I watched Matrubhoomi last night. Half-way I decided not to. Five seconds later, I decided to plod on. Every fifteen minutes I had an overwhelming urge to vomit. Or scrub my skin raw in scalding water. Or wash my eyes to remove traces of all that I had seen. I was enveloped with a sort of revulsion that I will be trying to shake off for a long time to come.
The movie begins with a man drowning a new born baby girl in a cauldron of milk. It then takes us down a few years when there are no women left in India because of the tradition of female foeticide.
One woman, however, is discovered by a village priest. Her name is Kalki (it is quite telling that we hear her name only once in the film - from her father). She is married off to five brothers for five lakh rupees and five cows. On the first night, the eldest son takes a calendar to mark out the dates each of the husbands will spend with her. Now, because there are 5 brothers and 7 days in a week, two days remain to be accounted for. Their father takes over - being the head of the family, etc. In fact, he spends the first night with her.
So, in rotation, she spends her nights with the six men. One of her husbands likes to dress up in shiny ghagra cholis and smear a fake moustache on her before he has sex. Some kind of kinky reversal role-play. Another one has committed several acts of bestiality with cows after watching porn films. His copulation behavior with her is much the same. However, one of the other brothers (Sushant Singh) falls in love with her. She reciprocates to the tenderness.
On the days that Sushant Singh is allowed to be with her, he reads to her, they talk, they laugh. At night, she responds to him the way she doesn’t to the others. The father and the other brothers peep and watch them getting close. They get jealous and kill Sushant Singh.
Some time in the film, Kalki writes to her father and tells him of her father-in-law having sex with her. Her father comes and collects the additional one lakh rupees and leaves. Kalki is then beaten up by the brothers who tell her that her father is a pimp.
One day, she decides to run away. A servant boy helps her to escape. The brothers hunt them down, shoot the boy, and take Kalki back. Now, because she has become impure on account of running away with a person from the lower caste, she must be punished. So she is shackled and kept with the cows in the shed.
In the meantime, the murdered servant’s brother wants revenge from the higher caste murderers. And there is no better revenge than ravaging the honour of the family, who is lying in the shed among cows and dung.
Later, Kalki gets pregnant. One doesn’t know who the father is, but because the father-in-law had spent the first night with her, he claims that that the baby is his.
News of pregnancy has spread throughout the village. Elsewhere, the lower-caste revenger claims paternity of the baby. So he sets off to get his ‘dulhan’ home.
The higher castes will have none of it. What follows is a bloodbath where all the men are killed (save for another servant boy who has taken care of Kalki during her pregnancy.)
The movie ends with an exhausted Kalki looking down at a beautiful, bawling baby. It’s a girl.
Now, I generally don’t measure a movie’s impact by punishing viewership. I react very badly to scenes of sexual assault. Instinctively, I get my legs closer together, close my eyes, wring my hands, and wish that it would all go away. From the movie, from this world. But this movie pushed me to the rims of squeamishness. I was subconsciously pushing my husband’s hand away every time some-one on the screen exploited Kalki.
I don’t know whether Matrubhoomi was a good movie or not. The music and the cinematography are impeccable. There are scenes of Kalki (who looks like a pretty, young bloom) in bright yellow cotton sari and a pink blouse. She looks so fragile and innocent. Then, when the idea of it is soiled so brutally time after time...it’s nauseating. There is a very sharp break in the visual syntax that I still can’t reconcile with. I can, however, acknowledge that if flinches and grimaces are benchmarks for influential cinema, then the point was very well made.
But what has twisted my mind is how I reacted to the end, when I saw the baby. The baby, in the movie, is the product of severe, inhuman exploitation. Her mother has been traumatized in so many soul-crushing ways. She, however, never once contemplates suicide. Even when she is pregnant and in bondage, she tenderly moves her hand on the swollen belly - before the men come and rape her.
Throughout the film, I kept thinking about this little bit of ...life; it’s coming into this world that just mutilated whatever essence it stood for...and yet..when one is done is scourging through muck and filth, there is such hope and relief in seeing a baby.
As if the baby comes with a message that as long as there is the possibility of me, things will be okay. As long as life gets cultivated in someone’s body, even one that goes through starvation and horrors, as long as it survives.....as long as that happens, peace can be salvaged.
That is what a baby has come to mean. A little soul, that needs to be cultivated and taken care of, is our license to redemption. It is a sharp stirring of our comatose conscience. It’s coaxes a visceral prayer for the kindness out there.
That is the pressure on a baby. We ruined this world for you, child. Please take care of us.
Gibran said that children were life’s longing for itself.
It’s such a thorny crown to wear.