Hellaro, National Award-winning Gujarati film, is a beautiful ode to female desire and defiance

Abhishek Shah’s Hellaro draws its central conflict from a Kutch folktale about subjugated women meeting a drummer (dholi) in secret and dancing to their heart’s content.

Devang Pathak November 24, 2019 09:21:26 IST
Hellaro, National Award-winning Gujarati film, is a beautiful ode to female desire and defiance

The arrival of spring in India now guarantees the resurfacing of an annual viral story. The celebration of Holi by the widows of Vrindavan, covered in original reportage and spectacular photo stories, envelopes one’s social media feed with increasing frequency. Sulabh International, an NGO which has worked to provide food and shelter to these women, kickstarted the practice back in 2013, to bring about social assimilation and acceptance. At the time, Bindeshwar Pathak, Sulabh’s founder commented, “As widows do not play Holi traditionally in Vrindavan, the event may need some amount of attitudinal change in the mindset of the society.” While the initiative, now gearing up for its eighth iteration, certainly seems to have overcome the roadblocks of tradition, progressive change is no easy task, as women of a remote Kutch village can attest.

Drought has ravaged the tranquility of daily life. Government and development are abstract concepts. The isolation of their existence is so complete that even the imposition of an Emergency is dismissed in jest. Religion, customs, and history are the only recognised symbols of governance, wielded by the men of the village with a ruthless bureaucracy. The men can perform Garba, the Gujarati folk dance, while women are barred from doing the same. Men offer a prayer for rain and mercy to a Goddess, as much a part of their routine as their mistreatment and neglect of the women in their houses.

Abhishek Shah’s Hellaro draws its central conflict from a Kutch folktale about subjugated women meeting a drummer (dholi) in secret and dancing to their heart’s content. The film’s straightforward story is enlivened by its treatment and nuanced angles. The commentary is not just limited to the horrors of patriarchy but also examines caste-based violence, trauma, and blind-faith. The film not only won the National Award For Best Feature Film (the first Gujarati film to do so) but saw the 13 leading women winning a Special Jury Award; a result of not just great ensemble performance but also a clever break in storytelling.

Hellaro National Awardwinning Gujarati film is a beautiful ode to female desire and defiance

A still from the film Hellaro|Twitter

The ‘Outsider Hero’ story convention, represented here by Shraddha Dangar’s Manjhri, is subverted in favour of a gradual journey for the collective as a whole. A great sequence involves the women anxiously sitting and consoling a woman who has had a stillbirth, an act they believe to be a curse from the Goddess for the ‘sin’ of dancing. The bereaved woman is quick to correct their assumption, revealing a terrifying reality - the only curse to fear is men. The revelation unites the skeptics in joining the secret dance breaks, without any hesitation or fear.

The film’s vibrancy shines through as a result of some great work by the cast and crew. Arsh and Sameer Tanna’s choreography is mesmerising, with the Garba set pieces enticing even a committed non-dancer like me to participate. Tribhuvan Babu Sadineni’s cinematography captures dances, emotions, and landscapes with equal precision. Music is critical for a film like this and Mehul Surti steps up to the challenge, aided by Saumya Joshi’s lyrics, complementing the narrative with apt songs. While the subtitles do provide a good contextual translation, it’s an uphill task for them to capture the biting effect of the original dialogues.

The male characters of the film are largely deployed as antagonists or for comic relief, save for two exceptions. Jayesh More, who portrays Mulhji the Dholi, gives a terrific performance as a man reeling from PTSD. He turns towards music for solace and anchor the way the women of the village depend on dance. Bhaglo, portrayed by Maulik Nayak, not only provides much of the laughter in the film but also represents a benevolent male touch. The frequent sojourns to the urban areas have opened up his worldview and his sympathies secretly lie with the women. 

The first film to come to my mind as I walked out of the theater was Vijay Anand’s Guide. A prayer for rain drives the characters in both films. I have personally found the Dev Anand starrer to be undone by its last act, where blind-faith is reinforced in an unconvincing manner. By contrast, Hellaro largely negates superstitions, rightly positioning them as historical tools of fear and suppression used by the majority to suppress women and Dalits. When the rains finally arrive, the screen is lit up with a far more enthralling sight of defiance. The only ‘miracle’ highlighted is the superhuman courage of the women.

A slew of recent Indian releases tend to simplify the hardships faced in changing one’s fate and fulfilling the heart’s desires despite the unfavourable odds. They fail to take into account that  effort and rebellion don’t always produce the intended consequences. Hellaro doesn’t pretend to be about anything other than the beauty of defiance, valuing it not for a promise of better things, but for its sheer existence.

The warmth of this ephemeral outburst is what makes this one of the finest films of the year for me.

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