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Posted by Jyoti Ahlawat

Fiery, brave, and self assured are few of the many impressive traits of Sonbai, the prime protagonist from the 1986 Hindi film Mirch-Masala. It is important to look at the character Sonbai and analyse why there seems to be an emergent need of such feminist female presence especially in rural India.

In the context of the rampant increase in public shaming and blaming the victim with greater participation of menfolk and visible silence of women in rural regions, I happened to watch Mirch-Masala recently and immediately felt the necessity of greater connection and unanimity amongst women as brought forth in this cult film. Although set in the colonial era, Mirch-Masala showcases the #MeToo movement throughout the run, decades ahead of the virtual global campaign that rose in 2017-18 and still continues. Collective voices of women echo a common sentiment of pain and anguish against the oppression and injustice received at the hands of powerful and rich men. 

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Although set in the colonial era, Mirch-Masala showcases the #MeToo movement throughout the run, decades ahead of the virtual global campaign that rose in 2017-18 and still continues. Collective voices of women echo a common sentiment of pain and anguish against the oppression and injustice received at the hands of powerful and rich men.

The Rustic Impact of Mirch-Masala

The film Mirch-Masala by renowned filmmaker Ketan Mehta captivatingly brings forth the solidarity of sisterhood amongst rural women especially at a time when ideas like Nari-Shakti and self assertion were unthinkable. The film stars late Smita Patil in the role of the steely Sonbai, delivering her finest act which is often counted amongst 25 greatest performances of Indian cinema, Naseeruddin Shah convincing in the role of the salacious Subedar, the charming Deepti Naval plays the strong rebellious wife of village head Mukhia who is none other than serious Suresh Oberoi and late Om Puri in the role of an old factory guard, a line up of actors par excellence. Mirch-Masala is an impactful film indeed. Just as it is now, the film shows how patriarchy is deeply entrenched and girl education is assumed as immoral, vicious and unnecessary.

The film revolves around Sonbai’s gumption to stand against tyranny and sexual abuse employed as means of oppression by the ones holding the reigns of power. Sonbai displays sheer courage and the will to not cave in to the nasty demands of leering Subedar. Sonbai’s courage acts as a stimulant for the dormant bravado in other womenfolk of the village. 

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A Story of Bravado

Mirch-Masala is a story of extraordinary courage and has strong semblance with the #MeToo movement’s collective call for action against the insolence, lascivious attitude and shamelessness of the perpetrators of the endemic oppression against women. Sonbai emerges triumphant with the support of her women mates as the cause of her revolt equally resonates with them. This is the power of cohesion and unanimity well showcased in Mirch-Masala that can go a long way in setting an exemplary course of action in rural India. Juxtaposed against India’s #MeToo movement, this is important because the digital divide, caste and class privilege has been such that many stories of marginalised women from rural India could not make it to the ‘mainstream’ #MeToo discourse.

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Sonbai emerges triumphant with the support of her women mates as the cause of her revolt equally resonates with them. This is the power of cohesion and unanimity well showcased in Mirch-Masala that can go a long way in setting an exemplary course of action in rural India.

Finding The New-Age Sonbai

There is an urgent need for New Age Sonbais who can turn into embodiments of change and eradicators of the oppressive and regressive regimes that benefit the men who continue to quell the voices of women. Whether it is Uttar Pradesh (Hathras case), Madhya Pradesh (Alirajpur case) or any other state in India, rape assaults continue to make news (and many, many continue to be missed by mainstream media). Road to justice via the legal system is often long and weary for an aggrieved woman in general, let alone a woman who has been marginalised due to other factors such as caste, class and religion.

Mirch-Masala‘s Sonbai is an example of a revolution that can instill motivation and create awareness in forces to fight for one’s integrity as one unit, one platoon, one entity. So where will the awareness arise from? Films and advertisements, no matter how cliched the idea sound, still have the power to unite. 

Digitality ushering in Women Empowerment

Films have the power and capacity to change the world. They can motivate, effect change and galvanise action. I would like to mention here a few of such films which have been instrumental in changing attitudes like the 2007 Chak De! India; showcasing the might of women athletes facing sexism, or the 2013 film Girl Rising which focuses on how girls through education can bring life enhancing changes for themselves and their communities. The film went on to become a global campaign. The world today has turned digital in almost every aspect connecting people globally sharing ideas and emotions. Films like Mirch-Masala set the tone for instilling courage in women living in far flung rural areas with a disconnect from the rest of the world and yet their fellowship, and shared trauma can empower them against all odds.

Films, both at national and regional levels, combined with outreach campaigns and awareness of collective power are ways to unite rural women to forge ahead and put a stop to the violence inflicted upon them.


Dr. Jyoti Ahlawat is an All India Radio broadcaster who loves her work and engages audience with reflective human stories. As a researcher she explores new paradigms to usher in a woman’s world. She can be reached at- jyotially03@gmail.com, Instagram and Facebook.

Featured image source: Scroll

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