Small village values don’t change easily.
Rani had left her village at age 14 to marry a man from another village. Her husband was unfaithful and abusive until he died over a decade ago, leaving her with a sullen son and a bitter mother-in-law. Her mother-in-law, however, has become too sick to effectively abuse her anymore. And Rani has been making arrangements for her now 17-year-old son, Gulab, to get married. He may not like it, but she does. After 18 years of misery under her husband and mother-in-law, Rani will finally move up in the cycle and have a daughter-in-law of her own, one with beautiful long hair. Rani knows little of the world beyond this circle of villages. She does not even know who Shahrukh Khan is.
Lajjo is Rani’s best friend, and slightly more of a free spirit than Rani. She also came from another village to get married, but she and her husband have been unable to bear children. Of course, everyone blames her for it, and her husband Manoj uses it as just one more excuse to abuse her. While Rani and Lajjo seem to know that this is wrong, they accept it as Lajjo’s lot in life. What more can they do anyways? Tell the village elders?
This village is a deeply conservative one. Their acceptance of modern technology seems to be limited to having the men drive trucks, having a bus stop, and very recently accepting flip phones. One young man named Kishan seems to be somewhat forward-looking, employing the women to help him with crafts while pushing for education for girls, but few take his outlook seriously and the village elders see him as a troublemaker.
Rani and Lajjo take a bus from their desert village to another desert village to meet a prospective bride for Gulab. Janaki’s family, which includes four other girls, is all but happy to have her married off, though Janaki herself seems less than thrilled. Rani had hoped to negotiate the dowry down, but the other family requests a 33% higher price before she can even ask.
Gulab calls his mother to ask about the bride; not because he is eager to get married, but to remind Rani that this girl had better be worth the burden of getting married. Gulab is…well, a teenage boy. He is not really looking forward to getting married, preferring to mess around with his buddies, which currently involves watching porn on the same cell phone that he had used to call his mother.
A bus arrives and Naobi gets off. She is Kishan’s new bride and teaches children in nearby village. Naobi passes by a woman getting on the bus and asks about someone named Champa, but the woman just says to leave them alone. Gulab’s friends immediately start to verbally harass Naobi, telling Gulab to avoid educated women like her. The woman, Naobi, pointedly ignores them, but then silences them with a glare as Kishan drives up on his motorcycle. After Kishan and Naobi leave, one of Gulab’s friends call her a witch for looking at them in the eye. Kishan causing trouble again.
It is time for a village meeting. One issue involves the previously mentioned Champa, a girl who had returned to the village after having run away from her husband’s family. The elders demand that she go back, regardless of the abuse and humiliation that she has suffered, in order to avoid bringing shame to the village and tension between her new family and former one. Kishan reminds them about another runaway wife from the village who committed suicide, but they retort that Kishan has shamed the village enough by marrying a foreigner and shamelessly displaying her on his motorcycle. Naobi counters that she is as Indian as the rest of them. Of course, they were also talking about her being college educated and outspoken and being far beyond the circle of villages that they know, on top of looking Eastern.
The head of the village women asks for a TV to keep them entertained while their husbands are away for weeks on their trucking contracts. She states that this is the last village without one and TVs would entertain the men as well, and providing an alternative to the Dance Company. The elders state that they already regret relenting on allowing cell phones in the village and one man warns that TV will lead to women wearing jeans and maybe even driving trucks, leading to laughter. The lead elder brings up money to shut down the issue, but the head woman surprises him by saying that Kishan has helped them earn money through the handicrafts, which they will have soon. The elder says that they will return to the matter when the money arrives. Meanwhile, Champa’s former family forces her to go back to her husband’s village, despite her claims that they will kill her.
Rani and Lajjo go to Kishan to talk about their work and payment. There, they get a proper introduction to Naobi. Though Kishan talks up Naobi’s education and professionalism, Rani and Lajjo notice only her exotic light-skinned beauty.
That night, Rani and Lajjo see Bijli…the Earthquake-maker. She is part of the traveling Dance Company that is basically women who do sexy dances to Bollywood songs for the entertainment of the men from various villages. And there may be some prostitution on the side. Rani and Lajjo see Bijli as one of the few hints of an outside world, and a brief escape from their boring lives, and so Bijli indulges them with glamorous tales of her sexual escapades.
This time, Bijli tells them about having just refused a client, saying that she will have sex only for love from now on. Lajjo complains that that would just make Bijli as boring as they are, but Bijli says that he had met a man who is better than anyone. Lajjo is transfixed, but Rani is secretly skeptical. Lajjo tells Bijli about Gulab’s wedding date and Bijli is delighted, though Rani is a little unhappy that Lajjo had said anything about it. Lajjo sees Bilji’s life as a genuine alternative to her own, but Rani knows that it is mere fantasy and would rather keep it away from her actual life.
At home, Rani talks to her sickly mother-in-law about Shankar, Rani’s late husband. The one who beat her and cheated on her while his mother assured Rani that all would be well. And when he died in an accident, his mother blamed Rani for everything before eventually saying once again that all would be well. With the impending arrival of Janaki, it will finally be Rani’s turn to be the cruel mother-in-law. And all will be well.
Meanwhile, Lajjo’s drunken husband mocks her working on handicrafts and then beats her when she talks back.
It is the wedding. The villagers travel to the other village to take Janaki. Rani is shocked that Janaki’s hair has been severely cut. Apparently, she got lice, but her father refused to postpone the wedding, as it was already paid for. Janaki’s grandmother insists that Rani take Janaki in order for both families to save face. Rani tries to keep Gulab’s face and head covered during the bus ride back, but it is all for naught, and everyone sees her short hair. An already anxious Gulab is mortified. Things are even more anxious when Bijli arrives at the village for the wedding to congratulate Rani, but she leaves pretty quickly. But the kicker comes when Rani’s mother-in-law dies. It is said that she died of humiliation over her grandson’s bald bride.
Gulab disappears, only to return drunk two days later. He goes to his room where Janaki is and, after asking her name, forces himself on her. Rani, who can hear everything going on, rushes out of the house and goes to see Bijli. She begs for Bijli’s forgiveness for acting so cold to her during the wedding, but Bijli insists that it was her fault for arriving so publicly. Rani says that she feels like she had forced Gulab to get married and ruined his life.
The next day, Gulab leaves again, resentfully telling Rani that he had fulfilled his husbandly duties. Janaki eventually emerges from the house and Rani, completely unsympathetic to Janaki’s having been raped, orders her to start doing chores, taking every opportunity to scold her. Meanwhile, Gulab gets drunk with his friends by Kishan’s house, bragging to them about his sexual exploits. They eventually start vandalizing the place, yelling about his having corrupted their women with education. Who knows what they would have done had Kishan not arrived and caused them to run off.
Rani comes to Kishan’s house the next day and asks what happened. Kishan tries to be coy about the details, but Naobi outright tells Rani that her son did this and that she needs to get him under control. Gulab, however, is not home, so she instead scolds Janaki for reading books that Naobi had given her as a wedding gift. Just as her mother said to her when she was a teenager, Rani tells Janaki that girls who read make for bad wives.
A more mainstream movie may have centered the story around Kishan, the man with all of the answers who single-handedly brought some backwards desert village out of the dark ages and showed women the value of professional work. Or, it may be about Naobi, the woman who sparked a revolution by…being a schoolteacher…just maybe recast her with someone less Eastern-looking. But this is not a story about them.
This movie is about women struggling to give value to their lives while living deep within a system that does not value them at all. Daughters are considered a burden to a family, their only worth being the payment received upon being married off, so they get married off as young as possible. The worth of a wife is giving birth, doing household chores, and catering to the husband’s whims. The worth of a mother is nurturing. And that is basically it. Their options are highly limited and their limitations imprison them. They can try to navigate the system in order to find a corner of happiness and control within it, but it is usually based upon lying to themselves, keeping the open secrets quiet, and contributing to the oppression of other women. And if men close off that corner at any time, the women just have to accept it. Both Rani and Lajjo try to work within this set of values, but have hit obstacles. The women are stuck in a generational cycle and do not really see whether there is a way out.
Rani has tried to do everything right, but, of course, nothing can be right for her husband or mother-in-law. It never is. She knows deep down that it is not her fault that her husband had beat her, cheated on her, or died. But there is nothing that she can do about it but continue on with her life as a dutiful widow. With her son about to be married off, she starts to feel old…at only thirty-two. She feels lonely and sexually frustrated. She is bitter and sarcastic, but she does what she must. About to fulfill her ultimate duty as a mother, instead of feeling overjoyed, she starts to wonder if she is even a woman anymore. And when the completion of her tasks do not go quite as planned, desperation starts to set in.
Rani can see fully well that her son Gulab is on the way to becoming just as bad as his father if not worse. Yet, she insists on making excuses for him and putting the blame on her new daughter-in-law. Maybe she believes these lies, maybe not. But she has to pretend to until she has convinced herself that they are true. Accepting that her son is a terrible person will reflect badly on her as a mother, but she can heap as much abuse upon her daughter-in-law as she wishes. That is the only real privilege that she can have in life, and she had put up with all sorts of abuse from her own mother-in-law in order to get to this stage. That she may see a little bit of her former self in Janaki does not soften her stance, at least not at first. She, like most women in the village, enforce the status quo. And when it seems as if she is slipping, she buries her doubts and doubles down on enforcing the status quo. Rani has worked so hard to get to this point and she cannot accept that this reward was not worth all that she has given up and all that has been taken from her, regardless of how obvious the sunken cost fallacy is. It has to be worth it. Because it is worth it…because if it is not…Sometimes, she inadvertently lets the mask slip, but she quickly recovers, though sometimes less quickly.
Lajjo’s problem is more obvious: she has been unable to get pregnant. Thus, her sense of womanhood is severely compromised. Years of being devalued has caused her to be a little more lax in keeping up appearances than Rani is, but has also given her one more reason to accept the beatings that her husband gives her. Lajjo feels involuntarily isolated from the cycle due to her being infertile. But it is not really freeing so much as it gives her a little more room to think in less practical terms, such feeling the pull of Bijli’s lifestyle.
Bijli is also caught up in the cycle, though as more of an outcast. She is the opposite of a good woman. She is the type of woman whom the village men go to because their wives are not being proper wives. She is the type of woman whom the village men go to in order to satisfy their darker urges. She is the type of woman whom the proper women oppose. She tries to exert her own agency within this Dance Company and feel a sense of fancy freedom from the boring life of a village wife, but she also secretly knows that it is a façade. She herself tries to break away from the routine, and hang out with her friends only for her boss to seek a younger girl to pick up the slack.
Of course, this cycle places most of the burden upon women, as they are considered burdensome. The men have it much easier. Their wives may dislike their going off to the Dancing Company, but they can do little about it other than meekly hope to use TV as an alternative. Gulab may resent his mother for making him get married at 17, but he has no sympathy or empathy for his even younger bride, nor is he expected to. His anger comes from feeling emasculated, which is accelerated when he is with his buddies. His outbursts come from his need to claim the power that he believes that he deserves and that his mother has been undermining. While his bad behavior sometimes gets him into trouble, he receives no punishment from Rani, and he is free to heap scorn upon her. And as trapped as he may feel, he can disappear for days at a time. Really, the only man in the village who brings shame to the village is Kishan…for trying to help women gain a modicum of independence.
Still, the cycle is not without its weaknesses. The jokes and airing of grievances may allow women to vent a little while continuing with their lives, but there are little bits of rebellion here and there. The reason that the elders give for regretting allowing cell phones is that a girl had eloped with a boy whom she had contacted on the cell phone. There is Champa the runaway, though she must suffer the consequences. And then there is Naobi, causing trouble by refusing to defer to the elders. Even Janaki turns out to have had a life beyond what her parents had planned for her. The violence and the threat of violence that is heaped upon women is due not simply to the patriarchy exercising its power, but due to the patriarchy feeling its power under threat. And every little thing can be considered a threat. But the violence is harsh enough to keep most from even considering stepping out of line when the cracks are at their most obvious.
The movie also shows that freeing oneself from the cycle is more than just committing an act of rebellion. Rani and Lajjo break the rules of propriety by visiting Bijli, even though the menfolk get little push-back from visiting her. Yet, any step towards declaring independence is followed up by backtracking. There are no shortcuts and outside influence goes only so far. Getting hired by Kishan is not a cure-all. They do not really take to heart anything that Naobi has to say. It is difficult and frustrating journey, full of false starts and uncertain digressions, including several subplots that I have not even alluded to that either go in unexpected directions or stop before they start. The protagonists cannot be convinced of a different way to live; they have to convince themselves. And that means learning the hard way. Having no frame of reference for where they could go, the protagonists can rely only on each other for inspiration and support. And they are not always on the same page. Rani especially does things and says things that she knows is wrong because that is simply how things are done. She sometimes acknowledges the injustice of the world only to put her guard back up when confronted with the concept that there is the possibility of a way out. But that may change ever so slowly. It had for some…not for all…maybe it will for her.
Rani may have wondered early in the movie whether she is getting old and that her story is approaching its end, but it may be that her true life is actually beginning. We are not waiting for a turning point, but witnessing a painful and flawed process that does not necessarily have clear endpoint. It does not make for easy viewing, but I quite recommend it.
WTF ASIA 91: Death By Hanging (Japan: 1968, approx. 118 minutes)
WTF ASIA 92: A Simple Life (Hong Kong: 2011, approx. 118 minutes)