Smita Patil died before she could see herself in Mirch Masala. Would she have placed it among her best works? She missed out on one of her most alluring performances in a film that refuses to age.
What is it about Mirch Masala that is so tantalizing and engaging? Is it the congregation of these beautiful women in a Gujarati village, all strong and yet lorded over by the rules of a patriarchal society?
25 years after it was made Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala remains an enigmatic mesmeric parable on women’s rights. On the topmost level of perception it’s an excellent thriller about a bunch of very attractive women who try to hide from a dangerous predator. Like those teen-slasher cheesy sex films where under-dressed girls scamper across dark corridors as a gruesome monster runs after them, Mirch Masala on its uppermost level is a parable on predatoriness.
Mirch Masala is in reality a metaphor on individual space. Through the unforgettable character of Sonbai(Smita Patil) director Ketan Mehta delineates a quirky, compelling satirical drama on sex and the not-so-single girl whose right to say no to a powerful predator eventuates in a battle of the sexes which culminates in a kind of defiant feminist protest that today’s post-Nora Ephron generation of assertive women would find hard to applaud as anything but a token gesture of defiance.
When Sonbai flees the lecherous tyrannical tax-collector, played with moustache-twirling glee by Naseeruddin Shah, she seeks asylum in a chilli factory where she’s cocooned from the extraneous threat that looms large in her life mainly because her husband(Raj Babbar in a guest appearance) has left her in the village for a job in the city.
The fact that Sonbai is infinitely attractive doesn’t help her escape the libidinous Subedaar’s insistent attentions.
More than a gripping gender skirmish set against a flaming-red backdrop of ripe chillies Mirch Masala is a profoundly seductive tale populated by some of the most attractive women you’ve seen under one cinematic roof. Ketan , known to have an eye for physical beauty, chose actresses who could blend into the rural Gujarati milieu without losing any of their innate charm.
Sisters Ratna and Supriya Pathak are part of the chilli factory’s fabulous feminine brigade. Towering above them all is Smita Patil, the runaway enchantress who seeks refuge in a haven of communal muliebrity.
Brilliant in her own space, Deepti Naval stays outside the chilli factory. She is an interesting study of subjugation and ineffectual rebellion, symbolical of all that has plagued our patriarchal system from time-immemorial. Though the film ‘belongs’ to Smita’s sensuously sublime Sonbai, Deepti leaves a lasting impression. The sequence where she pounds her hands in helpless anguish against the window in the room where she is imprisoned by her husband is spine-tingling.
Are rural women, even if they are wage-earners like Ketan Mehtra’s characters,entitled to a life of their choice? Deepti’s husband played with remarkable restrain by Suresh Oberoi , is the village mukhiya. He doles out justice to the entire village. But has none to offer to his own wife. Her impotent rage contrasts with telling resonance against Smita Patil’s defiant protest against a state-sponsored brute’s egoistic determination to “have” her at any cost.
When the village mukhiya coaxes her to give in, Sonbai says she’d rather die than succumb. The mukhiya reminds Sonbai that even if her husband was present he’d have told her to satiate the Subedaar.
“And I would have said no to my husband’s request as well,” Sonbai spits back.
Watching Smita spew fire on to the brilliant frames(cinematographer Jehangir Chowdhary made every shot look stunningly spicy) you wonder what came first…the headstrong militant village woman’s role, or an actress of Smita Patil’s range to play the part.
Sonbai would rather die than succumb to the lecherous threat. Supporting her in her fight against male aggression is the old frail watchman of the chilli factory, played with beguiling benignity by Om Puri.
It’s a wonderful experience to see Naseer and Om represent two very contrasting forms of obstinance. One is out to plunder a woman’s right to her private space. The other is determined to protect it. The finale where the watchman is gunned down is not a moment of defeat for the protector. We know what Ketan Mehta says goes beyond the immediate death of the noble character. Sometimes just putting up a fight against injustice is enough to shake the foundation of a suffocating male order. Sometimes women can guard their dignity even when the weapons at their disposal are just tokens of protest. Sometimes saying ‘no’ to wrongdoing is enough.
Mehta’s film is an actually wondrous womb with a view. It is no coincidence that one of the women in the chilli factory goes into labour while Sonbai is being combed out of her fortress. Mirch Masala is a frenetic journey in search of a woman’s right to her space. It could be perceived as a parable of female bonding or a straightforward thriller about the victim and the perpetrator. Either way, the film’s poise and power remain undiminished over the years.
The Subedaar’s power-hungry mechanization is manoeuvred by a tremendous satire. The cheesy Subedaar has lately bought himself a miracle machine known as the Gramophone(the film is set in pre-Independence India). He plays his 78 rpm records on his new toy to terrorize villagers and seduce their women. He is the rogue element sanctioned by the State to perpetrate a power that he is ill-equipped to use.
He, therefore, ends up looking ludicrous in his self-importance.
Mirch Masala makes excessive power look ridiculous and funny. When the Subedaar decides to break down the chilli factory’s gate he thinks he’s breaking Sonbai’s defences. Absolute power doesn’t just corrupt absolutely. It also blinds. No wonder the women throw chilli powder into the sickening Subedaar’s lustful eyes at the end.
He can’t see his own brutish arrogance anyway.
Mirch Masala Trivia
- Smita Patil’s last film, she died before its release.
- Mohan Gokhale who plays the Mukhiya Suresh Oberoi’s kid brother also died very young, at the age of 40.
- Suresh Oberoi won the National award for the Mukhiya’s role.
- One can see Paresh Rawal who later played Sardar Patel in Ketan Mehta’s bio-pic as one of the villagers.
- Dina Pathak and both her daughter Ratna and Surpiya Pathak were in the film. The only time they all appeared together in one film.
- Om Puri was only 30 when he played the 80-year old watchman of the chilli factory
Ketan Mehta On Mirch Masala:
“Smita was a very dear friend. Mirch Masala was one of her best performances. It was her last film. She just dubbed the film and went away. She got all the nuances right.I knew her from my Film Institute days. When I was assisting a senior director Arun Khopkar in his diploma film Smita had come to act in it. She also acted in my first feature film Bhavni Bhavai.She was my only choice to play Sonbai. The moment she read the script she slipped into character.Mirch Masala is a film about the human condition. There’s a short story by a Gujarati writer Chunnilal Madia. It was a four-page story. But that was based in a tobacco factory in Saurashtra.And it ended with the watchman of the factory dying. I converted it into a chilli factory.The moment I saw these chilli fields in Gujarat the idea came to me. The film ended with Sonbai throwing chillies in the villain’s eyes. The protest had begun. Do I feel the position of the rural woman has improved since I made Mirch Masala? No, not atall. All the actors in the film were my friends. Naseer and Om were with me in the Film Institute.Both were brilliant.Mohan Gokhale was also a friend. He too had acted in Bhavni Bhavai. Today Mirch Masala is recalled with great fondness even 25 years later.It was shot in a village named Chotila near Rajkot . Funnily I had selected another location. I had just finished Holi. Suddenly the NFDC funding for Mirch Masala came through.So I rushed to location and got to know that if I didn’t finish all my shooting by March all the chillies would be gone. So I asked all my cast and crew in January and like a miracle they all agreed to accommodate me. Smita, Naseer, Raj Babbar, Suresh Oberoi were busy actors. In 2010 there was film festival devoted to women filmmakers in Chennai. They had invited Mirch Masala although I am not a woman. They obviously saw it as a film on women’s empowerment. So far away from Gujarat that evening in Chennai young Tamil women responded so well to Mirch Masala they brought tears to my eyes. Is Mirch Masala my favourite work?That and Bhavni Bhavai and Maya Memsaab.”