[By Shwetha George]
Kottayam (WFS) – In Basupura, a small hamlet somewhere in the countryside in south India, Madevappa and his wife, Devakka, live a quiet life with their school-going son, an infant daughter and an ageing mother. Where Madevappa works in a flour mill, his wife makes ‘rotis’ and sells them in nearby towns. Like everyone else in the village, it’s a hand-to-mouth existence for them but they are used to it and it certainly hasn’t stopped them from enjoying the small pleasures of life or dreaming big. However, the day their village is picked to host the state chief minister and his entourage for one night, everything changes for this impoverished family.
Devakka and Madevappa are the protagonists of ‘December 1’, a film that takes a look at how a chief minister’s overnight stay plunges a poor, unsuspecting family into a lifetime of misery.
As the world gears up to mark World Aids Day with just the right amount of compassion, Devakka becomes a star in her village. A local hotelier, who had once refused to serve her ‘rotis’ at his eatery is chasing her to start a new business; her son’s class teacher hands over a petition addressed to the chief minister, first of many such requests thrown at her, from free land to job transfers. The media camps in front of her thatched hut that gets transformed into a brick house with, wonder of wonders, a built-in toilet! Sofas, carpet, television make their way into Devakka’s humble abode under the watchful eye of the District Collector.
Everyone in the village – and in the audience – simply assumes that Devakka’s family has been randomly chosen for the rare honour. And yet, she seems like the perfect choice. Empowered and independent, she is single-handedly taking care of her disabled husband, visually impaired mother-in-law and two children.
On the appointed day, the Chief Minister arrives to much fanfare and celebration. Devakka receives him with warmth and respect to which he makes all the appropriate noises. Owing to security reasons the family spends the night on the verandah while the dignitaries make themselves comfortable on the newly acquired beds.
Next morning, everything’s different. The sentry standing at her door refuses to drink the tea she serves him. He has the day’s newspaper in his hands. He asks her, ‘You have AIDS?’ This is the defining moment of the film, which sensitively takes viewers on a journey from ignorance to better understanding an important issue – the stigma and discrimination borne by HIV positive people.
Indeed, films that enlighten as they entertain may be few and far between but, these days, filmmakers are trying to find a common ground between the art and mainstream genres. They are keen to tell stories that realistically reflect social issues, which are an integral part of the everyday reality of many in the audience.
Says Niveditha, the actor who has given life to Devakka on screen,
“The entire script caught my attention. True, it has social relevance but this is not your typical art fare. The film wins on both counts – commercial and critical.”
According to her, films do have the capacity to create an impact but classifying them as “art” can only limit their popularity.
“There are only good and bad films. Social issues portrayed brilliantly through cinema can leave a lasting impression. However, one can only hope that the measure of change, too, is high,”
Inspired from a real-life account, ‘December 1’ is directed by Kannada filmmaker P. Sheshadri, a master storyteller. Be it the subject of globalisation or adolescent marriages, his works especially have the power to jolt a largely apathetic urban class.
Of course, whereas ‘December 1’ at its core deals with a heart-wrenching subject, it is fast-paced with crisp and funny dialogues, which only adds to its wide popularity. Besides being a box office success, it has garnered much appreciation on the film festival circuit and has won the National Film Award as well. Today, apart from Sheshadri, who is known for making socially-relevant commercial hits, many of his colleagues are joining the bandwagon. He remarks,
“Whereas the art movie genre had hit rock bottom a few years ago this is a transition phase. I am hopeful of things looking up soon.”
These are changing times for Indian cinema, especially the widely-watched and idolised Hindi films. For instance, just last year, several mainstream releases not only dealt with pertinent women-centric subjects they also presented female characters in a whole new way.
Where ‘Queen’ was the coming of age story of a young woman, who decides to take a hold of her life after her impending marriage breaks off unexpectedly because she is not smart enough for the groom, in ‘Bobby Jasoos’, a 30-year-old unmarried rebel from a highly conservative Muslim family harbours dreams of becoming a successful sleuth!
Both these mainstream movies did not feature the quintessential Bollywood hero and yet created quite a buzz. Other big budget offerings, including ‘Highway’ and ‘Daawat-e-Ishq’ had protagonists vociferously sharing their views on serious issues like dowry, child abuse, even as they did the song, dance and romance rigmarole that audiences have come to expect.
Another bold exploration of the offbeat was director Abhishek Chaubey’s ‘Dedh Ishqiya’, an ode to legendary writer Ismat Chugtai’s ‘Lihaaf’ that focuses on same sex relationship between two women.
This year, ‘Margarita With A Straw’, which depicts the struggles of a 19-year-old with cerebral palsy, effortlessly brings women with disabilities in the cinematic spotlight.
In a recent media interview, popular actor Vidya Balan, who has essayed many strong female characters on the big screen, has hailed the changing trend,
“What is really working is that they [the films] are not pretentious… they are telling stories, of people who happen to be women, stories that could inspire…”
Niveditha, who modelled Devakka after the feisty Sonbai portrayed by Smita Patil in ‘Mirch Masala’ (1987) is sold on woman power.
“It is always the woman who stands up to a difficult situation,”
In ‘December 1’, slowly and painfully, life collapses around Devakka after the chief minister’s departure. Her son is given a separate seat in school and served the noon-meal in a plantain leaf. Her husband is told he is no longer needed at the flour mill. The sofas, carpet, tables are gone. The eatery owner tells Devakka never to step on his property. Throughout the ordeal the family doesn’t protest but the mother of two is seething with resentment at the systematic ostracisation. In the end, a determined Devakka is shown walking steadfastly to the Collector’s office and throwing her ‘rotis’ on his desk.
“Feed the CM this,”
“He wanted to show his humane spirit to the world, didn’t he?”
Traditionally, only masala fare enjoyed complete domination at the box-office. But that’s not the case anymore.
And, as film critic and trade analyst Komal Nahta has candidly expressed, time and again,
“Movies that have a social message and entertain are bound to work”.
Published in arrangement with © Women's Feature Service