Many of us know the story of Ahalya, beautiful and virtuous, wife of Gautama rishi, from the Ramayana. Indra, driven by lust for her, impersonates Gautama to seduce her. Gautama curses them. Indra is covered with 1,000 vulvae, (which later turn to 1,000 eyes) and Ahalya turns to stone, liberated many years later by Rama. The story of Ahalya was frequently retold between the 9th century BC and the 15th century AD, each time a little differently, raising different questions: Was Ahalya raped by Indra? Or merely fooled by him? When neither were her fault, why was she punished? Or was she aware of the impersonation and so, consciously unfaithful, an ascetic’s wife longing for sex?
Radhika Apte plays Ahalya
These recurring questions of virtue, blame, justice, female desire, social roles, patriarchy and masculine ego, inherent in the Ahalya myth, repeatedly bring it to the fore.
Stories are multi-faceted concepts, which help us make sense of our lives. Each retelling reveals something about the time it’s told in — explicitly, through questions it foregrounds, implicitly by reflecting the attitudes of its time in the details. In this way, it weaves the old with the new.
Sujoy Ghosh’s recent short film, Ahalya, released online, does not so much retell the Ahalya myth as invoke it, drawing on our awareness of the story. In the film, Ahalya’s aged husband Goutam Sadhu has a magic stone, which allows young men to assume his form, tempting them to sleep with Ahalya. If they give in, they turn into stone figurines.
There’s much intellectual pleasure in this retelling. Elements of the Ahalya myth are adroitly mapped onto a pulpy thriller form. The trope of the insecure husband anxious to keep his sexy, young wife is turned upside down. The fun of the film lies in this cleverness and thelegendary Soumitro Chatterjee’s juicy performance.
The explicit themes of the film are issues constantly reverberating around us: female autonomy, choice and sexual desire; why sexual blame always attaches to women. The film presents a woman who desires sex and a man who accepts and abets this. It’s ambiguous if the voluptuously sashaying Ahalya is complicit. She scolds the figurines for being ‘naughty’ which seems to imply she is. Either way, there’s a welcome lack
The crux of the film lies in its inversion. It’s not Ahalya who turns to stone, but the men/Indra, symbolising who is really to blame. And at this point we suddenly wonder: actually, what are the men punished for? If Ahalya desired them, either mistaking them for Goutam or knowingly; or, if her husband conjured up situations to sexually please her, what crime did the men commit?
The answer appears to be: desiring another man’s wife. But is this the fulcrum of sexual relations — who a woman ‘belongs’ to or whether she is seen sexually? Surely, the most crucial issue, is the woman’s consent?
But this important theme becomes obscured, because the female protagonist is so opaque. Ahalya is filmed as a sexy, even sexual, body and little else. She may not be trapped in stone. But she seems trapped in a gaze, which gives us little idea of her interiority.
In that sense, the film does reflect our times. Intellectually, we’re confronting ideas of female autonomy and the problems and anxieties of patriarchal masculinity — an important, new beginning. Yet our discussions keep circling back to how to punish men, rather than imagining and engaging with women as fully rounded beings. We struggle still to put women’s freedom, needs or feelings at the centre of the story, as a way to change the equation. Hopefully, in the next retelling.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.