What Shyam Benegal’s Hari-Bhari Gets Right About Women’s Right To Their Bodies

Bollywood

What Shyam Benegal’s Hari-Bhari Gets Right About Women’s Right To Their Bodies

Illustration: Arati Gujar

The opening credits of Shyam Benegal’s Hari-Bhari (2000) flash with a ditty – “Main kitti baar bola na ji ujla kapda pehno nakko– playing in the background in Shabana Azmi’s voice. It is the same song the actress hummed as Rukmini Bai, the canny brothel madam in Benegal’s Mandi several years ago. The lines further go “Tu sada sabas pari rahe, godi hari bhari rahe,” indicating the inspiration behind the title of this social drama that discusses family planning and women’s right to their own bodies. Produced by NFDC and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Hari-Bhari revolves around the impact of fertility on Indian women narrated through the stories of its five heroines – Hasina, Ghazala, Najma, Afsana and Salma –  who make up three generations of lower middle-class Muslim women living in a joint family in rural Uttar Pradesh.

In the film, Ghazala (Azmi) is thrown out of the house by her abusive husband who also chides her for being unable to give him a male heir. Along with her teenage daughter Salma (Rajeshwari Sachdev), she seeks shelter at her mother’s place. The old, ailing mother Hasina (Surekha Sikri) lives with her sons, daughters-in-law and grandkids. Her pregnant older daughter-in-law Najma (Alka Trivedi) is struggling with the daily grind and deteriorating health; successive pregnancies have left her frail and irritable. Afsana (Nandita Das), the bickering younger daughter-in-law believes in the solemn duty to bear children. Contrasting her is Salma, the youngest daughter in the house, who aspires to get educated and become self-sufficient.

Hari Bhari

The director manages to weave multiple women’s issues like education, financial identity, and religious dogma skillfully into a narrative that underlines the quotidian struggles of an average village household.

National Film Development Corporation of India

Benegal’s cinema, part of the Indian New Wave, is known for putting the nation’s socio-economic and political equations under the scanner. While Nishant (1975) rankled at the ruthlessness of the feudal system, Kalyug (1981) lamented the eroding morals of the corporate world, and the director’s last outing Well Done Abba! (2009) was an ironic take on populist government schemes. Regardless of their themes, the filmmaker has always been preoccupied with the complexities of human emotions. Hari-Bhari allows him to fully exploit these themes. In it, Benegal examines the influence of societal conditioning and ingrained patriarchy on women’s psyche and how it affects their traditional roles and relationships with other women. There’s judgment and resentment as there is support and empathy. Benegal highlights this inherent dichotomy in with a peculiar conflict: When asked if a woman has rights over her body, the answers from each woman in the family differ in their scope.

In the film, a young, educated Afsana enjoys material luxuries of the modern world like a colour TV and costly cosmetic creams but frowns upon modern contraceptives. She calls them ungodly and declares her husband a sinner after finding out about his vasectomy. Najma, on the other hand, struggling with postpartum depression, equates herself to the family’s buffalo – her existence is reduced to feeding the brood and bearing babies. When another one of her newborns dies, the grief-stricken woman decides to get her tubes tied. Ghazala, a victim of domestic violence and marital rape, is almost relieved to have broken free from her brutish husband’s clutches. “Kisi doosre ki marzi ka ghulam banne se toh achcha hai ki insaan akele hi rahe,” she asserts. A dignified Hasina speaks of an era when a girl’s choice didn’t matter. As a teenager, she was forced to give up her love and marry her older widowed brother-in-law. Turns out things hadn’t changed much for women when her grand daughter Salma is asked to quit school to get married as well.

In a sense, Hari-Bhari is disguised as a vehicle to push the government’s message of the importance of family planning.

Hari-Bhari also draws attention to the perilous ignorance about women’s reproductive health. There’s a scene where Ghazala is surprised to learn from her gyneacologist that it’s the father’s genes that determine the sex of a baby and another where an anemic Salma is convinced that she is pregnant because of an irregular period. But what hits the hardest is the severely-ill Hasina discovering that the reason for her cervical cancer are her teenage pregnancies. The old lady’s fate is a rude awakening for the family – Ghazala in particular – who upon realising the horrors of underage marriage ensures that Salma doesn’t suffer the same fate. 

In a sense, Hari-Bhari is disguised as a vehicle to push the government’s message of the importance of family planning. Yet it is to Benegal’s credit that his vision is never limited by that diktat. In fact, the director manages to weave multiple women’s issues like education, financial identity, and religious dogma skillfully into a narrative that underlines the quotidian struggles of an average village household. The modest settings combined with local lingo and colours lend to the film’s authenticity.

Yet the movie’s biggest triumph lies in what it manages to get right about women’s autonomy. A slate of recent films centred around women’s issues like Padman (2018) and Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017) have ended up looking like glorified public service cinema with a male saviour complex. In comparison, Benegal and screenwriter Shama Zaidi craft a compelling story about the self-sabotage that is being a woman, one that is seen through and experienced by its female players. For that alone, Hari-Bhari deserves your attention.

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