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Set in an isolated village where long-revered customs are rapidly changing, Indian writer-director Leena Yadav’s third feature is a contemporary morality tale that critiques the often harsh treatment of women in the absence of egalitarian social norms. With news reports of violence against women repeatedly emerging from South Asia, the film should make for a timely festival item and could see limited theatrical play in receptive markets.
Yadav’s protagonist is Rani (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a widow in her 30s living in a rural enclave in northwestern India. Herself married as a child bride and widowed two years later at the age of 16, Rani is now preparing the arranged marriage of her 17-year-old son Gulab (Riddhi Sen) to Janaki (Lehar Khan), a neighbor girl two years younger. Although neither is prepared to marry, their parents insist on a traditional match, with Janaki moving into Rani’s cramped hut to join Gulab after the ceremony. Rani’s best friend Lajjo (Radhika Apte) is thrilled about the wedding and the prospect of Rani becoming a grandmother, especially since she believes that she’s incapable of bearing children herself — the pretext for frequent beatings she receives from her violent, alcoholic husband.
Rani’s expectations of a happy home life get dashed after Gulab rejects Janaki, preferring to spend his nights out drinking and chasing other women with his single buddies. When Rani’s close friend Bijli (Surveen Chawla), an erotic dancer and prostitute, arrives in the village with a traveling sideshow to entertain the local male population, the three women have the opportunity to socialize and commiserate. Bijli’s offhanded observation that maybe Lajjo isn’t infertile after all and that perhaps the fault lies with her husband sets in motion a series of events with the potential to change each of the women’s circumstances in ways even they can’t entirely imagine.
Nonetheless, it appears to be a script that the lead actresses readily assimilate, delivering a trio of clearly committed performances. Chatterjee in particular must demonstrate the full spectrum of transformation from enabler to disrupter, first acting as a victim and agent of oppression before discovering methods of appropriating local traditions to her own advantage. Bolstered by a diversity of commercial and independent film credits, Apte and Chawla ably keep pace with Chatterjee, providing crucial perspective for Rani as she assesses the inevitability of her own circumstances. A large contingent of expressive nonprofessional supporting and background performers provides a rich tapestry of village types to round out the sizeable cast.
Working closely with Oscar-winning cinematographer Russell Carpenter (Titanic) and Alexander Payne collaborator Kevin Tent, Yadav compassionately frames the lives of characters experiencing nearly constant turmoil, while Carpenter burnishes the ocher and orange hues of the Rajasthan desert locations to a subtle glow.
Production companies: Shivalaya Entertainment, Blue Waters Motion Picture Production
Cast: Tannishtha Chatterjee, Radhika Apte, Surveen Chawla, Lehar Khan, Riddhi Sen
Director-screenwriter: Leena Yadav
Producers: Leena Yadav Ajay Devgn, Aseem Bajaj, Gulab Singh, Rohan Jagdale
Executive producers: Anirudh Tanwar, Hughes Winborne
Director of photography: Russell Carpenter
Production designer: Amardeep Behl
Costume designer: Ashima Belapurkar
Editor: Kevin Tent
Music: Hitesh Sonik
Sales: The Gersh Agency
No rating, 116 minutes
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