Bawandar (Jagmohan Mundhra, 2000)
Bawandar is based on the true story of Rajasthani woman Bhanwari Devi, who was gang-raped by five village elders because she took a government job as a “saathin” - a village advocate for women's rights, partly responsible for educating against and reporting the illegal, but long-held tradition of child marriage. Told largely in flashback form, the story kicks off when a foreign journalist (Laila Rouass) accompanied by a local guide, Ravi (Rahul Khanna), come to a tiny Rajasthani village seeking Sanwari Devi (Nandita Das), a woman all the locals decry as being a prostitute and a whore. They find her living in isolation, and she tells them how she came to be so reviled by her village.
Depressing? YES. This isn't a happy film. Be warned. If you only like Indian films for glitter and songs and colour and happy endings, then steer clear of Bawandar.
At the time of its release, Bawandar did the film festival circuit, and picked up a tonne of awards – Best Actress for Nandita Das, a couple of Best Film accolades, an Audience Choice Award. It caused a storm of controversy in India (and I am still not clear on whether it ever ACTUALLY released there: some sources say it was banned outright; some say it would be released pending VERY significant cuts) with stories emerging that the woman Bawandar was based on hadn't been consulted at all and that she was unhappy with the film, “weary and bitter” with both the government and the aid organisations she had been working with. I don't really know how much of that is true – what IS interesting is that Bawandar itself offers a seemingly biting perspective at some of the aid organisations/workers and their attitudes towards helping the less fortunate. Lillette Dubey plays a middle class New Delhi-ite social worker who, along with her colleagues, is more concerned with the shopping and image opportunities afforded by helping a high profile case like Sanwari Devi. Deepti Naval's character, on the other hand, as the woman who recruited Sanwari Devi into the saathin programme and who thus feels responsible for her resulting hardships, provides balance as a character who is truly selfless and willing to undergo personal hardship for the sake of what is right.
Regardless of the background, this is an important film. It's not a perfect film – the narrative dips into cartoony melodrama once too often, especially in terms of the police, who are ALL depicted as caricaturish villains (thankfully, not all the men in the film are cardboard cutout cartoon evil characters – Gulshan Grover as a committed, competent, thoughtful lawyer is AMAZINGLY refreshing; Raghuvir Yadhav as Sanwari's enlightened, supportive husband who is powerless to help his wife is HEARTBREAKING); it gets a little too obviously preachy in spots where the filmmakers seem to want to address/draw attention to as many possible social issues as they can just by having characters complain about them (the opposite of show, don't tell) – but it deals with rape, a notoriously thorny issue in Indian films, in a way that puts the woman's entire experience, physical AND emotional, at the centre of the film. This is not a lurid rape-revenge tale, or rape in a film as yet another opportunity for the male hero to show his manliness and save the woman. This film explores sexual assault for what it is: an attempt to subjugate and humiliate the victim, and Bawandar is notable in that it shows the entire process and the effects on the victim (and the victim's friends and family) following from the initial assault: from telling a friend it happened, trying to report it to the police, the medical examination, gathering evidence, being cross examined in court, and facing the perpetrators in public.
This is obviously in stark contrast to the scores of Indian movies where rape is pretty flippantly treated as a 30 second plot device to show who are the bad guys (the rapists) and who are the heroes (the ones who rescue the rape victims), and the heroine/victim recovers and is apparently unaffected by her ordeal. Have you seen Enthiran? Aishwarya Rai's character is assaulted at least 3 times in the course of that film, just so she can be saved by Rajnikanth, and emerges each time apparently entirely unscathed.
Obviously, given the subject matter, which also addresses caste discrimination (Bhanwari, renamed Sanwari in the film for legal reasons, is of a lower caste to her attackers, who are the village leaders and who decree her entire family outcasts as soon as she starts stirring up controversy as a saathin) Bawandar is not exactly what you would describe as a pleasant or enjoyable watch. The last film that made me as uncomfortable was Shakti: The Power – though that was in a slightly different way, the violence and ill-treatment of women seeming perhaps more lurid. Bawandar never seemed exploitative – it's merely direct and if anything, foregrounds how much inner strength and dignity the central character has even in the face of unrelenting injustice, but I caution all of you reading: there are few scenes in cinema more poignantly upsetting than the aftermath of the traumatic rape scene in this film, when Sanwari's badly beaten husband, who had been forced to helplessly witness his wife's gang rape, rushes to be with her.
Nandita Das and Raghuvir Yadhav are truly the soul of this film, each giving heartwrenching, luminescent, utterly authentic performances.