There are some points of comparison to be made between Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavat that released a month ago and Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala that released in 1986 and some striking differences.
Padmavat, which is loosely based on the 16th-century Sufi poem of the same name, tells the story of Padmavati, a Singhal Princess who falls in love with the Rajput King of Mewar, Ratan Singh. Ratan Singh, enamoured by her beauty, marries her without a second thought, despite being already married. The news of her exemplary looks travels far and wide and gets the attention of Allaudin Khilji, the emperor of Delhi, who resolves to possess her at any cost.
This finally culminates in a war. The Rajput men get killed and the Rajput women commit Jauhar to protect their honour, i.e act of women resorting to self-immolation when left with a situation where being subject to sexual violence cannot be avoided. The movie ends on a note stating that Jauhar was the biggest victory of Rajputs, thus clearly taking a position of glorifying Jauhar.
Mirch Masala, based on the four-page short story by Chunilal Madia titled Abhu Makrani, was set in the pre-independence era in a village in Gujarat. The most feared person in the village is the eccentric and cruel Subedar, played by Naseeruddin Shah, who is posted in the village along with his army of soldiers to collect taxes. The next important man in the village is the Mukhiya, (Suresh Oberoi), the head of the village, but subdued in the presence of the more powerful Subedar.
The Subedar is a nonchalant, vile man with no moral compass and revels in his unfettered authority over the villagers. Subedar’s eyes fall on Sonbai, (played by the fiery Smita Patil) who is a worker in a chilli factory and whose husband has left the village for a city job. One day, the Subedar misbehaves with Sonbai who slaps him in a spurt of anger and then seeks refuge at the chilli factory she works at. The factory guard, Abu Mian locks the door behind her and refuses to let the Subedar’s soldiers in. What happens thereafter is the crux of the story.
Like the Rajputs of Padmavat, the villagers in Mirch Masala see their masculinity rooted in the honour of v men.
Like Padmavat, Mirch Masala is set in the backdrop of deep-rooted patriarchy. If benevolent sexism was how Rajputs controlled women in their community, by attributing beauty and honour as the only worthy attributes for a woman to possess, the men in Mirch Masala are directly sexist.
Girls are not allowed to go to school in that village. When Mukhiya’s wife (Deepti Naval) ventures to send her daughter to school, Mukhiya flies into a rage and drags away the daughter from the school while ignoring the protests of the schoolmaster (Benjamin Gilani), one of the few sensible men in the village. Mukhiya spends most nights at the house of his mistress. When his rebellious wife questions him, he retorts stating that it would be a matter of shame if the village head doesn’t sleep around.
Like the Rajputs of Padmavat, the villagers in Mirch Masala see their masculinity rooted in the honour of women. A father mercilessly beats up his daughter when found in an intimate moment with her lover. Mukhiya pounces with rage on the schoolmaster, when he questions him on what he would do if the Subedar demanded his wife after Sonbai, the anger resulting from viewing his wife as a possession and not out of his concern for her.
But when presented with a moral dilemma to choose between the honour of one of the village women and the property of villagers, the village men tilt towards practicality in their choice over their formerly steadfast notions of honour. One or two of the men who take Sonbai’s side are thrashed by the other village men.
Similarly, the women in Mirch Masala are not painted with a single brush. Some of them empathize with Sonbai’s plight while others end up blaming her for putting them through this situation. One of the women in the factory, (Ratna Pathak Shah) who regularly sleeps with Subedar, advises her to concede and go back to him and release the rest of them from the dangerous situation caused by her obstinacy.
Sonbai’s resolve not to concede is shown more to do with her will to self-determination rather than the protection of her virtue or honour. At one point, where she finds the taunts of other women very hurtful, she takes a decision to go out of the gate and surrender and is persuaded against the decision by Abu Mian.
In spite of the differences among the women, the sorority among them is undeniable. Whether it is Mukhiya’s wife smuggling rotis for the hungry women stuck inside the factory, or a protest march of women led by Mukhiya’s wife to stand up against the village men’s decision to surrender Sonbhai to Subedar or the chilli factory women forgetting their plight to handle the delivery of their pregnant companion who suffers labour pains during their captivity.
It would have been interesting to see this kind of nuanced exploration of characters and their motivations in Padmavat. How would have Ratan Singh reacted if his queen suggested that she should go to Khilji to save her life and of others? Would he have killed his queen to save his honour?
How would Padmavati have reacted if some women around her protested her decision to kill themselves? Would the king and queen still have looked noble and grand if they were shown to have imposed their will on the lives and deaths of their non-acquiescing subjects to protect their Rajput pride?
How would Padmavati have reacted if some women around her protested her decision to kill themselves?
While in Padmavat, the entire race of Rajput men and women are homogenous thinkers, Mirch Masala gives us a more layered perspective of how real human beings act when faced with a moral dilemma. While Padmavat hails patriarchy and caste as unshakeable moral philosophies deeply ingrained in the soul of all of its characters, Mirch Masala makes a mockery of the social system which changes its colours to suit the convenience of its players in charge of the system.
The biggest contrast between these films, though is its climax, which is the respective highlight of both films. Bhansali’s film gives a grand and artistic finale of beauty and death by depicting Jauhar as a visually appealing and aesthetically compelling act of female heroism, a fitting rebuttal to the vicious intruder and the testimony of victory of a clan whose honour would have been tarnished had the women chosen survival over death.
Ketan Mehta’s film has a different climax: the Subedar gets the gates broken and walks in with the victory he is about to taste written all over his smug face. While the other women go into hiding, Sonbai is standing right there, with a sickle in her hand. She stares at him, her expression conveys fearlessness and her decision that the fight is not yet over.
As the Subedar walks towards her, two women are seen running towards him, hurling chilli powder at his eyes. The movie ends as the Subedar screams and rolls on the ground with unbearable pain and Sonbhai standing next to him with her sickle. What happens to these women after this is left to the imagination of the audience.
But the climax of Mirch Masala still conveys a subversive moment of victory of sorority over patriarchy. Ironically Bhansali lifts this very climax scene of Mirch Masala in his movie, which gets sadly wasted in its overall message that glorifies death for honour as against the fight for survival.