Nandita Das finds her life in a shambles when she goes one on one with men from a higher social stratum.
Sanwari Devi (Nandita Das), wife of lower-caste rickshawallah Sohan (Raghuvir Yadav), lives someplace in rural Rajasthan. She becomes a `Saathin`, courtesy social worker Shobha Devi (Deepti Naval), and her burgeoning social awareness makes her take stands against local evils like child marriage. This does not sit well with the upper-caste menfolk and she is gang raped. Not one to take things quietly, Sanwari fights her case, which becomes newsworthy enough to attract foreign journalist Amy (Laila Rouass) and her friend Ravi (Rahul Khanna).
`Bawandar` opens with a child marriage taking place. A relation of the bride comes to carry her to the mandap, and exclaims that she`s become heavy, when a bystander comments that she`s not as heavy as the burden that will be off their backs once this girl is sent off.
This primes you for an unflinching examination of rural Indian womanhood, something not usually found in our mainstream cinema. But there isn`t much subtlety in the telling of this story.
All the men in the film, with the exception of Sohan and Ravi, are pigs. Not just the villagers, even Shobha`s husband is someone who wants pati seva put before samaaj seva. A local doctor is a lech. A guy at the courthouse is supremely indifferent. A politician asks the rapists how the experience was. And a cop commands Sanwari to take off her ghagra in front of him because it`s evidence.
This one-dimensional insensitivity doesn`t stop with the men. Women cops taunt Sanwari about having had so many men all at once. A judge`s wife asks her husband to look at the case later because rape is a common occurrence but the charity show they are going to has film stars attending. Social workers from Delhi (Lillete Dubey and co.) take up Sanwari`s cause but are shown to be the kind that exclaim what a charming gobar finish her house has and want sand dunes in the background while taking her picture.
We`re supposed to go slack-jawed at the HUMONGOUS APATHY of these people. But, frankly, even if these events are true, wouldn`t you expect a movie as supposedly different as `Bawandar` to fictionalize this with a little more nuance?
To be sure, the basic premise is gut wrenching and there are some good things about the film, like its supporting cast. Gulshan Grover lends a quiet dignity to his role as Sanwari`s lawyer. His proclamation of Sanwari as his sister may sound corny, but it lends some emotion to an otherwise straightforward tale. It`s great to see Deepti Naval again with her customary efficiency. And Raghuvir Yadav is spectacular as the hapless husband, especially in the scene just after the rape when he puts Sanwari`s jhumka back on. It`s interesting to hear him say that the rape was his fault as he failed to protect his wife.
The music, thankfully, doesn`t depend on Ila Arun to convey the mood of Rajasthan, and even has a folksy version of `Kesariya Balma`, used years ago by Gulzar in `Lekin`. Ashok Kumar`s photography beautifully brings to life the region`s natural splendour, and the art direction is full of interesting touches like a plaque stating `There is Hope` in Grover`s office.
Director Jagmohan Mundhra comes off better in some of the character-establishing scenes. As Amy and Ravi walk into the village asking about Sanwari, the men dismiss her as a raand while the women talk about her with respect. There`s a wonderful moment where Sanwari`s daughter teaches her to write her name in the sand; later, Sanwari stuns a cop by signing her name on the FIR when he expects a thumbprint. I also liked the way the cop is shown wearing nail polish earlier on, hinting at his cross-dressing tendencies.
The courtroom scenes remind you of `Damini`, with their insistence on details of the rape. Sanwari`s humiliation brings to mind `Bandit Queen`. Sohan`s plight is similar to Vinod Mehra`s in `Ghar`. Yet, the movie you want `Bawandar` to emulate is `Mirch Masala`, with its powerhouse combination of rural politics and women`s issues.
Just as Smita Patil was the core of the latter film, Nandita Das is simply brilliant as a woman whose self-confidence and courage make her a misfit in a largely submissive community. Just watch her face in the courtroom as the verdict is being read. Or her hesitant speech at a podium when she says that while she`s thankful for the cash award from the government, she`d feel truly honoured only when her attackers are arrested.
But these pluses don`t make you overlook the unsavoury aspects of the film. Is it really necessary to show the rape in such graphic detail, ending with Sanwari lying almost naked, spread-eagled? Isn`t the viewer capable of imagining the heinousness of the crime? The same goes for a scene which shows a cop pleasuring himself with Sanwari`s clothes.
It`s depressing to note that all of this is based on real-life events. But it`s even more depressing to see this film sensationalising the same. Watching `Bawandar`, you aren`t quite sure if your exposure to such atrocities is worth the packaging it`s being presented in.
I couldn`t quite shake off the feeling that this film has been created to sell a certain `exotic` image of India to the West. What `Bawandar` could have used is less outrage and more sensitivity in the telling of its story.
This review was written by Baradwaj Rangan. If you have any comments on this review, post a message on our message boards or write to: firstname.lastname@example.org