Mirch Masala, the third feature of director Ketan Mehta, opens with the choral refrain of doubt, the lyrics booming over a rustic, desolate and geometrical landscape of scorched brown, orangey earth; a Kiarostami image that possibly preludes the work of the Iranian master:
‘O Earth, man became your heart
Hence the world became bright
A spicy flavour added colour to the darkness’
The tone of isolation segues into the opening titles unfolding against the glowing crimson red of a mirchi (red chilli), a benign symbol of colonialism brought to India by the Portuguese. The red chilli is also inherently indigenous and rural, accentuating Mehta’s repeated explorations of Indian folk culture and their associated rituals and customs, which Mehta first broached with his erudite 1980 debut film Bhavni Bhavai (A Folk Tale).
Mirch Masala is an impressive ensemble piece with a cast of familiar Parallel Cinema faces including Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil, Deepti Naval and Om Puri. Ensemble cinema in India was perhaps first prompted by director Shyam Benegal as a trend in Parallel Cinema, later a defining characteristic of Parallel Cinema and the open collaboration between the director and a pool of actors. It is important to note many of these actors were not specific to Parallel Cinema and worked across theatre, art cinema and popular Hindi cinema. And they had to be in order to making a living. Mehta’s use of colour in Mirch Masala is often overlooked, and it has a palpable register. In some respects, the experimentation with colour was a notable trait of Parallel Cinema filmmakers. One only has to study the work of Kumar Shahani to be able to see how colour can be deployed both expressionistically and psychologically to delineate themes and characters. And it is the colour red in Mirch Masala, a unifying aesthetic principle, which is admittedly ritualised to take on more than just a symbolic function.
The first introduction to Sonbai (Smita Patil) and Subedar (Naseeruddin Shah) occurs nearby a river. The fiery and beautiful Sonbai catches the eye of Subedar who approaches her for a drink of water. When Sonbai instructs Subedar to bend down and cup his hands for the water he does in a show of obedience that is suffused with eroticism as Subedar drinks sexually while looking up at Sonbai. While Mehta satirises this erotic encounter with archetypal images, the rustic belle meets the despotic colonialist tax collector, a fortuitous power relation establishes Sonbai as an unbridled force of feminist defiance. We know now that Sonbai will never give in to Subedar’s sexual advances, posing a threat to Subedar’s masculinity.
Mirch Masala has often been interpreted as a colonial allegory and to some extent this may be true depending on how far you want to read into this perspective. Although the colonial interpretation can be restrictive, Mirch Masala works alternatively, perhaps more progressively as a tale about gender relations, specifically a feminist satire in which moments are deliberately heightened to the point of absurdity; notably the humiliation of the villagers by Subedar, played with an outright parody by Shah that sees him endlessly twirling his colonialist moustache. The totemic Subedar instructs his men to seize the land of those villagers who default on tax payments – even after Mukhiya (Suresh Oberoi), the indentured village chief has told Subedar about a poor harvest. And whatever Subedar desires he gets; he has women from the village brought to his tent so he can have sex with them but when Sonbai resists all hell breaks loose. Her protestations upset the equilibrium of power relations, an uncontested feudal sphere. As a source of patriarchal oppression, the characterisation of Subedar is grossly archetypal; difficult to take seriously, but as the film progresses Subedar’s despotism remains one facet of a much wider system of subjugation in which the village men are revealed to be an ineffectual melange of wretched patriarchy.
This is a film that also details the oppression of women and the collective stance of female defiance at the end is a culmination of the cruelty catalogued along the way including the village chief Mukhiya who spends his nights with a mistress, ignoring his wife, Saraswati (Deepti Naval) and children, the beating a father gives to his daughter (Supriya Pathak) for desiring a young man, Mukhiya’s removal of his little daughter from school (enrolled as a progressive feminist choice by Sarswati) and Subedar’s sexual harassment of Sonbai.
Two notable male exceptions exist though. Masterji (Benjamin Gilani), a disciple of Gandhi who is mocked for his Swadeshi beliefs, tries to rally the village, arguing they should partially resist the demands of Subedar but it is a failure predicated on Mukhiya’s resentment about Masterji’s intellectualism. In contrast to the non-violence of Masterji is the physical interventionism of Abu Miyan (Om Puri) the noble watchman heroically guarding the spice factory and women sheltering inside. In a lonely act of defiance Abu Miyan extols:
‘Not one of you is man enough to help this woman. ‘I’d rather die than take part in a criminal act. Go and tell Subedar there is still one man left in this village. He isn’t young; he’s an old man. But as long as he lives, tyranny will not win’
Although Abu Miya’s martyrdom leads to an open revolt amongst the women in the courtyard of the spice factory, attacking Subedar with swathes of red chilli powder, there is an ideological suggestion that non-violence has its limitations when dealing with a system of patriarchy and colonialism that is so entrenched. And while the women at the end don’t directly resort to the physical violence of Abu Miya, the use of chilli powder to blind, impair and subdue Subedar is doubly ironic. Since red chillies were a colonial idea, ideological inversion explicates anti-colonial sentiments that fall in line with the Swadeshi beliefs of the Masterji.
When Sonbai flees and takes shelter in the spice factory amongst the other female workers, she indirectly creates a collective, which is depicted tentatively since the solidarity amongst the women is undermined by internal bickering. Outside of the gates of the factory, Saraswati, plots against her husband, bringing together the women in the village to help Sonbai. And when Mukhiya with the men from the village marches to the spice factory with a final ultimatum from Subedar, they are stopped prematurely by a protest organised by Saraswati including other women. The protest is non-violent, the banging of pots and pans, instruments of domestic servitude, are inadvertently transformed into a chorus of female resistance, the din from the protest articulating an unheard rage of tyranny captured vividly in the figuration of Deepti Naval’s rebellious gaze.
At the end when Subedar orders his men to break down the door and enter the factory by force, Abu Miyan is shown reading Namaz, and abruptly Mehta frames the struggle as essentialist, masking over a complicated ideological bind that may seem officious when simplifying the struggle as a battle between the forces of good (religious sentiments) and evil (colonial brutes). Nonetheless, Mehta does not allow this romantic ellipsis to distract from the final shot, an epic freeze frame of a defiant Sonbai, looking at us with an indescribable fury as a swathe of red chilli powder wafts through the air like some supernatural entity. This has now become an iconic moment in Indian Cinema, potently encapsulating a history of gender oppression.
Mirch Masala will be screening on Zee Classic: Sat 23 July at 10pm