MIRCH MASALA (1987)

Naseeruddin Shah as the Subedar and Suresh Oberoi as the Mukhiya
  • Release Date: 13/02/1987
  • Cast: Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah, Suresh Oberoi, Raj Babbar, Deepti Naval, Ratna Pathak, Supriya Pathak, Om Puri, Paresh Rawal, Mohan Gokhale
  • Director: Ketan Mehta

Ketan Mehta serves us a harmonious mix of the best facets of art and popular Hindi cinema with a healthy dose of drama, entertainment and beautiful visuals

Subedar (Naseeruddin Shah) is entrusted with enforcing the British rule in a remote village of Rajasthan. While he is as ruthless in levying taxes and extracting them as the British, his knowledge of the people and the area (He appears to be a local) puts him in an efficient position to know exactly how far he can torment the people before they revolt. He is someone who has been feasting on the women of the village and doesn’t care whether they are married or not when he decides to bed, someone. He meets Sonbai (Smita Patil), a willful and strong woman during a ride, and is immediately smitten by her. He wants her with lascivious intent but Sonbai, who is a devoted wife, is in no mood to budge.

During one of his improper advances, the Subedar is slapped in front of his cronies by Sonbai. Unable to fathom the insult, the Subedar sends his men after Sonbai to bring her to his bed. As luck would have it, she gets refuge in the nearby Chilli factory where an aging and devout Muslim security guard, Abu Miya (Om Puri) stands valiantly between the Subedar’s men and Sonbai protecting her from being wrecked. The rest of the film is about the women’s valiant stand against tyranny and fight for saving their honor from being trampled.

While the basic plot of the film is straightforward, there are a lot of subplots that draw our attention to the various aspects of Ketan Mehta’s version of Indian village life. The Mukhiya of the village played by Suresh Oberoi is shown to be in cahoots with the Subedar. When Sonbai finds protection in the Chilli Factory and the Subedar’s men are unable to break inside the factory because of Abu Miya’s resistance, the Mukhiya is the person that the Subedar turns to to bend Sonbai to his will by forcing the villagers to give her up. The Mukhiya is depicted as someone who is as morally bankrupt as he is oppressive. He is married but still spends nights with other women. When his wife, Deepti Naval, questions him about his escapades, he willfully informs her that in order to maintain his gusto among the villagers, it is imperative for him to maintain at least one more woman other than his wife.

Naseeruddin Shah as the Subedar with Ratna Pathak

When Naval tries to put her daughter in school, the Mukhiya vehemently opposes the decision and physically restrains his daughter and wife. His brother, Mohan Gokhale is having an affair with another village girl and he has promised to marry her. When her father confronts the Mukhiya about the possible marriage, he refuses it for the simple reason that it might not turn out to be as lucrative as he would like his brother’s marriage to be. He gives no heed to what his brother might want and what impact his decision will have on the girl’s future in a cut-throat society like the one that is depicted here. The Mukhiya is in a constant loggerhead with anyone who questions his authority or asks the right questions like the village school teacher (Benjamin Gilani). However, even the slightest of insult aimed at him or anyone he cares about is unacceptable to him. He is not even afraid of the Subedar and stands up to him when the question is of his own honor and dignity. However, he is a different person when the question is of Sonbai’s chastity.

Sonbai is held up in the factory with a gamut of characters who try to influence her future course of action in one way or another. The old lady played by Dina Pathak relates horrifying tales of British brutality when they were not given what they desired. Her tales send shivers down the spines of the characters as well as the viewers. There is the character of Ratna Pathak who has already slept with the Subedar and sees no problem in Sonbai doing the same and saving the village from ending up in the crosshair of the Subedar. She also mocks her by saying that the Subedar is smitten by her and that she might not find an equal to him in obsession for her. Radha (Supriya Pathak) happens to be the ill-fated girl who is in love with the Mukhiya’s brother and denied marriage by the Mukhiya. She starts off as someone who is afraid and unsure but as the film progresses, through all that she witnesses, she turns into someone who is not afraid to stand up for what is right.

Sonbai’s husband, Raj Babbar had got a job in the city and had left recently. For many women in the village, it was something that made Sonbai even more vulnerable as she was without her man and defenseless. It was also a reason for her to surrender herself to the advances of any man and find some solace in whatever alms they gave her in return for her body. Some of the women sighted the fact that she was too beautiful and exuded too much charm and that must have invited the lascivious moves of the Subedar. The Mukhiya’s wife, Deepti Naval, is shown as the next strongest woman after Sonbai. She constantly goes against the will of her husband to do what is right and in the end, it is she who upon knowing about the plight of Sonbai successfully unites all the women of the village to stand up against the men and stop them from handing over Sonbai as a piece of meat to the Subedar.

Om Puri as Abu Miya

Almost all the important villagers are shown colluding with the Subedar and Mukhiya to hand over Sonbai to the Subedar. Some do it because they are afraid of the Subedar’s wrath while the others do it just because they don’t care for Sonbai and are more interested to flatter the Subedar. The only two who are shown against the move are the school teacher and a nomadic settler. While the school teacher is thrashed for his insolence, first by the Mukhiya and then by the Subedar, the nomad is forced to leave the village after he cites the action of the men (of handing Sonbai to the Subedar) cowardly. Only Abu Miya is able to protest and make his protest strong enough to be in service of Sonbai and the other women trapped in the factory.

Naseeruddin Shah is a picture of evil and is despicable as the Subedar. His mannerisms and rendition of the character are so to the point that there are instances when his looks tell us what is going through his mind and dialogues become unnecessary. Om Puri is given a horrendous wig but he still does a commendable job as the pious Abu Miya. Bollywood cannot escape its insatiable desire to show the Muslim as God’s gift to mankind while every upper-caste Hindu is shown as an impersonation devil. Every female character is noteworthy but none as much as Deepti Naval and Smita Patil. They are in many ways the guiding force of the film and show us what resourceful and willing women can do if they set their mind and soul to it. Ratna Pathak as the other end of the spectrum does her part well of depicting what a subjugated and surrender woman looks like and how she conceals her frustration and sense of loss under a veil of doing what is asked of her and what is the diktat of the society.

I loved how Mirch Masala was shot. A shot at the beginning that shows a close-up of Naseeruddin Shah and his soldiers ridding in with the camera zooming out gradually to give us a view of the enormous Red chilli plantation and how minuscule the Subedar and his soldiers are in its comparison sets the mood and the basic theme of the film. The chilli plantation is synonymous with the women of the village as it seems to be the only thing that they are allowed to do. The chilli is used as a motif that binds the entire film together. The camera beautifully documents the various emotions of the characters and it does so by using all the tricks in the book. The close-ups are especially well used. The background score accentuates the mood and feel of the story wherever it is necessary. The editing, however, could have been better. I felt that some of the transitions between sequences and even the same portions of the same scene felt disjointed, abrupt, and inorganic. Ketan Mehta should have known better.

Mirch Masala is highly entertaining. I cannot say that it holds up an accurate image of Indian society but we can accept what is on display here as either a propaganda piece or something purely intended for greater shock value so as to provide entertainment. Also, it must be noted that the film is a mishmash between Indian art and popular cinema. Elements of both the facets of Indian cinema can be found here and they are served in a harmonious mix that is not only well balanced but also proficiently executed. The splendid performances, the intriguing screenplay, and the satisfying climax make Mirch Masala one of the most entertaining and accessible offbeat Hindi films of the 1980s.

Rating: 4/5 (4 out of 5 Stars)

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