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Hari Bhari: Educate her

SHYAM BENEGAL may not have pioneered the Indian New Wave in cinema. Surely, that credit goes to Bengal's Satyajit Ray and Ritwick Ghatak. A little later, there were, of course, directors like Mrinal Sen and Kerala's John Abraham. But, in the early 1970s, Benegal injected a dose of celluloid oxygen into Indian films, which had grown melodramatic, exaggerated, artificial and shallow. At least a good many of them had.

Benegal's foray into this medium came with his 1973 "Ankur". Its rural imagery in direct contrast to the auteur's earlier life with sophisticated commercials usually made in antiseptic confines was a success, which egged him to create more such village impressions. "Nishant" and "Manthan" followed.

However, it was "Bhumika" on the life of a well known Marathi actress brilliantly portrayed by the late Smita Patil that will go down in the annals of movie history as a work of great art. Benegal made many more films, but not one to equal or surpass "Bhumika".

One of his latest works, "Hari Bhari", is cinematically quite disappointing, coming as it does from one who has been acknowledged as far more sensitive than the rest in the flock.

Yet, the film cannot be dismissed outright; it must be considered for the issues that it throws up all are not only highly relevant today, but also go beyond the specificity of any one community or caste. Although Benegal focuses on a large Muslim agrarian family, its trials and tribulations, problems and prospects have a kind of universality that is hard to miss. What happens in that Muslim home can happen in any other home too.

One of the first things that the movie talks about is a woman's reproductive rights: Benegal may not have said it in so many frames, but there is a clear indication that a key to our explosive population predicament may well lie in the empowerment of women.

Alka Trivedi, one of the members of the family, is desperate every time she conceives, gets weaker and weaker, but it takes the courage and guts of Shabana Azmi to take her to the local clinic for a tubectomy.

The number of Indian women dying every year during or immediately after childbirth is higher than that of Europe put together. Not surprising, since 80 per cent of them hardly ever sees a doctor.

One cannot ignore here the fact that Alka's screen husband agrees with what the two women had done behind his back: "It is after all for the good of my wife," he pacifies a raving and ranting Nandita Das, his sister-in-law in the story, who feels that it is a sin to mess around with what god had willed as a unique role for women.

In what appears paradoxical, Nandita's fictional husband undergoes vasectomy much to the chagrin of his wife who, despite her bookish education, seems out of touch with reality.

The moral here, do not always paint the man black, and often a woman tends to be a woman's worst enemy. Benegal includes this little barb in a way that it does not jar, and yet cannot be missed.

There are other striking features. Shabana's screen husband is appalled at the very thought that he might be responsible for his wife not being able to beget a son. This is something that most Indians are unaware of, with the result that women continue to be harassed, brutalised and eventually traumatised.

Benegal also weaves in the evil of marital rape, an occurrence far more common than we would like to imagine. He conveys through Shabana the agony and torture of loveless sex.

In the final analysis, what is interesting, even invigorating, was Benegal's message on education, education of girls. Rajeshwari Sachdev is barely 16, but the family plots to get her married to a much older man. No school anymore, she is told, despite her cries against this injustice. Shabana, her mother in the narrative, is sympathetic to her ambition, which is to become a teacher and lead an economically independent life. Rajeshwari's grandmother too is not quite in favour of pushing the girl into mindless matrimony. But the rest of the khandan want to get rid of Rajeshwari, they want the responsibility off their backs.

However, in a turn of events, the girl gets back her schoolbag, her freedom and, above all, the hope of a better existence. "Hari Bhari" ends on this positive, joyous note, and in India where 35 million children out of a total 227 million between five and 14 years of age do not go to school, Benegal's picture evokes the right responses. In fact, 60 per cent of this 35 million are girls.

So, when Rajeshwari prances about with her schoolbag, a smile writ large on her face, "Hari Bhari", despite its innumerable flaws, captures a certain radiance which can emerge only out of a pertinent point. Educate her, and transform this land of ours.

(This story/review appeared in The Hindu dated February 16 2003)

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