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23 March 2016

Mrityudand (1997)

Directed by: Prakash Jha
Music: Anand Milind
Lyrics: Javed Akhtar
Starring: Madhuri Dixit, Shabana Azmi, 
Om Puri, Mohan Agashe, 
Shilpa Shirodkar, Mohan Joshi, 
Ayub Khan
Following the relatively restrained story of a woman's hard-won emancipation comes a slightly more melodramatic version of what it means to be the fairer sex in a society that deems them less valuable than cattle. Towards the late 90s, 'middle cinema' vanished - again, but mainstream films began to get more interesting. Stories became important once again, and stars, greedy for a chance to sink their teeth into a good role, began to take a greater interest in acting in 'offbeat' films. Films which, within the framework of the usual masala tropes, still demanded a strong script and excellent performances. Mrityu Dand (Death Sentence) was one such.

Bilaspur. 1996. A widow, Ganga, and her mother, Tara, have been accused of 'dishonourable behaviour' as well as witchcraft. As they flee the frenzied mob, the pregnant Ganga falters and stumbles. Both mother and daughter meet a gruesome end. When the Collector arrives accompanied by the police, local politician, Durga Pandey (Harish Patel), scurries to get 'witnesses' rounded up, and the mahant (head priest) wonders how the news of the women's deaths reached the outside world. Who talked? At the local zamindar Babusaheb's (Pyare Mohan Sahay) house, his eldest son, Abhay Singh (Dr Mohan Agashe), is furious - they had nothing to do with the widow's death. Let the Collector catch the men who had exploited the widow so they could obtain her land. 
Pandey is not one to be brow-beaten - the panchayat had ordered her murder; now, the Collector has questions. 

On the outskirts of the village, Rambaran (Om Puri) is troubled - amongst those involved were his men as well. Why on earth did they get involved in the quarrels of the landed gentry? They were manipulated, argues his assistant. 
As they make their way to where the Collector is conducting the enquiry, one man stays behind. He's disgusted by his own cowardice; he would like to tell the Collector the truth. Kanti (Shilpa Shirodkar), his wife, is at first dismissive - why get involved? - and then, frightened. The village contractor, Tirpat Singh (Mohan Joshi), and his man have overheard the conversation and while her husband is still rebellious, she begs for forgiveness. Her husband is due to leave for Punjab to seek a better job; please let him go. 
The villagers maintain their code of silence, the Collector leaves, and the village returns to normal. Two days later, Vinay (Ayub Khan) is married off to Ketki (Madhuri Dixit), a small-town girl, and the baraat returns; the new bride is welcomed by her elder sister-in-law, Chandravati (Shabana Azmi), Abhay Singh's wife.
But Ketki's entry into her sasural is marred by an ugly fight between Abhay Singh and his father. Her in-laws' lands are already mortgaged to Rambaran; it's he who's trying to get Babusaheb to spend more than he can afford. Vinay interrupts his elder brother - the lands were not given to Rambaran in charity; it's his brother's debauchery that has impoverished their coffers, not his wedding. 
That night is a night of secrets - both revealed, and concealed. While Vinay and Ketki celebrate their wedding night, Abhay Singh, having walked out of his house in a huff, is meeting one of the monks in the temple. 'Today,' he says cryptically
Cleverly, he manipulates events so he can attain his ambition. In doing so, he 'sacrifices' all worldly pleasures - his life as a householder, his family, his wife. Chandravati is devastated. For 17 years, she has suffered taunts of being barren. Now, he will, though still alive, condemn her to widowhood. But Abhay Singh cannot (will not) turn back.
Back at Tirpat Singh's residence, Pandey is equally devastated. Overnight, the balance of power has shifted. However, Tirpat can still find the humour in his opponent's master stroke. He also has several cards up his sleeve. Pandey, after all, has been playing both ends against the middle; do so now, he advises Pandey. 
So Pandey visits Babusaheb's home, where he finds Vinay and his father discussing Abhay Singh's renunciation. Pandey slyly suggests that Vinay allow Tirpat Singh to quarry the stones on their land. Babusaheb takes violent exception to the suggestion - not just because he thinks being a contractor is beneath his family, but also because Tirpat's father had been excommunicated from the biradari. They are zamindars, he reminds Pandey; they will not partners pimps.
Chandravati has been bedridden from the time her husband had left, but despite the unsettling events following her wedding, Ketki has settled in well at her in-laws', and is developing a deeper understanding with her loving husband.
But when Chandravati, still unable to come to terms with the blow the fates have dealt her, hands over all her responsibilities to Ketki, the latter is stunned. 
Meanwhile, Vinay has gone to town to submit an application for a contract; he's accosted by Tirpat and Pandey, who remind him that it would be in his interests to become a sleeping partner with the former. Vinay rebuffs them and returns home. 
But he knows it's useless - no one is going to give him a contract unless he's willing to bribe them. Besides, one has to deposit a certain amount against a contract - where's he going to get the money from? Ketki has the answer. 
A hopeful Vinay goes to the auction the next day, and is seated by a man, who is cynical about the so-called process. This bidding is a mockery, he insists; the area 'belongs' to Tirpat Singh, and all decent contracts will go to him. And of course, the first tender is awarded to Tirpat Singh. 

But Vinay is in for a pleasant surprise - Tirpat Singh removes his name from the bidding, even losing his deposit, and the contract is awarded to Vinay. Not only that, since Vinay is a newcomer in the business, Tirpat offers to stand guarantor. When Vinay demurs, Pandey is quick to silence him. They can resolve their differences later, he advises Vinay; for now, just fulfil the formalities.  
Poor Vinay, untried and unsure, is not canny enough to divine Tirpat's motivations. Not so his elder brother - he had become the mahant in order to curtail Tirpat's power. And now, his younger brother has played right into Tirpat's coils. Abhay Singh is furious.

Babusaheb is also unhappy about Tirpat's new ploy. Vinay has no qualms - he hasn't made any commitment to Tirpat to allow him to quarry the stones from their land. It's only because of Tirpat's generosity that he even got a contract. His father's well-meaning advice seems to question his judgement and, much to his father's and Ketki's discomfiture, Vinay refuses to listen.  
Unfortunately for Vinay, the project suffers a major setback. Tirpat offers both condolences and help. Though Babusaheb and Abhay Singh are sure they know who's behind the sabotage, Vinay is in shock. Even Ketki's comfort doesn't offer solace. As Vinay quips dryly, comfort doesn't pay the bills. Even Rambaran cannot help them this time; his money is tied up elsewhere. 

With no other option open to him, Vinay turns to the one man who's offered his help - Tirpat. Beguiled by their open friendliness, he fails to see that both Pandey and Tirpat only want one thing - his signature (and that of his father and sister-in-law) on a contract that promises them the right to quarry stones from the river bed, ostensibly to complete his unfinished project.
Trusting his new partners, and infused with a new confidence, Vinay returns home only to be faced with opposition from every single family member; Ketki, especially, is very vocal about her distrust of her husband's schemes. But when his bhabhi also refuses to countenance his plans, Vinay loses control; his taunts force Chandravati to sign the papers; beaten, so does his father. Ketki can only watch, powerless to stop the destruction that she can foresee.
The papers are handed over to Tirpat, and he begins work on Vinay's project. Flushed with pride, Vinay is celebrating with his new 'partners' when Pandey suggests that the party move to Vinay's house - after all, Vinay's wife should be part of the celebration. While Babusaheb is distressed at their entry into his house, Ketki is furious. Especially when Tirpat enters their bedchamber uninvited. Faced with her angry contempt, Tirpat leaves - his good humour unimpaired. 
But Vinay cannot bear the insult to his honour; Ketki's intransigence causes him to forget himself. Matters deteriorate still further between the two at night. Ketki is seeing a side of her husband that she doesn't like very much.
As Chandravati's condition continues to deteriorate, Ketki has neither the time nor the inclination to put up with her husband's increasingly 'manly' behaviour.  That night, Chandravati has to be taken to the hospital in town. Since Vinay is drunk, Ketki asks her father-in-law to call for Rambaran to take them to the hospital; she will accompany her sister-in-law. The night is stormy and the going is rough - fortunately, Rambaran manages to get them there in time.
Chandravati's treatment is likely to take many days, and Rambaran makes arrangements for them to stay in a dharamsala close to the town. He returns to the village with news of Chandravati; he also needs money. He's spend more than Rs22,000 so far, and 'money is tight,' he says, apologetically. Vinay promises to make good that amount, then throws in a facer - don't lend any more money to the family without asking him first. 

Rambaran is taken aback. But he has a word of warning for Vinay. Millions of rupees worth of stones have already been quarried from the river bed. Vinay's debt to Tirpat had long been repaid. Tirpat is looting Vinay without his knowledge.

When Vinay confronts Tirpat, he learns how easy it is to cook accounts - his project is shown to be running into loss, while his debts to Tirpat have increased to astronomical amounts. There seems to be no way out of this mess.  
Back home, Vinay writes a letter of apology to Ketki and Chandravati convinces Ketki to return. Vinay needs her. Meanwhile, backed by Rambaran, Vinay cuts off all ties with Tirpat, stopping the machines from working at the riverside. It leads to a confrontation with Tirpat, but this time, Vinay refuses to back down. Tirpat leaves, but not without a warning.  
Tirpat's fa├žade of calm deserts him when he realises that in two short months, Vinay has secured a contract that would, once, have been his. He's angry with Pandey as well - if it hadn't been for him, Tirpat Singh, Pandey would remained a two-bit politician. Worse is to come for Tirpat Singh - Vinay manages to grab a juicy highway contract from under his nose.

Meanwhile, Chandravati is shyly blooming under Rambaran's concern for her. For the first time in her life, someone's actually paying attention to her likes and dislikes.  That mutual attraction is to have consequences, ones that Rambaran can foresee, even though he's happy for Chandravati. 

In the village, Kanti's in trouble.  
Ketki, who sees Tirpat's henchman accost Kanti, is furious - is there no law in the land? Why does Kanti keep quiet? Gaining courage from Ketki's unconditional support, Kanti, along with the other women labourers, dares to demand their wages. She pays the consequences, but this time, there is support - from unexpected quarters. 
Tirpat is seeing his power erode, and it's Vinay who will pay the price. Ketki now has to deal with Tirpat Singh on one hand, and her brother-in-law, Abhay Singh on the other. One wants her, the other wants control over their land near the river. While Ketki may have succeeded in turning Abhay Singh away from the house, she cannot stop him from claiming the land - in the name of the temple. Tirpat Singh is stymied - it's a perfect checkmate. For now.

Back in town, Chandravati is upset by the turn of events. Her devar has been killed, Ketki is a widow; she cannot remain in town. Rambaran tries to dissuade her - how can she go there in her condition? The village is already in turmoil... Chandravati is in no mood to listen. Reluctantly, Rambaran takes her home. 
Sorrowfully, the two sisters-in-law seek their comfort in each other. 

But what will happen on the morrow? Tirpat Singh is hardly one to remain silent; he has a score to settle with Abhay Singh. And Ketki. Chandravati's news will not remain a secret for long; how will Abhay Singh react? What about Kanti? Rambaran? Pandey? Will Ganga's and Tara's story be repeated with Chandravati and Ketki? 
Mrityu Dand is the story of these three women, who represent different facets of womenhood. While the film talks about the exploitation of women, no matter what strata of society they belong to, director Prakash Jha also brings in plenty of sub-text about social justice, gender equality, male dominance, caste/class conflict, etc. 

Jha is treading safe ground here - he sets the action in Bihar, his home state, a place he knows from within and without. His camera captures the rawness of the setting, with its beauty and its ugliness. Unlike Damul (also set in the state), Mrityu Dand straddles 'art' and 'masala' genres comfortably, with glamour and star wattage being lent by Madhuri Dixit, then the reigning queen of masala filmdom, and Shilpa Shirodkar, while acting chops were headlined by Om Puri and Shabana Azmi, along with a host of character actors who were well-known names on the art film circuit.  

Mrityu Dand was Madhuri Dixit's film all the way - from the beginning when the educated, self-assured young bride enters her conservative in-laws' home, to the scene where she stops her husband, then under the influence of drink (and the villain), telling him in no uncertain terms - 'Aukat ko taaqat ka taraazu mein tolne ka kosis mat keejiye. Aap humre pati hai, parameswar ban-ne ka bhool mat keejiye'... (Don't confuse 'strength' with 'rights'; you're my husband, don't make the mistake of trying to be God.)
...to the last scene where, silently, she waits with the other women to protect her sister-in-law. As Ketki, she is the supportive wife, encouraging her husband to set himself up in business, and trying to wean him away from the influence of the local power brokers; she's willing to stand up for her beliefs - even if it is her husband who questions her.
It is her willingness to question the unwritten rules, and to not sit quiet in the face of injustice that empowers the other women in the village to stand up for their rights. Mrityu Dand's Ketki was a powerful role, and Madhuri gave it her all. 
Stunning in her simplicity, her self assurance, vulnerability and anger are all displayed in a finely-crafted performance that allowed her to hold her own against Shabana's more muted (but equally powerful) characterisation as Chandravati, the traditional wife who, for 17 years, has silently borne the humiliation of being 'banjh' (barren). Verbally and emotionally abused by her husband, she still continually abases herself before him. In a society that only gives her respect because she's married, Chandravati falls ill when she's abandoned. 'Jab haarne lagogi, toh ladna chhodkar sehna suru karogi', she tells Ketki. (When you begin to fail, you'll stop fighting, and learn to accept everything.)
Eventually, she finds solace in the arms of the low caste Rambaran. As she succumbs to their mutual desire, Shabana is the perfect picture of tremulousness - one can see her warring with herself, and her ambivalence about her burgeoning sexuality makes her, at once, hunted and capitulating. 
When she returns, and Ketki first realises the truth, she asks Chandravati: 'Khud? Apna marzi se?' (Of your own choice?) There's a quiet acceptance in Chandravati's voice as she answers, 'Pehli baar toh apna marzi kiya hai hum.' (This is the first time I've exercised my own will.) Jha has to be acclaimed for the sensitivity with which he handled Chandravati's and Rambaran's relationship. Very finely nuanced, the relationship, as depicted, is both mature and respectful. Both Shabana and Om Puri, colleagues for a long time, share an ease and comfort that comes through in their interactions with each other.   
Chandravati's condition is a figurative slap in the face for her husband. Her 'barrenness' is now her badge of honour, as well as a mark of his shame. Which then bursts forth as intent to avenge the deadliest insult that can be offered a man. Only, Chandravati has found both her voice and her spine. Jeena chaahte hain hum bhi! she breathes. (I too wish to live!) 
Ketki's more outspoken courage, along with the knowledge that she's not 'broken', gives Chandravati a quiet assurance that she lacked before. Shabana visibly grows more assured as she realises she's not alone any more. There's Ketki. And poor Kanti.
Forced to fend for herself as her husband slaves away in another state to repay his loans to Tirpat, Kanti is forced to provide sexual favours to Tirpat and anyone else he wants to please. Shilpa Shirodkar was a fine actress who, unfortunately, got typecast into 'sexy' roles, where she had precious little to do but gyrate to raunchy dance moves to suggestive lyrics. Here, in too brief a role (I wish Jha had fleshed out her character a little more), Shilpa shows us that there was talent waiting to be tapped - if only someone had given her a chance. She shows us Kanti's inner strength and her self-respect even as she's forced to sell herself to her husband's creditors in lieu of his debts.  
Abha Dhulia appears in a small role as Tirpat Singh's wife - beaten down, verbally, physically, emotionally abused, frightened of her own shadow.... the veteran actress plays her role with such vulnerability, with just that hint of something more brewing behind the scene. In the end, she's the catalyst who wakes other women from their inertia; she's the cause of her husband's inevitable destruction. 
Om Puri's Rambaran is the 'outsider'. The power structure in the village doesn't give him a place of respect because of his caste; but his money is always welcome. Rambaran is both cynical and pragmatic. He expects nothing better from the men who are willing to take his money. However, behind his rough and 'uncultured' ways, lies a man whose compassion for a troubled woman grows from respect to mutual attraction to love. When Chandravati, freed from the shackles that bind her, tells him, almost like a prayer, 'Hum baanjh nahin hain, Rambaran' (I'm not barren, Rambaran!), his initial withdrawal is followed by a complete acceptance. His fear is for her, not for himself.

When Chandravati insists on returning home, saying she doesn't care if they kill her, 'Pehla baar dekh rahe hai ke aap bas apna hi baare mein soch rahi hai,' he tells her, sadly. (For the first time, I notice you're thinking only of yourself.) If something happens to her, what would he do
It's the closest a man of his nature can come to admitting his love and respect for her. In the end, it is he who tries to defuse the situation and pays the ultimate price for his failure. 
Dr Mohan Agashe is a well-known theatre veteran, and he immerses himself in the role of Abhay Singh. Impotent himself, he lets his wife shoulder the blame for his inability to give her a child. When he has the temple priest murdered so he can take his place, he has no qualms about deserting his long-suffering wife to take up a position which will give him unimaginable clout in the village. When his wife returns, with physical evidence of her fertility, the double humiliation is more than he can bear. 
Worse, his wife's public accusation breaks him - Dr Agashe almost withers before your eyes. Beaten, humiliated over and over by his wife, and those who stand by her, he realises they must be punished. By death. The hierarchy cannot be threatened at any cost. 
Tirpat Singh is the ultimate villain; unlike the usual masala villains twirling their moustaches and vowing vengeance on all and sundry, Tirpat is more of a behind-the-scenes player. He's the symbol of all that's wrong in the village, standing for all the class conflict and political machinations that sees the death of two men and the ruin of others. Veteran actor Mohan Joshi is a good actor who shaded that role of pure evil with nuance, and his outburst at the end is all the more powerful for the quietness with which he portrayed Tirpat earlier. 

Where Jha succeeded was in interweaving the film's many disparate strands into one cohesive whole. And in not making Dixit the focus of the film, even though her star power gave him the clout to make the film bigger, and more commercial. His art film sensibilities are definitely on view in the setting and cinematography. 

The music, too, composed by Anand-Milind (composer Chitragupt's sons), was quietly melodious and was used judiciously by the director, instead of being shoehorned into the narrative. Despite the fact that the songs (with the exception of one) were picturised on Madhuri Dixit (considering she was the 'star', that was an obvious choice), Jha still filmed the songs beautifully, keeping in mind the characters on whom they were picturised, their situation in life, and the place to which they belonged. While Kehdo ik baar sajna became the most popular melody, given the amount of air time it received, I also like Sadhana Sargam's rendition of Kabse main hoon khadi beech dhaare, as well as the Kumar Sanu-Sadhana Sargam duet, Tum bin mann ki baat adhuri. Raat mehke toh yun bhi hota hai chand is also a pleasant melody, but it reminded me of an old Jagjit Singh song.

Is  Mrityu Dand  flawless? A 'great' film? No. But it is definitely a good film, and one which does a huge service to the cause of feminism without beating the feminist drum. This is one of those films that are both disturbing and entertaining, and was well worth this second watch.

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