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Last Updated 20.11.2018 | 10:23 PM IST
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The Fiery Feminist



Mirch Masala sounded a clarion call for women who lead a life of subjugation to wake up and establish their identity. It not only depicts the fury of a woman who fights for her right to save her honor but also the immense power that women can wield if they unite to fight injustice


Smita Patil missed out on one of her most alluring performances in Mirch Masala. A film that refuses to age. She died before the release of the film.


What is it about Mirch Masala that is so riveting? Is it the congregation of these beautiful strong women in a Gujarati village, who are subverted by the rules of a patriarchal society?


25 year after it was made, Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala remains an enigmatic parable on women’s right. It’s an excellent thriller about a group of attractive women who try to save their dignity and honour from a sex starved tax collector.


Mirch Masala is in reality a metaphor on individual space. Through the unforgettable character of Sonbai (Samita Patil), director Ketan Mehta narrates a quirky, compelling satirical drama on sex and the woman whose right to say no to a powerful man. Today’s post-Nora Ephron generation of assertive women would consider this defiant feminist protest as a token gesture of defiance.


When Sonbai flees the lecherous tyrannical tax collector, played with moustache -twirling glee by Naseeruddin Shah, she seeks asylums in a chilli factory where she’s cocooned from the extraneous threat that looms large in her life mainly because her husband (Raj Babbar in a guest appearance) has left her in the village to go to the city in search of a guest appearance) has left her in the village to go to the city in search of a job.


More than a gripping gender skirmish set against a flaming-red backdrop of ripe chilies, Mirch Masala is a profoundly seductive tale of the most attractive women you’ve seen under one cinematic roof. Ketan, know to have an eye for physical beauty, chose actresses who could blend into the rural Gujarati milieu without losing any of their innate charm. Sister Ratna and Supriya Pathak are part of the chilli factory’s fabulous feminine brigade. Towering above them all is Smita Patil, who seeks refuge in a haven of communal muliebrity.


Brilliant in her own space, Deepti Naval stays outside the chilli factory. She is an interesting study of subjugation and ineffectual rebellion, symbolical of all that has plagued our patriarchal system from time immemorial. Though the film ‘belongs’ to Smita, Deepti leaves a lasting impression. The sequence where she pounds her hands in helpless anguish against the window in the room where she is imprisoned by her husband is bone-chilling.


Are rural women, ever if they are wage-earners like Ketan Mehta’s character, entitled to a life of their choice? Deepti’s husband, played with remarkable restrain by Suresh Oberoi, is the village mukhiya. He doles out justice to the entire village. But has none to offer to his own wife. Her impotent rage contrasts with telling resonance against Smita Patil’s defiant protest against a state-sponsored brute’s egoistic determination to “have” her at any cost.


When the village mukhiya coaxes her to give in, Sonbai says she’d rather die than succumb. The mukhiya reminds Sonbai that even if her husband was present he’d have told her to satiate the subhedar. “And I would have said no to my husband’s request as well,” Sonbai spits back.


Spewing fire



Watching Smita spew fire on to the screen captured brilliantly by cinematographer Jehangir Chowdhary, you wonder what came first: the headstrong militant village woman, or an actress of Smita Patil’s caliber to play the part. Sonbai would rather die than succumb to the subhedar. Supporting in her fight against male aggression is the old frail watchman of the chilli factory, played with beguiling benignity by Om Puri.


It’s a wonderful experience to see Naseer and Om represent two very contrasting characters. One is out to plunder a woman’s right to her private space. The other is determined to protect it. In the finale, when the watchman is gunned down, it is not a moment of defeat for the protector. We know what Ketan Mehta says goes beyond the immediate death of the noble character. Putting up a fight against injustice is enough to shake the foundation of a suffocating male order. Women can guard their dignity even when the weapons at their disposal are just tokens of protest of protest. Sometimes saying ‘no’ to wrongdoing is enough.


Mirch Masala is a frenetic journey in search of a woman’s fight to protect her space. It could be perceived as a parable of female bonding or a straightforward thriller about the victim and the perpetrator. Either way, the film’s poise and power remain undiminished over the years.



The subhedar‘s power-hungry mechanization is maneuvered by a tremendous satire. He has lately bought himself a miracle machine known as the Gramophone (the film is set in pre-Independence India). He plyas his 78 rpm records on his new toy to terrorize villagers and seduce their women. He is the rogue element sanctioned by the state to perpetrate a power that he is ill-equipped to use. He therefore ends up looking ludicrous in his self-importance. Mirch Masala makes excessive power look ridiculous and funny.
When the subhedar decides to break down the chilli factory’s gate he thinks he’s breaking Sonbai’s defenses. Absolute power doesn’t just corrupt, it also blinds. Very apt is the finale to fiery tale, when the women throw chilli power into the subhedar‘s lustful eyes.



Mirch Masala Trivia


* This was Smita Patil’s last films; she died before its release.


* Mohan Gokhale, who plays the mukhiya Suresh Oberoi’s kid brother, also died very young at the age of 40


* Suresh Oberoi won the National Award for his role.


* Paresh Rawal who later played Sardar Patel in Ketan Mehta’s bio-pic played miniscule role of a village


* It was the first and only time that Dina Pathak and her daughters Ratna and Supriya Pathak acted to gather in a film.


* Om Puri was only 30 when he played role of the 80 year old watchman of the chilli factory.


Ketan Mehta on Mirch Masala



“Smita was a very dear friend and Much Masala was one of her best performance. She dubbed for the film before she passed away. I knew her from my Film Institute days. I was an assistant to Arun Khopkar who was directing his diploma film in which Smita played a role. She also acted in my first feature film Bhavni Bhavai. It was natural that I would cast her to play the role of Sonbai. She was very impressed by her character and the script. Mirch Masala is a film about human condition. There’s a short story by a Gujarati writer Chunnilal Madia, which was based in a tobacco factory in Saurashtra. In the story too, the watchman of the factory dies in the end. I changed the local to a chilli factory when I saw the chilli fields in Gujarat. The film ended with Sonbai throwing chilli powder in the villain’s eyes. The protest had begun but I don’t think the status of women in rural India has changed much.


All the actors in the film, including Naseer and Om, were with me in the film Institute. Both were brilliant. Mohan Gokhale was also a friend. He too had acted in Bhavni Bhavai. Today’s after 25 years, Mirch Masala is still remembered. It was short in a village named Chotila near Rajkot. Funnily enough, I had selected another location. I had just finished Holi when suddenly the NFDC funding for Mirch Masala came through. So I rushed to the location and got to know that if I didn’t finish my shooting by March there would be no chillies in the fields. I approached my entire cast and crew in January and like a miracle they all agreed to accommodate me. Smita, Naseer, Raj Babbar, Suresh Oberoi were busy actors. In 2010 there was a film festival devoted to women filmmakers in Chennai to which I was invited. They obviously viewed it as a film on women’s empowerment. So far away from Gujarat, that evening in Chennai, when young Tamil women empathized with my film, it brought tears to my eyes. Mirch Masala along with Bhavni Bhavai and Maya Memsaab are my favorite films”

Screen India

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