Friday, July 13, 2007

Atop the little head

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’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; 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 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.


abhishek said...

Haven't seen the movie yet. Now don't feel like seeing it after reading your review.

To what extent do you believe the story was trying to reflect a genuine trend or was purely a tragedy along the lines of truly painful, disturbing tragedies like Oedipus Rex?

While it's important to improve public awareness on the issue of female infanticide, domestic violence, polygamy, do we do a disservice by creating stories out of these issues and ignoring documentary-value films on the same topic? Aren't we also being too easy on ourselves by recreating the truth rather than conveying it, interpretations and plot lines aside?

ctrlalteredmind said...

like abhishek, I haven't seen this movie and don't intend to either, going by your synopsis - it just seems like too much to endure and my mind is already painting too grotesque a picture. I guess that is both an advantage and disadvantage of a movie that departs from documentary portrayal and towards fiction to convey its meaning - it is able to sift its audience.

Tachyoson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tachyoson said...

i did read the reviews of Matrubhoomi when it did release here.
i chose not to watch it ...

simply put, what horrified me most, is that this is a reality that we are heading for, at light speed. given the number of female foeticides and other atrocities against women. we dont need to be reminded how little we so-called intellectuals are doing to stem this tide of evil.

so many questions, no answers.... where must all this end?

Anonymous said...

I have seen this movie long time now...I can say I died a billion times..I never knew anything of like this before. After watching the movie I did some research on the topic and found this kinda thing did exist and is still around in few villages and towns.

Unbelievable but side we are developed on the other side what should I say, find no words..

Sirensongs said...

It is so distressing that the young Indians on this forum say they will chose NOT to watch the film for precisely the reasons they should watch it - because it is an uncomfortable, disturbing look at where we are going. It should be required viewing. What I am hearing is "I didn't like it because it wasn't pretty and pleasant like cinema should be, but there was one nice scene with a pink and yellow dress..." etc.

Perhaps Indian audiences are new to the ideas of movies saying something other than boy-girl dance mind-rot.

I saw Matrubhoomi years ago at the Kolkata film festival and thought it was fantastic, not only visually but for its message. I also read an interview with the filmmaker and he seems extremely principled and not at all sensationalistic about the subject.

bluespriite said...

I still want to watch the movie because it something I feel about very strongly...however disgusting a movie it may be.. because like someone said .. its fast becoming a reality today..

abhishek said...

How much does the filmmaker leave to the imagination and how much of it is pure gore?

Rita said...

Abhishek -- if you want a dose of reality get this -- there are 50 million women who have been removed from India's population. Our methods of murder: female feticide, infanticide, dowry murders, spousal violence, witch-hunting (60 in one district of bihar alone last year), and occassional satis in Rajasthan and Gujarat (total of 40 since Independence). We actually have a public awareness forum if you care to know more. Check it out at Thanks for listening. Every Indian needs to be concerned and evolved. This is a national crises -- on the scale of a genocide. And we need to care!!!!!!!!

Nonentity said...

hi sirensong.

there's really nothing wrong with expecting "pretty and pleasant" from a movie. it is an entertainment media, and there's a reason i spend good money and time there. there's enough negativity around in the real world and the last thing i need is a visual representation of it in a movie-hall too.

as a responsible citizen the last thing i want is to depend on movies to educate me on what's going on in my own country. so i'd say, chill .. :) and watch some song-and-dance routines in a bollywood movie. might enlighten you somewhat ... :)

Purnima Roy said...

We are finding Matrubhoomi "disgusting" etc. I wonder why we do not find the story of Draupadi married to the Pandava brothers equally disgusting! After all, she chose Arjuna only, and loved him. Just because Kunthi unknowingly asked the five brothers to share amongst themselves whatever they had brought with them - they went ahead and all of them "married" Draupadi, and took turns to share her. Why do we still teach our children to treat Mahabharata with reverence?

Anonymous said...

nonentity, what you have written is right. But if we can't emphasize with others' pain through any medium, it really makes us a very shallow person. If one can't feel intense pain, intense joy too says ta ta bye bye to that person. In short nothing affects you deeply and you too affect no one deeply. Its just the people around you who merely tolerate you, because they have to. After reading such a soul stirring review written by this blogger, that is what you can offer and think and feel, "watch some song-and-dance routines in a bollywood movie. might enlighten you somewhat" then you need professional help. I pity people around you getting nothing substantial from you. Do relationships work out in your life except from your natural family because they have to?

Poornima said...

the above comment is written by me.

abhishek said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
abhishek said...

Thanks for the facts. I'm curious - aren't those facts best served by a documentary? Why isn't there any visual documentation on this subject? Why do we have to resort to the literary medium to convey these problems?

I agree that literature has and continues to play a great role in spreading public awareness about an issue. But, visual documentaries are even more powerful statements on the subject. My bone of contention is not that Mathrubhoomi is tactless or tasteless or even that it should not have been made. It is the product of a creative license, however. I would however prefer to learn about the issue through a journalistic medium rather than a fictional medium. The truth is stranger than fiction, as your facts imply. So why don't we present the truth as truth? Rather than interpret it?

That is what I meant when I said we are taking the easy path. We seem too content with using a creative license and not brave enough to actually go into these villages, interview victims and bring these issues to the light with real experiences. If the woman in Mathrubhoomi really exists, let's bring that story to the front. Even in recreated movies, the director claims to draw inspiration from different stories. Where is the inspiration for the character in Mathrubhooi? It's a question of how much you can shake the assumptions within the audience. Do you shake it by telling a story? Or do you shake it by showing real men and women of flesh and blood?

I recognize the problems with domestic violence, female foeticide and infanticide, domestic abuse etc within India and towards the end of spreading awareness about these issues, Mathrubhoomi is a great movie. I'm just saying that we shouldn't stop there. Perhaps, there are documentaries out there on this subject. It would be a pity though that if they do exist, they were overshadowed by something far less shocking in the form of a story.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes, it is easier to convey the impact a problem can have (if not corrected now) by using artistic license and depicting an extreme (but not implausible) situation in near future (as in Matrubhoomi). It's difficult to achieve that using a documentary which uses current and past facts.

Rachel Carson imagined the impact of using all the insecticides, pesticides and wrote Silent Spring - a moving account when all the birds are dead due to indiscriminate use of pesticides etc. Her book was a warning, a clarion call that led to stricter rules on the use of chemicals, thus avoiding a silent spring. Now, some people accuse her of lying because silent spring didn't happen. Ironic, isn't it?

I prefer my movies to stimulate me intellectually and emotionally, and not just entertain (though there is nothing wrong with that once a while). So, I really liked Matrubhoomi as a movie.


Nonentity said...

poornima. i comment was in response to sirensongs' 'general?' comment about indian audiences. and if a comment by someone who can't offer anyone anything substantial rages you so much, then i think you need professional help. chill my child. please do go watch a b-grade bolly flick. if it enrages you then you need some serious spiritual guidance. good luck.

Poornima said...

nonentity/Jugguji, I have read your blog. If I have read it earlier ...anyway being such a dogali person, you need spiritual help plus professional help . You need every help to disclose your true identity to your parents or being a true natakbaaj you keep acting little girl? Or no, knowing true you, they will develop heart problems. Poor people. You will never give them proud moments but shame and disgust. I only watch B,C grade movies but you live them. :-)

Mukta said...

Hi all,

Let's stick to responding to ideas, and not hitting back at people. As Victor Hugo or Voltaire or someone equally French and pontificating said: I don't agree with what you say, but I'll fight with my life for your right to say it.

:-)Voila and all that.

N said...

I saw the movie some time back but can fully understand what you're saying. It made me squirm and cringe almost through the three hours. But somebody makes a good point in one of the earlier comments--the reality is as horrific, if not more. This is really happening. In many villages, generations of girls have been wiped out. And if one went by reality, the baby in the movie would probably be killed too.

Anyway, kudos to you for being brave enough to think about it all over again to write the post.

the mad momma said...

Seen it too. In fact after I read the reviews I hunted high and low. And then I squirmed as I watched it. was pregnant and the husband was most annoyed that i was watching something disturbing at that time!

every word you said rings true.. i would have written the same thing if i had done a review. and i think its a must watch.

in reply to some of the comments. yes - such things can be done in documentary form but isnt that what artistic license is abt? to show you something close to reality yet ensure that it holds ur interest and you absord what your eyes are watching...

saw ur latest post. stop getting so stressed at work. come join me for coffee...

abhishek said...


Certainly is ironic that Silent Spring has been blamed for being too effective. But, my argument is slightly different in that I'd like to get a more comprehensive look at the problem. The great thing about Silent Spring was that it touched on many different environmental issues and even suggested solutions. Mathrubhoomi should be seen as a part of an evolving literature on domestic abuse and violence, but that literature is incomplete without the accompanying documentation on the organizations that fight those issues, what they're doing to raise awareness and most importantly, how they are reaching out to the women who dwell in what I like to call "private" spaces. Because let's face it, part of the reason why women continue to face these issues is that they haven't received enough attention to their issues. To that end, Mathrubhoomi is a great start. But we need to do more.

I am probably not your average Mathrubhoomi viewer, in particular if I don't expect to be shocked by what the film implies for societies in India. I'd rather think about what I can do to help - and it's that advice that I find lacking in creative stories. In other words, what can an educated, concerned Indian do to change the situation? Does it take changing legislation, does it imply raising funds for helpless women, etc? It's all about breaking the bubbles and barriers that inevitably build around us when we live and work far away from the locations of those problems.

Anonymous said...

Abhishek, I agree with you. But if a movie starts mentioning organizations etc. then it can be easily accused of favoring certain ones and not others, being preachy (e.g. Swades), and it can easily devolve into a political argument and the real issue gets side-tracked (e.g. Gere-Shetty-AIDS).

I think the movie meant to shine a light on a relevant issue, make the viewer think/feel and then it is left to the viewer to do some research on the issue - find out what organizations are there, talk to people etc. I generally don't like movies that present a pat solution to a social problem, because that ignores complex ground realities. So, in that sense, I'd probably have liked the movie a lot less if it had presented a neat solution at the end. I know this can be infuriating to some viewers, but life is like that. An artist can simply present his views and it is up to the citizenry, law-makers & policy-makers to debate it and come up with a solution. :)

I gave the example of Silent Spring to draw a parallel (in the sense of envisioning a bleak futuristic scenario), and there are other differences between the two, as you rightly point out.

A nice companion piece to this movie would be a documentary that showcases an organization or group that's working on this issue.

I'd definitely recommend that you see this movie and form your own opinion.


Sirensongs said...

it is an entertainment media,

Wrong. It is a media, for whatever communication purpose the creator uses - serious, playful, comedic, tragic,documentarian and so on.

For many (in most countries, not just India - however, we happen to be discussing India), cinema is obviously good for nothing but escapism. This filmmaker chose not to use it that way. Go ahead and avert your eyes from reality; some choose not to.

The filmmaker chose a dramatic, non-documentary film style because knew that would draw a more general audience. The tone of this review is that the viewer was expecting " a nice movie" and kind of stumbled into Matrubhoomi by accident, which is probably the only way most people will ever attend.

As for watching song and dance movies - one doesn't need to go out of one's way to see them - one can hardly escape them, filling the minds of the general populace with daydreams and consumer fantasies.