Her Story: The Girls Are Not All Right

Her Story: The Girls Are Not All Right

Sthal may be about a woman, but it should be made compulsory viewing for young men — they cannot be unaware of the injustices being carried out in their name, but still, watching their own reflection on screen in a realistic film might straighten some spines

Deepa GahlotUpdated: Friday, November 03, 2023, 12:43 AM IST
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Back in 1950, V Shantaram had made a film called Dahej, in which a young woman is harassed and tortured for dowry. Over the years, a few other films on domestic crimes against women have been made, but still, when a young filmmaker shows us the ugly face of our society, it underlines the horrible fact that after all the progress made over the decades, and all the 'beti padhao beti bachao' slogans painted on walls and buses, the light of gender justice is still a long way off from reaching every corner of the country

The story of Jayant Digambar Somalkar's Sthal (Marathi, screened at the MAMI Festival, after winning an award at the Toronto Festival) is set in a village in Maharashtra, but it could be playing out in any town or city in the country where women have no voice, and an unmarried daughter is seen as a burden or a blot on the family's reputation. "Married off" is the term used even by mainstream newspapers. The other crimes and indignities piled on women stem from this attitude.

In Sthal, Somalkar has used non-professional actors and shot in his own village, giving the film a rapier sharpness, considering that what it shows and says is neither new nor shocking. Savita (Nandini Chikte) is the bright daughter of a cotton farmer Daulatrao Wandhre (Taranath Khiratkar) and his homemaker wife Lilabai (Sangita Sonekar). A married daughter is mentioned but not seen, and there is an unemployed young son, Mangesh (Suyog Dhawas). Savita is being educated — she is in her final year of BA — and wants to appear for the MPSC exams. But her parents are in a hurry to get her married; and then starts the practised ritual of the arranged marriage. The 'Boy' comes to see the 'Girl' with male members of his family. They are welcomed by the Girl's family. Already the overt body language of the groom's side is arrogant and the bride's side is obsequious.

In the first bride-viewing scene, the men arrive on motorbikes with their faces covered — looking like gangsters or bandits. The guests are welcomed with refreshments, then a stool is placed in front of them, and a dolled-up Savita, made to sit on it like a criminal at a police interrogation and answer dumb questions — not by the potential groom but his father. Even the young men in this environment are dominated by their fathers. Savita has to be approved by the boy's side, she is not given the choice to reject. She has to suffer the humiliation of multiple rejections because she is dark-skinned and short. The man can be ugly, but he still has an upper hand in the marriage market if he has a steady job.

Meanwhile, the outside world has trickled down to the village, including a neon "I Heart Dongargaon' sign. Hindi music plays over speakers, flirtations are carried out through WhatsApp messages, and eye contact from a distance. Dating is, of course, out of the question.

Somalkar has not even gone into the caste issue — it is understood and accepted that arranged matches have to be within the same caste. Only one of Savita’s friends has the courage to elope with her boyfriend. The girl Mangesh is in love with accepts an arranged match, and he can do nothing but weep.

The marriages of Savita's friends are fixed, which causes her parents much stress. At one point, her parents force her to skip the MPSC exam because the relative of a "candidate" is free only at that time to visit.

Savita's teacher at college (Sandip Parkhi) is attracted to her, and keeps eyeing her in class (with a creepy expression) and talks to her at the newspaper reading stand. She confides in him about her disappointment, and he finally brings his family to see her. His father demands ₹5 lakh as dowry, which Daulatrao cannot afford. The teacher, who talks about women’s empowerment in class, does not have the courage to defy his father, who has paid 10 lakh in bribes to get him a job. He is asked by a male student why there is no male empowerment in the syllabus, and everybody laughs at his foolishness; as if men need more empowerment than they already have!

After the dowry ultimatum, comes Savita’s father's anguish — he cannot get a loan without repaying an earlier one, he does not get a suitable price for his crop, and the only option is to sell his land. In desperation, Daulatrao drinks pesticide in a failed attempt to die by suicide. In a scene that would bring tears to every eye, he looks at Savita from the hospital bed, joins his hands in a gesture of apology and turns his face away from his anxious family.

What is really heart-rending about this scenario is the parents’ — and society’s — belief that marriage is the only way to a woman’s happy future. In any case, in villages and small towns, career options are severely limited. Going by what one sees around, one can only speculate about what the girl’s life will be like in her marital home. She will have to cook, clean and look after the family, bear children — sons preferably — and offer free labour in the fields. This will not change, even if she has a job. If she is lucky, her mother-in-law will be kind, and her husband won’t be an alcoholic wife-beater. In Maharashtra, some families change the first name of the woman to cut off all ties to her past identity; she has to automatically take on the husband's surname and his name replaces her father's as her middle name.

There is in Savita’s eyes dignity, hope and ambition to build her own life, which is slowing ground out of her by the demands of tradition. The film opens with a dream Savita is having in which she and a group of women are interviewing a hopeful groom, and putting him through the grind. Then she is woken up by her mother to get ready because the ‘guests’ are coming to see her.

Sthal may be about a woman, but it should be made compulsory viewing for young men — they cannot be unaware of the injustices being carried out in their name, but still, watching their own reflection on screen in a realistic film might straighten some spines.

Finally, not to be judgy, but the director of such a powerful pro-woman film carries on the patriarchal practice of using his father’s name as a middle name.

Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author

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