'ajji': Film Review | Busan 2017

Courtesy of Busan International Film Festival
Exactly as heartbreaking and infuriating as it needs to be.

Revenge for the assault of a 10-year-old girl comes from an unlikely source in this drama fronted by a commanding turn from playwright Sushma Deshpande.

The ongoing struggle with violence against women is at the heart of the low-key but quietly affecting drama ajii (or Granny), in competition at the Busan International Film Festival’s New Currents section. Director Devashish Makhija refers to his spare sophomore effort, following 2013’s Oonga, as an Indian spin on a Korean revenge thriller, and in some ways it is, but Makhija and co-writer Mirat Trivedi have more on their minds that gloriously gory stabbings and ultra-brutal beatings. Assured and oddly dispassionate, but not unsympathetic, ajji is a sure bet for both broad spectrum and niche festivals, and could find art house audiences around the globe with some careful marketing.

Ajji recalls John Wick as much as anything for its lead's single-minded, razor focus on one specific element that inspires vigilantism. That’s as far as the comparisons go, however, with ajji turning a grim light on the institutional and cyclical poverty, violence, inequality, indifference and entitlement that still plague India. Trivedi and Makhija deliberately avoid identifying the location for the pic's action, and as a result telegraph the message that this could be absolutely anywhere in India, stating rape and violence are so endemic it doesn’t matter where this particular crime unfolds.

Late one evening in a typically sprawling Indian slum, an elderly woman with bad knees simply called "ajji" (playwright-actress Sushma Deshpande) is searching for her missing 10-year-old granddaughter Manda (Sharvani Suryavanshi). Helped along by the neighborhood prostitute Leela (Saadiya Siddique), they finally find the girl, who’s been tossed into a garbage dump. Once home, they report what is clearly a sexual assault to the local constable (Vikas Kumar), and Manda almost immediately identifies the son of a powerful developer, Dhavle (Abhishek Banerjee), as her attacker. Seeing as the cop pads his paycheck by covering up Dhavle’s crimes, he promptly browbeats, belittles and threatens the people looking for some respect: an old lady, an illegal migrant, an illegal worker, a prostitute and a little girl. Good luck with that. Making matters worse, Manda's parents seem keen to just pretend the rape never happened, and so feeling she has no options through which to pursue any semblance of justice, ajji begins a methodical plot to get justice for her beloved Manda on her own.

Makhija is economical with his images, and clearly a big believer in the idea of "show, don’t tell." A protracted late-night encounter between Dhavle and a female mannequin — essentially another assault — succinctly tells us all we need to know about Dhavle, his proprietary attitude towards women, and likely the kind of hideousness Manda was subjected to. It is as illuminating as it is disgusting. It could be argued that Makhija has made his villain too grotesque and not shaded enough, but his entire point is to remind us how grotesque these untouchable men are, and how too often they are shielded by the law rather than subjected to it. If it weren’t made clear enough from the gorgeously sytlized vaginal imagery on the film's poster art, there are no two sides to this story.

Cinematographer Jishnu Bhattacharjee’s claustrophobic images give the rabbit warren of alleys, barren construction sites and heaping trash yards a palpable life, perfectly complemented by Mangesh Dhakde’s minimalist score. Deshpande, however, is the beating heart of ajji, and her carefully modulated performance carries the film. She expresses rage, frustration and uncertainty without ever tipping into mawkishness, and makes us empathize with her singular determination. Makhija probably could have explored the thorny subject of vigilante justice more thoroughly (revenge is uncomfortably satisfying), but he wisely chose to key in on the pic's real story: the reasons vigilante justice is even an issue. ajji is one of India's strongest independents this year.

Production company: Yoodlee Films
Cast: Sushma Deshpande, Sharvani Suryavanshi, Saadiya Siddique, Abhishek Banerjee, Vikas Kumar, Smita Tambe, Sudhir Pandey, Manuj Sharma
Director: Devashish Makhija
Screenwriters: Devashish Makhija, Mirat Trivedi
Producer: Vikram Mehra, Siddharth Anand Kumar
Executive producer: Guneet Monga, Vinod Prakash
Director of photography: Jishnu Bhattacharjee
Production designer: Sikander Ahmad, Shamim Khan, Tiya Tejpal
Costume designer: Sachin Lovalekar
Editor: Ujjwal Chandra
Music
: Mangesh Dhakde
Casting: Casting Bay
Venue: Busan International Film Festival
World sales: Charades

In Hindi
105 minutes

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