Ajji movie review: Moving, till it descends into the clichés of the rape revenge genre
Director: Devashish Makhija
(Rating: 2.25 stars. The graphic above shows 2.5 stars due to a software constraint.)
In one of this film’s most poignant scenes, the 10-year-old rape survivor Manda Kadam asks her grandmother if her bleeding means she has “grown up”. The old lady is momentarily thrown off by the question, then remembers that these are the terms in which she had discussed the onset of puberty with her granddaughter. “Is this how it starts for every girl?” the little one asks.
This exchange underlines the tragedy of the rape of one so young. It is possible that the girl might forever equate the pain of gruesome violation with womanhood and with the natural pain of menstruation. This disturbing realisation also underlines a larger point emerging from writer-director Devashish Makhija’s Ajji, co-written by Mirat Trivedi. As much as Ajji is about a woman out to punish the well-connected man who brutalised her grandchild, it is also about the everydayness of sexual assault in the grubby back alleys of an urban space, where women and girls are attacked with such confidence by men whose shield is the poverty of their victims, that such violence could well end up being viewed by them as an intrinsic part of being a woman.
The latter is a point well made, and one that ideally should have been the overriding theme of Ajji. Not that rape happens only in poorer quarters, but the vulnerabilities of women from different social groups differ. Unfortunately, building a full-length film around this idea and around how real rather than fictional women react in such situations would require a greater investment of thought and imagination than vengeance does.
Rape revenge sagas like Ajji mirror casual drawing-room conversations about how we must kill or castrate rapists without a trial, and silence feminists who disagree. Like such films, such conversations too are rarely about what real survivors do, want or need. They are usually about the people around these women (cases in point: Ajji, Mom, Kaabil), or about society’s fantasy of the rape victim, 1988’s Dimple Kapadia-starrer Zakhmi Aurat being a prime example.
Except in rare instances like last year’s Pink, Hindi cinema would rather not bother with credible portrayals of assault survivors, because women who weep at home but soldier on with life and/or go to court despite their fears are boring, I guess, in comparison with avenging Durgas or our collective illusion about the woman we now call Nirbhaya (The Fearless One).
Ajji, then, is a mixed bag of goods. The film begins with grandma/Ajji (played by Sushama Deshpande) and the sex worker Leela (Sadiya Siddiqui) searching for Manda (Sharvani Suryavanshi) in their squalid slum that is a stone’s throw from a red light area. They find her in a garbage heap and soon discover that her rapist is a local pervert called Dhavle (Abhishek Banerjee), the son of a senior politician. Not unexpectedly, the investigating policeman (Vikas Kumar) is on Dhavle Senior’s payrolls.
The story is moving and telling as it establishes the sense of helplessness in Manda’s family and Ajji’s relationship with Manda. The cop’s casual callousness, the disregard for due process because of the Kadams’ dire circumstances and the parents’ self-preservation instincts are believable and well done.
It is chilling, to say the least, to watch a male cop interrogate and physically examine a female rape victim, a minor to boot, and bring in a male doctor to do a vaginal exam. Those passages are designed to fill a viewer with disgust, anger and a shared pain. I could barely breath as I watched them. DoP Jishnu Bhattacharjee is careful not to be voyeuristic in his gaze on Manda’s body here, and Makhija handles the scenes with sensitivity.
The film goes down a well-worn, stereotypical path though when it acquaints us with Dhavle Junior and deals with Ajji’s quest for revenge. The rapist is not written with any depth, and Ajji’s plan is foolhardy to the point of being silly. Each time she is in her home, the film becomes relatable, each time she steps out to work towards her goal, Ajji acquires a slightly bizarre, noir-ish air. More than empathy with Manda, it gradually becomes about a fascination with this arthritic and aged woman who is as unlikely a vigilante as the sightless hero in Kaabil.
In any case, for a film that clearly aspires to be realistic, the stylised cinematography becomes a diversion after a while. Half the impact of a scene in which Ajji watches Dhavle Junior having sex with a mannequin, for instance, is lost because it becomes too much about how that scene has been shot rather than what is going on. This is not to say that the frames are unattractive, but that these particular framing choices may have worked in another kind of project, but here, in a film that desperately needed to focus on its soul, they are distracting. Equally distracting is the fact that no human beings are to be seen in the slum in which Ajji lives.
Besides, there is a weirdness to the manner in which Ajji stalks Dhavle. Clearly she is not merely tracking his schedule. Clearly staying on to see him achieve an orgasm on a dummy did not help her decide when and where to confront him. The point being made seems to be that she is trying to build up enough revulsion for him within herself, to give her the strength for that final act. Why? Was what he did to Manda not hateful and repulsive enough?
If the answer to that is a yes, then we have to consider whether these scenes were featured simply for effect.
Devashish Makhija, who earlier made the feature film Oonga, earned the spotlight just last year when Taandav, his interesting short featuring Manoj Bajpayee, went viral on Youtube. Ajji and Manda’s relationship, Sushama Deshpande’s striking face and screen presence, and young Sharvani Suryavanshi’s natural acting are no doubt worthy of a full-fledged film. Ajji, as it stands now though, is well begun but just half done.