Mirch Masala is a 1987 Hindi film. It is set is the colonial times, when India was under the subjugation of the British rule. It focusses on the lives of people in a village in Western India, and the subsequent power dynamics. It has a strong, feminist approach and beautifully captures the resistance of the village folk, especially women, against the tyranny of the Subedar. It is directed by Ketan Mehta, and is based on a short story by Chunnilal Madia. It stars Smita Patil and Naseeruddin Shah as the lead roles.
The movie traces the lives of Sonabai and the Subedar, who was mesmerized by her beauty and would do anything to ‘procure’ her. Sonabai is portrayed as a strong willed, fierce, determined and courageous woman who refuses to bend her will and submit herself to the tyrant. The movie focuses on the events that transpired, and the dauntless and undying spirit of Sonabai and Abu Mian, who laid down his life trying to protect her. The film showcases instances of toxic masculinity, oppression of women, caste dynamics, gender inequality, power relations, exploitation by someone in a position of power, dominance, commodification of women, victim blaming, conformity and the problems of having an unquestioning attitude, internalization of patriarchy, and the courage of women, to be able to speak for themselves and support each other.
The oppression, humiliation, commodification, and exploitation of women is the main theme of the movie. Padma Anagol-McGinn in her dissertation has skilfully etched the pitiable condition of women in colonial India. Domestic violence, cruelty, mental agony and torture, rapes and sexual harassment were common in those times. Women were viewed as those who facilitated procreation, progeny and the continuation of the family lineage.
The Subedar was to be kept pleased and satisfied at all times, even at the cost of the villagers’ wellbeing. He would be ‘supplied’ with a woman every time he desired to gratify his sexual needs. He would treat women as commodities, because it did not matter to him who he was sleeping with; women were merely viewed as objects of sexual gratification. When he set his eyes on Sonabai, he was willing to go to any extent to procure her. The fact that she rejected him and slapped him when he made untoward advances on her, made him want her even more; only because he wanted to portray his power and prestige, and prove the fact that those who wrong him would not go unpunished. This tendency to commodify women was not limited to the Subedar. In fact, it was a thing of prestige to have sexual relations with multiple women, as was evident from the exchange between the Mukhi and his wife.
The village folk had a parochial attitude and a conservative outlook when it came to women. They did not want their daughters to study and become educated, as was seen in the case of the Mukhi’s daughter. Instead, they wanted to get their daughters married early. The villagers had assumed that Munni was going to get married on seeing her all dressed up; when in fact she was on her way to school. The shock and disbelief that followed, along with unacceptable comments, only bear testimony to the fact that there existed extreme gender inequality and prejudicial behaviour. In addition, having a girl child was viewed as something that was problematic. This becomes evident when the Mukhi, while agitated, tells his wife that she should be grateful to him because he did not act against her conceiving a girl child. So strong and intense was the patriarchy, that many women had internalized it.
Instances of violence and physical assault against women were also depicted in the movie. The Mukhi beats up his wife, Saraswati, when he realizes that she was going against him. Radha was beat up by her father when he saw his daughter with an upper caste man.
The Subedar can be called the representative of the prevailing attitude of men, in the colonial times in rural areas. He explicitly showcases traits that are toxic, but which he considers to highlight his masculinity. He has his train of followers and flatterers who exist to feed his ego. He is a naturally violent man, who beats up people, hurls abuses at them and humiliates them to establish his dominance. He is not someone who can tolerate opposition, and chooses to publicly punish and belittle those who wrong him, to set an example for the others. This is why he chose to punish the headmaster, who was blamed for trying to reason with him. He uses his explosive personality and material things including his gramophone to charm the villagers, make them submit to him, and get their validation. Him holding a position of power only made matters worse, because people had no choice but to conform and obey him. Being heartless and tough is one of the tenets of masculinity, which is why he was extremely unconcerned about the wellbeing of the villagers.
He could not handle rejection, and chose to go after Sonabai, even after she slapped him. The fact that she had the audacity to slap him was interpreted as emasculation. So enraged was he by this, that he was willing to burn down the entire village to teach her a lesson. The Subedar’s masculine pride was wounded, and blotching Sonbai’s reputation was his only redemption. He is ruthless, aggressive, tough, irrational, and lacks judgement. He was extremely unapologetic and would do anything to get what he wanted. This is why when he would not budge, the villagers started blaming Sonabai for her own predicament, even though it was the Subedar’s fault. He is conniving and manipulative, and succeeds in swaying the crowd in his favour, mostly by intimidation and violent means.
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Anagol-McGinn, Padma. “Women’s Consciousness And Assertion In Colonial India: Gender, Social Reform And Politics In Maharashtra, C.1870-C.1920.”. School Of Oriental And African Studies, College Of London, 1994.
Bhargava, Rajeev. “India’s Culture Of Toxic Masculinity”. The Hindu, 2019, https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/indias-culture-of-toxic-masculinity/article29262252.ece. Accessed 15 Oct 2020.
Bhattacharya, Rimli. “Mirch Masala: The Feminist Movie Of The Feminist Actor Smita Patil”. Women’s Web: For Women Who Do, 2019, https://www.womensweb.in/2019/05/mirch-masala-the-feminist-movie-of-the-feminist-actor-smita-patil/. Accessed 15 Oct 2020.
Buckley, Alex. “Gender Oppression, Inequality And Gender Roles In India And Southwestern United States: How British Colonial Rule And American Internal Colonialism Perpetuated Gender Roles And Oppression”. People.Smu.Edu, 2015, https://people.smu.edu/knw2399/2015/04/30/gender-oppression-inequality-and-gender-roles-in-india-and-southwestern-united-states-how-british-colonial-rule-and-american-internal-colonialism-perpetuated-gender-roles-and-oppression/. Accessed 15 Oct 2020.
Pathak, Siddhi. “Mirch Masala Review: Red And Revolution Go Hand In Hand”. Feminism In India, 2017, https://feminisminindia.com/2017/12/26/mirch-masala-film-review/. Accessed 15 Oct 2020.
Upadhyaya, Amit. “Smita Patil’s Mirch Masala Is The Movie A Post-#Metoo India Must Watch”. Theprint, 2018, https://theprint.in/features/reel-take/smita-patils-mirch-masala-is-the-movie-a-post-metoo-india-must-watch/164440/. Accessed 15 Oct 2020.
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