Ms Representation: The power of a question
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author discusses Abishek Shah’s Hellaro
Have you ever wondered about the value of a question? Questions, more often than not, form the foundation for reform. Revolutions begin when people ask ‘Why does this have to be this way?’ Change comes about only when the status quo is questioned. As famous French-Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco wisely said once, “It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.” And questions do have the potential to change our reality. This is something that educator David Copperrider, who co-created the theory of Appreciative Inquiry, rightly observed: We live in the world our questions create.
Abishek Shah’s Hellaro, which won the National Award last year, is about a group of women who learn to question. The Gujarati film is set in a barren, parched village in the Rann of Kutch, which reeks of patriarchy and sexism. When the isolated village is informed of the Emergency, the men believe it is appropriate to comment, “This is what happens when the country is run by women.” Women aren’t allowed voices here, let alone questions or opinions. They only get time for themselves when they fetch water together. They aren’t allowed to dance even, but remain mute spectators as the men of the household Garba around the fire, praying to the Goddess for rains.
Manjhri enters this ‘haven’ as the new bride. And she quickly realises what she has stepped into. The first words of her husband when he learns of her education are, “The rules of the caste are the priority here. Know your limits. I believe educated women grow wings or horns. Whatever you have grown, cut it yourself. It would hurt more if I did.” Manjhri looks up in shock, the first time we see her, but all her husband can comment on is how beautiful she is.
These women and their emotions are invisible to their men. And even their water walks are haunted by the dictum of caste and men. A widow is grudgingly allowed the right to fetch water, but she isn’t supposed to talk to other women. Manjhri slowly learns the ways and rules of the village. One day, during their water walk, the women stumble upon an unconscious drummer who is yearning for some water. After some deliberation, Manjhri helps him, and in return, asks him to play his drum for her. And she dances. She dances in joy, in exhilaration, and most importantly, in rebellion. And the journey to the questions begins.
As the dancing becomes a daily routine, the women also begin to doubt themselves. Of course, this is natural as they are battling centuries of social-conditioning. The usual arsenal of shame, sin, and fear are brought to this battlefield. ‘Isn’t it shameful to be dancing in front of a strange man?’ ‘This is sinful, the gods see everything. The village will be punished for our sins.’ ‘If the men come to know, we will be murdered with their swords.’ When a pregnant woman in the village gives birth to a stillborn, the women jump to the conclusion that it is because of them, only to learn that it was domestic violence that caused the baby’s death. And the tear-stricken mother gets the most powerful line in the film — “Not all sinners get punished. If so, the world wouldn’t have so many men in it.” Slowly, questions trickle in with more confidence. ‘If we are sinning, why should the gods punish someone else?’ ‘After all, what is so sinful about wanting to dance?’
The film begins with a card that reads, “This film is dedicated to the struggles of countless women who thrive in the face of a patriarchal mandate.” Questions form an important tool — of defence and also reform. Democracy only functions when it can be questioned. In fact, questioning the status quo is also the reason this column exists. Hellaro’s rebellion begins when the women begin to question the men and their sexist rules. The more they question, the clearer the realisations. When the men find out their secret, beat these women up, and lock them, Manjhri decides to step out and dance. All the women join her, including the widow, and they dance in anger, frustration, and revolt around the fire. And finally, it rains. Maybe those women wouldn’t have known the significance of their revolt. But it reminded me of something the famous Rosa Parks once said, “I had no idea history was being made, I was just tired of giving up.”
(Hellaro is currently streaming on MX Player)