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Voices of torment

When tragedy strikes, people usually need time to absorb the shock, to figure out what it means in their lives. Artists usually take longer to react to events and issues, to reflect, and sometimes provoke others to think and act on it collectively. India does not have a huge body of work on film, at least, that deals with Partition - though some of the better known films include Garam Hawa, Tamas, Mammo, Earth, Midnight’s Children, Train to Pakistan and the recent, Qissa. On the Gujarat riots of 2002 in which over over 1000 were killed, mainly Muslims, I can recall Rahul Dholakia’s Parzania and Nandita Das’ remarkable debut feature Firaaq.

A still from the film, 28, which is a hard-hitting story of a woman who was brutally murdered
A still from the film, 28, which is a hard-hitting story of a woman who was brutally murdered

But I am yet to see any significant feature film that reflects on the recent gang rapes of Nirbhaya, the Shakti Mills case, and thousands of other Indian women who are raped, beaten, slashed, murdered, burnt, or have acid thrown at them. Quite often because the tea was not perfect. Or she didn’t love the local goon back. Or her husband was drunk. Indian women are increasingly losing their lives for trivial and absurd reasons, as well as more serious but equally unacceptable reasons - adultery, property, or because she was in love with someone not of the ‘right’ caste or religion. And of course, such cases are being increasingly reported. There have been documentaries and short films on these subjects, and a host of feature films on the abuse of women and violence against them - physical, psychological and otherwise - including Ankur, Arth, Luck by Chance, Paromitar Ek Din (Bengali), Paruthiveeran and Maithaanam (Tamil), Virgin Talkies (Malayalam), and a strong new film, Madhureeta Anand’s Kajarya (Hindi).

I was reflecting on this as I was invited this week by the Colombo International Film Festival's Asoka Handagama, Festival Director, and Anomaa Rajakaruna, Festival Programmer, to conduct a master class on “Better Screenplays and Festival Strategies.” I was very honoured to be invited; and partly because it was alongside other master class mentors such as Mexican director Carlos Reygadas and India’s cinematographer Rajeev Ravi. And partly because they had 600 applicants and had to shut down the registrations. The festival’s closing film was the powerful ‘28’, directed by Prasanna Jayakody and produced by Rasitha Jinasena. This is so much a film that needs to be seen in India. It is way ahead of Indian cinema in addressing the abuse and violence against women, at least what can be commonly accessed in theatres nationwide.

A middle-aged man, Abasiri, and his nephew, are summoned to Colombo to identify the body of a woman who has been raped and murdered and Abasiri discovers it is his estranged wife Suddhi. The film is a road movie - with comic touches - as they transport her body back to the village in a van. Despite its flaws, the film’s screenplay, direction and performances are powerful and compelling - of both protagonists Mahendra Perera and Semini Iddamalgoda. Following a bad marriage to a much older man, Suddhi leaves for Colombo and becomes a sex worker, and is eventually raped and murdered. Her spirit, looking realistic, not ghostly - she’s dressed in a strappy, lacy dress in which she must have been when she was murdered - appears throughout the movie, talking directly to the camera. She shows us the bodies of other women in the cold morgue drawers, telling us how each was also tortured, raped and murdered. She tells us her own life story. She talks to us from her coffin atop the van. At the climax, she tells the audience: “I don’t want you to feel sorry for me, but for the men who helped to murder me.” Her expression throughout is deadpan, not howling and melodramatic, not begging for sympathy, and unapologetic. In holding her own dignity inviolable - even when her body was brutalized - and in the Buddhist compassion she shows at the end-asking sympathy for her tormentors, Suddhi becomes a remarkably powerful figure, shaming all men in her society - and ours.

Meenakshi Shedde is India Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, an award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide, and journalist. She can be reached at meenakshishedde@gmail.com. The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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