Our February “Martial Arts Mayhem: Fighting Femmes Festival – 2016″ continues! This time out how about some feisty stick fighting Hindi women out to kick butt and protect and empower the poor, exploited, and downtrodden women of rural India… by ganging up and beating the living beejeebits outta some slimy guys and battling corrupt government officials with both ballots and sticks? Ummm, yep, that’s definitely the sorta movie we’re looking for this month… 😉
Our synopsis? Ok, try this: “A fearless peasant heroine named Rajjo creates a sanctuary village where abandoned and abused girls and women are taught to read and make a life for themselves making baskets, grinding spices, and weaving beautiful pink saris to sell. Together they grow strong and fight social injustice while battling a crooked politician out to trick the poor rural people for her own wicked enrichment.”
Well… While it’s fair to say it’s not exactly a Martial Art film, nonetheless this one oozes lots of action, drama, and “female empowerment”… and from the trailer, it looks like we’ll certainly get our fill of crazy stick fighting lady action. I’m thinking it’s a good pick for our theme this month. Wanna find out if it’s a good match for our festival? Then hurry on up and “Read On”… 🙂
India is really starting to move into the Martial Art film genre with a vengeance. So why not do a movie featuring a spunky peasant heroine who uses the traditional Hindi stick fighting art of Lathi Khela? Sounds good to this lil’ Catgirl. 🙂
This particular film is a highly fictionalized account (although for legal reasons the filmmakers denied it like crazy… 😉 ) of the life and career of Sampat Pal Devi, the controversial leader of the real life original Gulabi Gang. I’d actually never really heard of her and her struggles against the very entrenched and casually accepted misogynistic way Indian women are marginalized and treated in their culture. That’s a problem Neko has seen in other Indian films and always rankled about, so when I heard about this particular film, I was immediately interested in giving it a look. One quick eBay later and a copy made it’s way to my mailbox from exotic India just in time for this month’s festival.
Our film starts out with our heroine Rajjo as a little girl in the poor rural north of India, enduring the daily brutal treatment of her vicious stepmother who resents little Rajjo’s burning desire to go to school and become more than just another nameless peasant living a meaningless life of servitude. That lady is one mean piece of work… not only does she constantly harass little Rajjo, but browbeats her loving father as well. Despite this, her spirit remains firm, and by the time she’s grown to womanhood, Rajjo (now played by Madhuri Dixit) has created an Ashram, a spiritual sanctuary where she’s gathered a group of formerly abused and abandoned women to give them a place to find peace and strength, supporting themselves by hard honest labor while building a community that can fiercely defend itself from the exploitation and misogyny of the world around them. But… trust me… Rajjo is no Gandhi… there’s gonna be no “passive resistance” when the pink saris of the Gulaab Gang decide to move against injustice. 😉
No, these ladies are ready to kick butt if necessary, when a cruel world decides to try to mess with them. Not that they don’t try to take an enlightened route to achieve their ends… an example being the creepy way they deal with a local government official starving them from needed electricity. He underestimates their resolve, and soon an army of pink saris descend upon his compound, trapping him and his cronies in their headquarters, nailing them inside and cutting off electricity, water, and food until they comply with Rajjo’s request to turn on the power.
Rajjo always tries to lead her gang of women with a gentle understated strength, but in almost every case, again and again she’s forced to show that iron strength that proves women are no mere weak things to be used or abused at will. It isn’t long before she’s an unofficial spokesperson for the poor rural people and comes to the notice of ambitious politician Sumitra Devi (played by Juhi Chawla) who sees her message of “female empowerment” as a tool she might corrupt for her own selfish means to power.
Rajjo’s no stupid peasant to be fooled though, and once she realizes how truly corrupt and self-serving Sumitra really is, it isn’t long before she begins her own political campaign in an effort to defeat her and free the people from such exploitative rule. That’s when things get all dangerous.
Sumitra is evil. There’s just no way to describe it otherwise. There’s a very real suggestion that she had a hand in the murder of her own husband so that she might use public sympathy for her widowed status to win his political seat. Her staff are a mixed bag of thugs and yes-men all jockeying to curry her favor for their own purposes. She is willing to commit any crime, even murder, to achieve her ends and her ambition knows no bounds. Neko immediately hated her cool calm and utterly amoral character… so stereotypical yet somehow so refreshing as well.
I’m thinking it was a really smart choice to square our heroine off against such an intelligent powerful female opponent in this story rather than the tired old “wicked misogynistic male governor”. It made for a much more satisfying conflict as these two very strong female characters battle for the soul of the people and their own vision of the future. Both actresses are at the top of their form throughout lending a very real chemistry to the rivalry between them.
The majority of the story is tied up with that political campaign, as Rajjo tries to beat Sumitra at her own game, only to discover that Indian politics is a thorny and thoroughly corrupt process that Sumitra has mastered at every level. There’s just no beating her with simple truth and honor, and ultimately only Sumitra’s own arrogance will cause her to make the mistake of thinking she can simply murder Rajjo and her women openly and not suffer consequences that allows our heroine to prevail.
Yep. That would be our climax, but before we get there, there’s plenty of the usual Hindi film hi-jinx to endure, with all the expected singing and dancing numbers scattered here and there to break things up, as well as more than a few chances for the ladies to demonstrate their street fighting skills. Yep, most of the big fight scenes aren’t really Martial Art fights… and there is precious little of the lathi khela art on display. Mostly our ladies demonstrate just how nasty farm implements like sickles, knives, and axes can be when you really want. Rajjo herself, does do some neat wuxia style “wire-fu”, making impossibly cool looking leaps over trucks and opponents so she can smack the snot out of them with her stick, but she’s pretty much the exception, as the rest of our women show themselves merely to be accomplished brawlers willing to take some injury to dish out the punishment to their foes. The fights are perhaps more realistic that way, but far less than artistic. Not disappointing, but a missed opportunity to make “Gulaab Gang” more than just a “ripped from the headlines” actioner and let it reach the level of “cult classic”. I would have liked a bit more of the Martial Art stuff, like how our heroine learned her stick fighting and so on, but…. Oh well… it’s still refreshing to see Indian ladies kicking butt for a change, so I’ll cut them some slack. 😉
Now, for some unexplained reason, this particular film was a dismal flop in India itself. Why? Who the heck knows… It’s well made, well acted, with competent stunt work and excellent colorful cinematography, and comes in at just over 2 hours and 15 minutes of run time, a fairly tight little movie by Hindi standards. The story? Remarkably it gives you not one but two powerful female characters to enjoy, and is in no way a cop out to the tired idea that women are the “weaker” sex. Both Carolyn and I enjoyed it quite a bit.
How much? Well, personally, I’d give this one a well deserved 4 “Meows” out of 5. If strong feisty women standing up for themselves and taking on a wicked system on their own terms is your idea of a good story, you could do worse than to spend an evening giving this one a watch.
The DVD? Well, I watched this on the actual Indian release by Junglee Home Video, in it’s widescreen letterboxed format. It’s in Hindi, of course, but there are excellent separate English subs on board for those of us who need them, all for right around 9$ US. How can you go wrong with that? I certainly don’t know… 😉
Naturally… there’s a Trailer, filled with all the stick fighting, butt kicking, singing and dancing fun you might want… 😉