26 December 2016

The Eyes of the Beholder

My Mirror column:

On watching Mirch Masala 30 years after Smita Patil’s death, and being struck by the film’s complicated relationship with the male gaze.

Smita Patil died in Mumbai on December 13, 1986. She was 31 and had just given birth to the child we now know as Prateik Babbar. My mother, I remember, was as saddened as one can be by the death of someone one does not know personally. I was a child, but even I had grasped the power of Patil's screen presence, and experienced the loss vicariously, through my parents and my masi, who was the same age as Patil and had been a theatre actor herself.

30 years after her demise, Patil's incandescent energy still lights up the screen like no one else. How, one wonders, can this tremendous vitality be gone forever? There have been other great actresses on the Indian screen, and there will be more. But there is something about Patil that ensures that even if she appears in the corner of the frame, it is her smouldering presence that catches your attention and holds it.

Watching Ketan Mehta's Mirch Masala again recently, I realised that the film is practically shaped around this quality of Patil's. Early on, when the moustachioed Subedar (Naseeruddin Shah producing a strange performative excess as a man drunk on his own power) rides his merry men and horses into a gaggle of women, all of them flee in terror, except one. Thus, the Subedar's eye is drawn to Sonbai, and so is ours.

Patil seems born to play the woman who stands her ground when others run around shrieking. Not only does she return the Subedar's frank stare with the cool, steady glance of one used to being admired, but also gives the big man some lip: “In this village, only human beings drink on this side of the water. Animals drink over there.”

The Subedar's men are ready to run her down for this, but he stops them. He gives Sonbai a long look, and asks cockily: “Can this animal get some water to drink here?” “To drink water like a human being, you have to first spread your hands,” answers Sonbai. The phrase she uses, “Haath phailaana”, is a commonly used Hindi expression for displaying neediness, and when the Subedar cups his hands before her, there is indeed a limited reversal of roles. Watching the Subedar gulp down the entire contents of her smaller pitcher, Sonbai curls her lip into a haughty smile that exudes sexual power.

Mehta's film is set in a world in which all power rests in male hands, making sexuality the only possible way for women to wrest some. Mirch Masala refers to Sonbai's sexuality often. The village seth, complaining about Sonbai's husband not being at work again, makes a bawdy joke -- “Saari raat jagaati hogi susri, subah marad ki aankh kaise khulegi? [This dame must keep him awake all night, how can the man's eyes open in the morning?]”. Sonbai takes it in her stride, as she does the unsolicited evaluations that come her way. “Is soney mein ratti bhar bhi milavat nahi [This gold has not an ounce of impurity in it],” says one man as she walks past, his eyes applauding the long, loping gait produced by the weight she invariably carries. The Subedar's gaze, too, fetishizes the physical exertions of the labouring woman. He watches her hungrily through his hand-held durbeen (telescope), as she washes clothes by the water's edge.

The gaze, of course, is the very premise of the film -- the Subedar's eyes closing in pleasure as he is shaved by a barber, and the way his head still turns as Sonbai walks past in the distance; the repeated use of the telescope and the magnifying glass, visual devices of modernity that strip the world of its mystery. In a late scene, the village Mukhi (Suresh Oberoi, in a performance that won him a Best Supporting Actor National Award) is asked by the Subedar whether Sonbai hasn't ever caught his eye. “Nazar par bhi nazar rakhni padti hai [One has to keep an eye on one's gaze as well],” answers the Mukhi pointedly. The film's end, too, is a symbolic attack on the rapacious gazes of men.

And yet, does not Mehta's film itself focus needlessly on Patil's shapely bare back, encased in a backless choli, but often left exposed to the Subedar's gaze – and ours? The tendency to present Patil as an overtly sexual being was there right from Benegal's Manthan (1976), in which Patil as the feisty Bindu, a rural Gujarati woman out talking to Girish Karnad's dapper young vet, suddenly sits down by a water spout and starts rubbing her legs with a pumice stone. That line of sight, so to speak, reached its acme in the controversial pavement bathing sequence in Rabindra Dharmraj's Chakra (1981).

Towards the end of Mirch Masala, the village women, now afraid for their own safety, begin to blame Sonbai for having attracted attention. “Galti tere roop mein hai [The fault is in your form],” says an old Dina Pathak.

Quick comes Sonbai's tart retort, “Uske dekhne mein nahi? [And not in his looking?]”

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 18 Dec 2016.  

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