How National Award-winning Gujarati film Hellaro uses 'garba' to represent subversion of patriarchy

Sanjay Shripad Bhave

Nov 19, 2019 18:07:48 IST

Garba, the world-famous song-and-dance form of Gujarat, is employed  - arguably for the first time in Indian cinema - to represent women’s liberty and subversion of patriarchy in a recently released Gujarati film Hellaro, directed by a young theatre person Abhishek Shah.

The first ever Gujarati film to win the national award for the best feature film of 2018, Hellaro unfolds how the crushed women of a backward village in the middle of the Kutch desert, revolt against the authority of men. The ensemble of thirteen women actors, that shares the special jury prize, had performed barefoot in the burning sands of Kutch for nearly a month of arduous shooting schedule during March-April last year.

For the period film set in times around 1975, Abhishek has actually created to the hilt the fictional hamlet Samarpura at a location near the Indo-Pak border ninety kilometers  from the Kutch headquarter Bhuj. The film is Abhishek’s  directorial debut on the silver screen.

Hellaro will open the Indian Panorama section of the International Film Festival of India in Goa on 21 November. Incidentally, the film has left behind in the award’s race, the hits likes of a family drama Badhai Ho Badhai , ingeniously conceived Andhadhun and above all ultra-nationalist Uri.

 How National Award-winning Gujarati film Hellaro uses garba to represent subversion of patriarchy

A still from Hellaro.

Hellaro pits female expression against male suppression. In the process, it keeps showing us how men in the undeveloped Samarpura are inevitably boorish, lusty and violent towards women who have to unquestioningly surrender to them. Even the laughter of men comes at the cost of the sexist jokes at the pains of women. Men have forbidden women even to dance garba which is a major mode of joy for women and men alike in Gujarat.

The film has a moving scene in the early part wherein men dance sword-brandishing garba to appease the goddess Amba for rains after two years of drought, and women longingly watch from the windows of their mud-huts. ‘Isn’t it weird that when it does not rain, men dance and we fast?, asks Manjhri, a bride newly married to a virile village recruit Arjan posted as a fauji on the China border. Manjhri, the first literate entrant with schooling up to seventh standard from a town, becomes the harbinger of change. She raises questions on the male mandate as she moves every day with the cluster of women to fetch water from a distant water-body on the village outskirts.

Trudging for water every day through the hot terrain is the only time-slot for bonhomie and full-throated conversation in the otherwise smothered life of women. It was on one such trek for water that the women happen to see a half-conscious  middle-aged man writhing in the sands and begging for water. As the wretched soul drinks, women see bandages on his hands, bruises on body and a dhol (drum) nearby.

On Manjhri’s request he beats the dhol and one by one, slowly, women start dancing a garba to the drum beats. Years of yearning to dance well up with gay abandon. This dancing is a kind of outburst which is the connotation of the Gujarati word hellaro.

The daily potion of garba, obviously away from male sight, instills new life in women. Manjhri says to dhholi (the drummer), “We feel that we are alive only when we clap and dance to the beats of your dhol’. ‘I will exchange my whole kingdom – if I have one – for the sake of garba’, jokingly says even the ever gloomy Gayatri, for she and her daughter Sita have found their long-lost smiles in garba.

The four garbas, with a large variety of styles, are not only a feast to the viewers, they are meaningfully choreographed by Sameer and Arsh Tanna. Mehul Surti’s music has its crucial part. The garbas  evince in many ways the expression of movement from  fearful restraint  to  that of joyous liberty.

The dance expression blends well throughout with the garba songs written by the celebrated  Gujarati poet-playwright Saumya Joshi. Mostly using rural vocabulary the lyricist stirs hearts  in four songs. In a lullaby, mother advises her daughter not to dream of a worthy life. The  song that follows articulates  ecstasy of dancing for the first time. Next is the lay of the rising desire for freedom and finally comes the culminating  garba  unmistakably conveying  defiant triumph.

Each woman in the group has her tale of woe under male torture and the film presents it with economy. Hansa suffers miscarriage of a girl child as her husband beats and kicks her. Kesar, a widow in her youth, drags on life with her bed-ridden father-in-law and she is barred from  talking to anyone in the village, including women. Gayatri’s face shows bruises. Her peevish husband Joravarsinh snaps and shuts up Sita whenever she dares ask or laugh. As the sprightly and dreamy Manjhri begins embroidery, a widow snatches the piece from her. Any such work is a taboo, because at some time in the past a young widow Mooli had run away to city with a traveler who used to secretly buy her craft- work.

The village does not trade with the city except through the clownish but influential young man Bhaglo. The horse-riding courier-cum-merchant, Bhaglo is the sole whiff of the city. His unsound radio gives news of emergency of 1975 and he explains it to the band of men in his own funny way. His saucy story-telling of films Sholay and Bobby titlates the village brats to the point of making them comic. His tactful succour save women along  the drummer Mulji in crisis.

The film is consciously feminist. Abhishek who is also the story-writer of the film (and screenplay writer with Pratik Gupta) has acknowledged that he has given  ‘a feminist perspective’ to the primary source of the film which is a folk-tale.

Sharp lines with a touch of rural parlance offer a gamut of emotions in a patriarchal set-up. At the outset of the film, as little Sita innocently asks her father : ‘Where are you going ?’ The ever irascible Joravarsinh growls at his wife Gayatri : ‘Tell your daughter that girls are not supposed to ask questions.’ The fauji husband Arjan warns Manjhri, ‘You might be dancing garba in your maternal village, but not here any longer. At this place, first come the rules of the clan, nothing is more important than the limits.’ As  Manjhri is caught dancing garba, he slaps her saying ‘Had I not told you whether you have grown wings or horns, remove them yourself, because if I cut them, it will pain you more.’

On the other hand the dissent is clear and on the rise. Manjhri asserts to her companions and to the dholi: ‘Dance we shall, at any cost. Even death cannot daunt us from dancing.’ As if giving an answer to the myth women-are-women’s enemy, she makes it clear: ‘The game is theirs (of men), the rules are theirs too. Good enough that we have fallen prey to their sport, let’s not be party to it.’ Among other such utterances the ultimate is: ‘If every sin were to meet punishment, there would not have been so many blokes in this world.’

Social media is rife with flowers and frowns for the film in almost equal measure. A section of Kutch-lovers feel that the picture of Kutch is inaccurate in the depiction of its features like mobility and manners, costumes and conventions. Another charge is that Kutch has never been as undeveloped and orthodox towards its women as the film purports.

The film certainly has a gloss and shine, which is not exactly in accord with the backwardness implicit in the story. Besides, in a state with high number of atrocities on dalits, it misses the opportunity to poignantly highlight the theme of caste even as the story has sufficient scope to explore it. One would also expect it to more clearly indicate to women - even in context of 1975 - the direction towards freedom which would be above, and other than, dancing garba. That is necessary for the audience of a developed state in which narratives around women in literature are scant.

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Updated Date: Nov 19, 2019 18:07:48 IST