The Venice Film Festival has always been kind to Indians. Eminent filmmakers like Mrinal Sen have sat on its main juries. A couple of years ago Mira Nair walked away with the top prize with her “Monsoon Wedding”. So it comes as no surprise that Manish Jha’s “A Nation Without Women” (Matrubhoomi) received a very warm reception – a standing ovation no less – at its world premiere screening at the Palagalileo screening room. This twenty-five years old director is going places. No doubts about that.
The title of the film is ironic. It translates from Hindi as ‘Motherland’. There are no women in sight for most of the film. The land that Jha depicts, a futuristic one perhaps, is devoid of women except for Kalki, portrayed by a fine young actor, Tulip Joshi, now in her second film. Women have become scarce due to female infanticide. They have been killed at birth because parents want male and not female children. Jha’s film is taking up head on a problem that is rampant in certain parts of Asia, not least in India: the desire for sons. Daughters are considered a curse. They have to be fed till puberty and then given away in marriage together with a crippling dowry. In “A Nation Without Women” we see that the situation has reached such a point that five brothers are obliged to marry one girl. They take turns with her on the bed. The father-in-law also has a go on the sixth night. After all he was the one who found her hidden away in a remote hut!
Unlike Bollywood films, “A Nation Without Women” takes Indian reality as its base. The village looks like an Indian village, the actors speak the way the villagers in this part of India speak. A typical Bollywood product costs millions of dollars. This one was made on an infinitely smaller budget of $ 400,000. (The filming of the credits alone in Coen brothers’ “Intolerable Cruelty”, also at Venice, must have cost much more than that!)
As I watched “A Nation Without Women” with wide, almost unbelieving eyes all I could think of were the troubles that lie ahead for this film. The upper castes in India are shown in a bad light and they are not going to like it at all. They will probably burn down the cinema halls in Bihar – the Indian state where the action takes place – if the film ever gets that far. Someone Hindu nationalist will accuse Jha of washing dirty Indian linen on the Lido instead of the Ganges. Those of us who have liked the film – I liked it enormously – will have our hands full in the coming months defending the director and the film. “A Nation Without Women” is meant to shake things up and it will.
The other Indian entry in Venice hoping for a prize turned out to be a disappointment, more so since Goutam Ghose is otherwise a fine filmmaker and one of India’s best cinematographers. Some thirty years ago Satyajit Ray made “Days and Nights in the Forest”, a trip of city-bred friends into the forest. Ghose uses more or less the same characters in “In the Forest … Again” (played by the same actors now past middle age) and takes them back to the forest.
I know it is unfair but it is impossible to write about this new film without comparing it with that of Satyajit Ray. And it suffers. Ghose unconvincingly brings in the events of September 11. And I couldn’t care less about these boring middle class people. Ghose’s worst sin is that he pontificates towards the end about the plight of the down trodden. He would done better if he had taken the more difficult route of actually depicting their plight instead of letting a school teacher mouth them. This is lazy filmmaking. And please, Goutam Ghose, go easy on those Bengali songs. Only a die-hard Bengali would appreciate so many of them. They erupt whenever the pace slackens and go on and on.
© FIPRESCI 2003