Bold, provocative and confrontational, Ketan Mehta’s visceral feminist film Mirch Masala was all these and a bit more. Subtlety wasn’t among its facets, and yet, ironically, its bluntness – a tight-fisted punch against patriarchy, and the accompanying sexual oppression and abuse against women (legitimized through traditional power structures) – is what made it all the more powerful. The tale, based on a short story, is set in an arid hamlet in colonial-era India. The village is marked by its disdain for anything that challenges status quo – the then swaraj (self-determination) movement against the British, education for girls, the right to dignity and agency for women and lower castes, etc. – and the same is perpetuated by the village headman (Suresh Oberoi) and slimy priest (Harish Patel). The vicious and arrogant subedar (Naseeruddin Shah) represents the worst of the lot, assuming it his birth-right to plunder the village for fun, brutally thrash his servants, ogle at women and have his libido satisfied at will. Things take a dramatic turn when his lascivious gaze falls on Sonbai (Smita Patil), a sultry and defiant married woman lusted by the village. And all hell breaks lose when she displays the gall and temerity to wound his fragile male-ego, leading to a thrillingly shot pursuit, and the iconic climax that the film is led to upon her taking refuge in a factory, guarded by an old watchman (Om Puri), where womenfolk grind red chillies into powder. Both Patil and Shah gave electrifying performances, while Deepti Naval, too, was memorable as the headman’s feisty wife who, like Sonbai, refuses to go silently into the night. The film’s dominant colour palette was red, symbolizing passion, sexuality, fury and rebellion.
Director: Ketan Mehta
Genre: Thriller/Psychological Thriller/Ensemble Film