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Women to the fore

Suparn Verma

Prakash Jha's Mrityudand is a commercialised version of Ketan Mehta's Mirch Masala. But Jha pulls off the stunt and makes the film work well within prescribed commercial limits.

Mrityudand is set in a remote village in Bihar, used as a microcosm of the decadent landlord culture. The landlords are just coming to terms with the new class politics that through the reservation policy puts them at an advantage. It is the story of class conflict immersed in the economic power games being played by power brokers and middlemen at the grassroots level.

Mrityudand is a film which subtly weaves several sub-plots into itself. The underlying story of the film is about Ketki (Madhuri Dixit) who gets married to the younger son Vinay (Ayub Khan), of landlord (Pyare Mohan Sahay) who fortunes have been consumed and now lives on past glory.

The village is ruled by a contractor and broker Tripat (Mohan Joshi), aided by the local politician Pandey (Harish Patel). Jha manages to portray the internal politics of caste and economics running in the village which has one foot in the past and one foot in the present. Rambaran (Om Puri) is a lower caste merchant who has been giving loans to the landlord's family.

Mrityudand discusses emotional and physical violence against women. Chandravati (Shabana Azmi) is the long suffering wife of Abhay Singh (Dr Mohan Agashe) the eldest son of the family, for 17 years of their marital life she has been emotionally and phyically abused by Abhay, who loses no opportunity to remind her of being a banj (sterile woman). To escape the depravity at home and to regain clout, Abhay Singh murders the temple head and gets himself ordained as his successor. The result is that he gives up all worldly pleasures and leaves his wife.

As Vinay struggles to keep the household going, Ketki aides him to start off his own entrepreneurial venture as a contractor, but as things would have it Vinay becomes a pawn in the hands of Tripat and Pandey. It is the beginning of the end for him as he starts physically and emotionally abusing Ketki. As their marriage starts to fall apart, Chandravati falls sick and Ketki, with Rambaran's help, takes her to a city hospital.

In the meantime, Rambaran talks sense to Vinay and makes him see the fact that he is being taken for a ride. Rambaran's daily visits to Chandravati brings them closer and, as their relationship turns sexual, Chandravati discovers she is not sterile.

Vinay in the meanwhile has taken care of things at home and got back at Tripat, even Ketki comes back to him, but Tripat to regain back his power has Vinay killed.

Jha has penned some really punchy dialogues, when Vinay gets absuive to Ketki, she stops him cold saying " Tum mere pati ho; Parmeshwar banne ki koshish mat karo" (You are my husband; don't try to act like my lord). More such lines follow, though Jha shows restraint and doesn't let the conversation turn into lessons in morality.

The art film-maker in Jha is so ingrained that he makes place for it in showing one of the most mature and beautiful screen relationships between Shabana Azmi and Om Puri. Both veterans are completely at ease with each other and are in familiar territory. Om Puri after a long time has a role in a Hindi film which he can chew on.

Madhuri Dixit, who has been unable to consolidate her position since Hum Aap Ke Hain Kaun, shines in her role, blending with ease the vulnerability and the fierceness her character requires of her. The only discordant note is her bleached golden locks. And the fact that though the women in the village may have Nalini Yasmeen-styled brows and low-cut blouses, it's hard to find a rural belle walking away like Naomi Campbell.

Shilpa Shirodkar has a very brief role, and though she tries her best to make up for her brief screen appearance, a lot of her story is said in brief shots, sidelining her completely. Though it is interesting to note that Jha has sketched out lots of interesting characters who add to the overall effect and ambience of the film.

Anand Milind's music isn't much to talk about, but it is pleasant on the ear drums, though one of the tunes "Raat mahke to yun bhi hota hai" sounds suspiciously like an inspired version of Jagjit Singh's "Tum ko dekha to yeh khayal aaya." But the background score never hampers the simple aestheticism of the scenes.

The film has a lot of themes and plots that mesh together to form the final picture, an average audience might be flummoxed for the first quarter of the film trying to grasp the characters and plots of the film, but Jha's screenplay simplifies the story and complex relationships, without being judgemental about any of the acts of his characters.

Technically, Jha does not resort to much gimmickry. Yet, two scenes have handled with special panache. When Ayub Khan gets his bike inside the house and Madhuri comes running down the wooden stairs, Jha makes use of the camera in such a way that it gives the effect of many cameras. He also creates an unnerving atmosphere when Tripat and Abhay Singh, along with all the men of the village, enter Ketki's house to carry out their death sentence on her and Chandravati. The effect of a whole house packed with women standing silent in protest is, well, different.

Mrityudand is a film that attacks the very concept of male dominance in a relationship and in the society. The film states that its the man's virility and animal strength that makes him attack a woman, but affirms that what is more important is the upbringing of the man.

Do art films suck? Prakash Jha says no