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Women at the Centre: Four Sensitive Films

April 9, 2017 | By

Four contemporary films handle adeptly the perennial themes of rape, resurgence, struggles, preferential and identity questions with women at the centre of attention. Preference of reality over fantasy is evidenced by the choices, whether in content or in the craft of storytelling, made by each of the directors concerned.

Onaatah of the Earth

Onaatah of the Earth (dir: Pradip Kurbah, 2015) is a philosopher’s response to the social and cultural patterns

While film theories help philosophers address a wide range of issues, films made by ‘philosophers of the visual art’ help interpret the issues at large. This becomes more noticeable when a film brings contemporary subjects to succinct depth not alone by their sheer velocity in seriousness but by the power of constructing and deconstructing the evidences, notions, arguments and above all the morale of the story. That way films made anywhere can touch hearts and cause cathartic effects.

Onaatah of the Earth (2015) for instance is one such film which fetched its director Pradip Kurbah his second Rajat Kamal for the best Khasi film at the National Film Awards. It relates the story of an urban rape victim named Onaatah whose ordeal does not end at her rapists convicted and put behind bars, but is kept on dragging in and out of the courts. However when her ever-encouraging father sends her to his kin’s home at a remote village, she finds new meaning of life: there she happens to meet a visually impaired elder man who virtually gives her invaluable lessons of how to overcome obstacles, to learn to rise after every fall and to sense the beauties of leading the worldly life; she also meets a naïve young man whose unconditional love in spite of his awareness about her past restored her faith in life. These two pure human souls bring her back to life, as the storyline dwells more on fight back through social healing; and there itself lies the leitmotif of the film which indirectly reveals that no legal fight or retaliation with vengeance can do wonder in such cases, otherwise which are usual stuff of commercial ventures. No need to explain how and why consumerism contributes to moral degradation of today, and films being over-sensitive to the ingredients of consumerist culture just fortify the vicious circle. Kurbah’s bold film is a philosopher’s response to the social and cultural patterns: it gives a strong statement regarding the curse of being a female in contemporary Indian societies, the vices infecting even the traditionally matriarchal Khasi society. Dealing with a rape survivor’s mental trauma and social stigma, the film collectivizes Onaatah’s fight back in a unique way – through a rare cinematic sweetness – the roles played by Sweety Pala and Merlvin Mukhim as the victim and the village young man respectively are so sensitively portrayed that they easily rise above the lure of melodrama. The scenic exploits, the locale of the story, the cultural mores are never over-stressed, but they are made to be naturally integral to the development of the plot, thanks to a well-crafted cinematography that successfully substantiates an equally well-thought out musical score.

White Blessing

White Blessing (dir: Sengedorj Janchivdorj, 2016) is based on the real story of Mongolian Judoka Sumiya

White Blessing (2016) directed by Sengedorj Janchivdorj is a fine motivational film based on real story of Mongolian judoka Sumiya. In what is called ‘sports film’ it portrays life of a young girl who went on to be number one in ranking by recent Olympic standards. A daughter of a herder in remote village, she has a hard life both materially and emotionally as her mother passes away when she is a child and shortly afterward her father remarried. Sumiya moves to her aunt’s place and develops a clean niche for judo that lands her in competitions and ultimate national glories. International fame follows through but not without all the trauma of loneliness and adversities she has to cope with. Beautifully pictured, the film’s narrative does not allow it to be viewed within the cliché-ridden plot of the genre film. Due to its delving deep into the psyche of the protagonist, the film could oscillate between the challenging reality, all the risks of a professional judoka, and the unpleasant past which often reflects in nightmares Sumiya has had to negotiate with. There are some recurring images of her childhood memory depicting a lone tree with her mother, white pigeons fluttering from the bed where her mother breathed her last. They all make sense as well as the images of unexpectedly finding white feathers, sometimes with large bones of unspecified mammals, in her sport kit, and so on. No wonder that these images relate to sermons in Buddhism and that makes the film a pleasure to watch.

Pularum Iniyum Naalekal (dir: Shilpa Krishnan Shukla, 2016) is a morally surcharged film with simple storytelling

Pularum Iniyum Naalekal (dir: Shilpa Krishnan Shukla, 2016) is a morally surcharged film with simple storytelling

 Pularum Iniyum Naalekal (There’s Always Tomorrow, 2016) is a bilingual in Malayalam and English, written, directed and produced by Shilpa Krishnan Shukla. The gratifying aspect of the director’s second feature is how she gives the film not only the correct tone, but also a minimalist scale which allows no grandstanding of any kind. It has a romantic undertone that dwells on two erstwhile lovers who drifted away from each other due to stiff resistance from their respective families on religious background – the man is a Christian and the woman is Hindu. However the narrative does not speak about religious friction, rather it focuses on loss of individual happiness and remedies thereupon. Anthony is a businessman now residing in Australia and Durga is a market research analyst settled in Muskat where they have the chance meeting after eight years. Their family lives seem to have smooth sailing, until viewers come to know how Anthony misses the usual warmth in his relationship with his spouse since they had a baby boy eight months ago and Durga has little time to pursue her passion for classical dance as she is too preoccupied with her loving hubby and their five years old daughter. Their conversation breaks into several locations in a single day; and shifting the natural settings aptly provides the perfect moods for change of their topic of discussions. They leave apart with a new found enthusiasm to overcome their respective problems – Anthony to rekindle his love and care for his wife and Durga to regain her love and self identity in her passion for classical dance. Although the whole structure of the film is overtly based on dialogue, the “polite conversations” as Durga teases Anthony once, it is smartly handled with sensible cinematography and editing done by Mumbai based Mathew Jenif Joseph who also partly produced the film. Leaving aside all the undue gimmicks, lure and melodramas of extra marital relationship, the morally surcharged film entertains the viewers with simple storytelling and thereby the script weighs in boldness.

Paris Tehran

Paris Tehran (dir: Kaveh Oveisi, 2016) makes fun of patriarchy in a strict and autocratic society

The young Iranian university lecturer on dramatics Kaveh Oveisi’s feature Paris Tehran (2016) presents a brave and confident feminist outlook in a country infamous for suppressing feminine expressions in the arts particularly cinema. The story gives a Paris returned girl Aida, in her thirties, who with the help of her friend Berkeh tries to convince male strangers to impregnate her and help her give birth to a baby. A previous agreement with a boy to receive sperm failed for his ditching Aida and now the two women roam the Tehran streets and funnily select lone males to find the right company for her. This is obviously a scathing attack on the custom of selecting a life partner at random that usually defies the necessity of striking an emotional bond. Eventually it becomes sort of a ‘car movie’, characteristically following Kiarostami Style where the car becomes an inseparable part of the film thus a character by itself. The two women friends’ bid and desperation have another important dimension: they are on the driver’s seat, as if the society is at their hands, with the confining space of the car giving in to their emotions, frustrations, longings in one hand and the male strangers’ moods, egos, tantrums on the other. Obviously it makes fun of patriarchy in a strict and autocratic society. And what is more, when Aida finds her right choice, a docile, honest and single middle-aged man, she gives in to her kinder self, the usual feminine affection and passions. The message of this turning point is clear enough to stir the debate on the ‘healthy’ relationship where no sexist or fundamentalist domination is called for.

All these films’ significance can be accounted for by their adept handling of the perennial themes of rape, resurgence, struggles, preferential and identity questions with women at the centre of attention. Preference of reality over fantasy is evidenced by the choices, whether in content or in the craft of storytelling, made by each of the directors concerned. The stories in reference here are based on evolving grammar of the film narrative that otherwise would have got a very different treatment, to quote Christian Metz, in a separate medium say a novel, a classical ballet or a cartoon programme, even in a run-of-the-mill film – a merit making these films qualified for lively discussion.

More to read in Critique

Nil Battey Sannata Review: Be What You Want to Be

Critiquing Sexuality: Tracing the Changing Sensuality of the Popular Hindi Film Heroine (1950s-2000s)

Cinema & Sexuality: On the Death of the Desiring Woman


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Manoj Barpujari, a journalist based in Guwahati, received Swarna Kamal for the best film critic at the National Film Awards 2011. He wrote a chapter on cinema of Assam in Routledge Handbook of Indian Cinemas (London, 2013) and conducted a workshop on film criticism at the University of West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad in 2012. He has written and edited twelve books including three titles on cinema. He is a member of FIPRESCI (international federation of film critics) and served at film festival juries in India and abroad several times.
All Posts of Manoj Barpujari

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