Despite being overly melodramatic and feeling somewhat dated, a woman’s stand against the patriarchal order is brought to life in Ketan Mehta’s rousing tale.
Dir. Ketan Mehta
1987 | India | Drama | 118 mins | 1.37:1 | Hindi
Not rated – likely to be PG13 for some sexual references
Cast: Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri
Plot: When a senior tax collector sets his eyes on the fierce Sonbai, she takes refuge in a spice factory.
Awards: Won Best Feature Film, Best Feature Film in Hindi, Best Supporting Actor, Best Editing (National Film Awards)
Source: National Film Development Corporation
Subject Matter: Moderate – Patriarchy, Women, Oppression
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
Featuring one of Smita Patil’s best-known roles in Sonbai, Mirch Masala was also one of her many posthumous screen appearances after her untimely death in 1986 at age 31.
Directed by Ketan Mehta, a new voice of Indian cinema who emerged in the 1980s, Mirch Masala is arguably his most well-known film, not least because of Patil’s superb performance.
It seems to have aged though, with its overly melodramatic tone and the animated villain played by Naseeruddin Shah particularly sticking out, for better or worse, leaving you with more than a chuckle, whether intentional or not.
But I suspect Mehta intended for his film to be a serious, rousing tale—after all, Mirch Masala is about a woman’s stand against the patriarchal order.
Sonbai, a poor villager whose husband has left to find a job in the city, unwittingly catches the attention of the sadistic Subedar, a senior-ranking official who desires her body at any cost.
The tension between them escalates after certain developments cause the Subedar embarrassment, leaving the entire village on edge in fear of bloodshed.
Much of the second half of Mirch Masala operates like a standoff, between a group of defenceless women left stuck in a fortified spice factory where Sonbai has taken refuge, and the Subedar’s men that come in ever-increasing numbers to persuade them to ‘sacrifice’ Sonbai for the greater good.
For what it is worth, Mehta’s film is largely entertaining and boasts a kinetic editing style; however, nuance is not in its vocabulary, and to me, that separates it from being a truly great work.