Much Before Empowerment Became Mainstream, Mirch Masala Was a Film for India’s Women


Much Before Empowerment Became Mainstream, Mirch Masala Was a Film for India’s Women

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

An unapologetic, gutsy woman, a drunk-on-power man, a rustic Gujarati village of colonial India seeped in patriarchy and sexism, and mounds of red chillies and chilli powder as far as the eye can see. This is Mirch Masala (1987), a cinematic masterpiece and one of Bollywood’s most powerful and poignant women-centric films.

The divide between commercial and arthouse was never as stark in Bollywood as it was in the 1980s. While mainstream Bollywood was churning out typical “masala” films with song-and-dance sequences, hero saving the heroine, villain throwing money at all problems and getting people killed, etc, its arthouse counterpart dedicated itself to working on subjects that were thought-provoking, and this resulted in a host of films that were subtle but strong commentaries on society and its treatment of women, both in urban and rural settings. In this trend, Mirch Masala sets itself apart by prompting a discussion on one very important topic – consent. And this is exactly what makes the film relevant even today, and perhaps forever.

Directed by Ketan Mehta and widely categorised as a “thriller”, Mirch Masala is based on Gujarati writer Chunilal Madia’s short story “Abhu Makrani”. Set in a remote Kutch village, during the early 1940s, the film tells the story of Sonbai (Smita Patil), a feisty village belle who becomes an object of lust for the new tax collector, known simply as subedar saheb/sarkaar (Naseerudin Shah). Like every woman in the village, Sonbai works at the local chilli factory. A tyrannical and egomaniac subedar is used to getting what he wants but when Sonbai staunchly refuses and even slaps him in the process, what was simply a wish to bed her becomes an ego war that culminates in a ruined karkhaana and murder of its idealistic gatekeeper Abu Mian (Om Puri). After the men fail them, women take matters into their own hands and evil is brought down to its knees, literally and figuratively.

In Mirch Masala, there’s a revolution taking place on two levels. One is a larger fight for swaraj. The local schoolmaster (Benjamin Gilanj), mockingly introduced to subedar by villagers as khadiwadi (Gandhian), represents a colonial India trying to free itself from the British Raj. On a smaller level, the women of the village are revolting against the abject patriarchy in their own way. Saraswati (Deepti Naval), wife of the village head, mukhi (Suresh Oberoi), takes her daughter to school without worrying about consequences and is prominent in organising a protest march when men of the village decide to “handover” Sonbai to subedar. Radha (Supriya Pathak) dares to love above her class and caste. She refuses to give up despite being humiliated and brutally beaten up. Lakhi (Ratna Pathak Shah) has no qualms about sleeping with subedar for gifts and money. All in all, in the face of rampant sexism and male dominance, the women are making their own rules and trying to keep their identity in whatever way possible. It is certainly not easy. In the process, they’re either being insulted and brutalised by the men or ostracised by everyone. However, it is the spirit to revolt against wrong which ultimately brings all the women together in an epiphanic moment and they fight together to protect one of their own.

Mirch Masala sets itself apart by prompting a discussion on one very important topic – consent.

In this revolution, however, Sonbai emerges as perhaps the most influential and prominent force because she asserts something no other woman has been able to so far – complete sexual autonomy and agency over her own body. For Sonbai, it is never a question of morality, but consent. When taunted by mukhi that if her husband were around, they would’ve convinced him too, she retorts that she would’ve said no even if her husband had wanted her to be with the subedar, thereby making it clear that there’s nothing but her own will stopping her.

That Sonbai is a force to be feared is actually made clear in the opening scene itself. As subedar and his men ride into the village, all women but Sonbai flee. She stands her ground and implies that they’re all unruly wild animals who don’t deserve to drink the same water as humans. She refuses water from her vessel unless subedar has knelt on the ground, an exchange he thoroughly enjoys. Ironically, the very grit that intrigued subedar causes his downfall. He crudely calls Sonbai “hot spice” at one point, not realising how right he is. No one can tame Sonbai or make her bend to their will. Sickle in hand, she staunchly declares that she would sooner kill or die than do something she doesn’t want to do.

The climax of Mirch Masala is often called one of the most visually powerful scenes in Indian cinema. After bringing down wooden doors of the chilli factory, subedar walks in and toward Sonbai, confident of his victory, only to be attacked by sackfuls of red chilli powder, thrown directly at him by women of the village, who seem to have realised that they will never be helped by their men. In a film that has so-far been understated in its narrative and expressions, the loud and aggressive final scene emerges as hard-hitting commentary. It’s like the women have finally found their voices and nothing will stop them now. With so much red flying around in the air, it also looks like a celebration. As subedar tumbles to the ground, screaming in pain, the film seems to come a full circle. Once again, he is on his knees in front of Sonbai and she continues to stare at him, completely unfazed and unflinching.

Smita Patil died before the release of Mirch Masala so she could never see how amazingly she brought the character of Sonbai to life. This is, however, often considered her most alluring performance and continues to live on. Forbes included Patil’s portrayal of Sonbai in its April 2013 list of “25 Greatest Acting Performances of Indian Cinema”. For over three decades, Sonbai has been a shining example of feminine courage, something that is not set to change any time soon.