigued me into watching it all the more. Thanks for the review. This is definitely going to be the next in my must watch pile.

  6. @Sunheriyaadein: Yes, Naseer makes for a very delicious villain. He is incomparable as a performer. You must watch this film. You will fall in love with it once you do.
    Kathputli, sounds like a very interesting film. Will watch that after I read your review :)

  7. I had almost forgotten the film. I remember when I saw this film years ago I felt it was a treat because the director seemed to have gathered all the talented actors in one film. I found this film perfect in every respect.

  8. @Shilpi: Yes, this fact even my father-in-law noticed. He wondered, "God, how can a film go wrong if all the actors are so super?"
    This film is a treat for the senses. Why doesn't Ketan Mehta make films like this anymore? In its compact storytelling format, it puts it so much of drama and suspense.
    Thank you Shilpi for your comment. By the way, do you write a blog? If you do please give me the id. I would love to read your musings :)

  9. Mmm... this reminds me that it's been too long since I watched this - time for a re-watch. It certainly was a very good mix of masala and parallel cinema. This was probably Ketan Mehta's best, his other films were rather hit-or-miss - Hero Hiralal for e.g., starts out as hit but ends up as a firm miss!

    "it will take Vivek another birth to be as charismatic!!" So very TRUE!

  10. @Bollyviewer: I feel Mirch Masala is an example of a perfect film. It has everything. Entertainment, drama, suspense, great acting, colurful costumes, exotic locale...
    Yes i remember seeing Hero Hiralal, initially it was fun but then something went wrong. Or maybe he tried doing something very kitschy.
    Yes, that view about Vivek Oberoi will never change ;)

  11. Yes my brother and I have a blog on advertising it is Actually if you click on my name it should take you there. I have also started a food blog, you see dad was a foodie and mum a passionate cook. Together thy were a foodelicious combination. But this one is in its beta phase. I have posted just a few of mom's recipes. I will let you know about it soon.

  12. @Shilpi: Awesome. Once the food blog is ready please, please tell me. I would love to visit and read. My husband too writes a blog on food. Your blog on food should be very good. Food and films, a lipsmacking combo :)

  13. Gld to know I have already got a visitor.

  14. @Shilpi: Waiting for the blog id now :)

  15. Yes I promise to give you the blog id the moment it looks a little decent.

  16. i think its one of naseer's best work. the entire cast was like a whole consolation in one frame. the chemistry between smita patil and naseer was like instant ignition. i just love the climax of the movie. girl power zindabad....

  17. @Cancerian: I love evrything about the film. I can't begin to explain how I feel about the film. It is a spectacular cinematic venture!

  18. Finally watched it a few days back..last I watched it as a kid, i only had memories of the last scene, heaps of red chillies flung into the eyes of a strange moustachioed man.
    It's such a tiny power-packed film, full of drama..a tale of transitioning times. The editing is crisp, the cinematography wonderful. My fave one is the river scene where the camera takes off from the reflection in the water..slowly..slowly right up to rest on Sonbai, in a rare vulnerable moment, washing clothes at the river after her man has left for sheher.
    I also like how everytime the women get together to participate in something, there's this easy camaraderie and lilting background folk tune that plays.
    The gramaphone scene, showing the old-new juxtaposition, is amazingly charming,with hints of the sinister, every time.. be it when the record gets accidentally broken, or the one where the leery naseeruddin watches smita patil walking in the distance. love the humour of the stuck record scene. and in one point of what you wrote, the ratna pathak-naseeruddin encounter scene, i disagree that it's only the tiger going in for the kill. i'd call it an uneasy, uneven collaboration - an 'understanding'of sorts.
    the role of the teacher reminds me also of the mastermoshai in 'hirak rajar deshe' - the sane voice amidst the insanity.
    i also like the helpless, yet courageous act of the clanging vessels..also deepti naval emotes so well with her eyes..both in that scene and later behind her 'prison bars'.
    all in all, love your write up, redolent with the fiery fragrance of mirch. the magic shines in your writing. :-)

  19. @Ekaani: Love your writeup too. Fantastic language and explanation. Thank you Priyanka for coming back to read my post. Yes, it is an awesome film with some of the best performances I've seen till date. :)