Our month long celebration of all things mermaid, “Frolicking Under The Sea: Mermaid Fantasy Film Festival – August 2016” continues! This time out, a perhaps odd little choice, the 2012 Hindi Social Drama film, “Jalpari: The Desert Mermaid”. Not reeeeaaallly a “mermaid” movie per se… but still an excellent lil’ film that Yours Truly wanted to include.
The synopsis? But of course! “Two city-bred kids, fearless tomboy Shreya and her little brother Sam travel to their dusty Haryana village for a vacation with their parents. What happens there is an adventure, which comes packed with significant life lessons. It’s not the idyllic village of their dreams but a problem-ridden place with dried up ponds, unfriendly villagers, unspoken secrets, out-of-bounds spaces, a child-eating witch and no girls, a reason why wives are imported from other states. In the backdrop of this engrossing adventure the social issue of female foeticide is subtly interwoven without being preachy and melodramatic.”
Ummmm? So this one isn’t actually a “mermaid” movie? “But… but… Neko” you ask“What about that witch in the synopsis? There is gonna be a witch, right?” Ummmm. Yeah… Gotta admit, this one sorta fooled yours truly when I was first tracking it down. It definitely didn’t turn out to be the movie I thought it was going to be. But guess what? It still turned out to be a really, really good movie that I ended up liking a whole lot. Wanna find out why? Then just “Read On”, o’ Gentle Visitors and find out! 🙂
If you are a regular visitor here at the ol’ Litterbox, then you must have a pretty darn good grasp of this wee lady’s movie tastes by now. They don’t usually run towards deep or meaningful “social commentary” or the like…. I’m pretty darn unsophisticated in my tastes for the most part. Give me some zombies… some ninjas… maybe a monster or ghost… and I’m one happy girl. With that in mind, I have to say I got tricked into seeing this particular film…. yep… occasionally it happens. 🙂
However… I’m actually really pretty darn happy about that. “Jalpari” turned out to be a pretty darn nice little film that had I known what it was actually about before I sat down to watch, I might have passed on. That would have been a shame. I’m willing to admit it.
Anyways, what’s the film all about? Well… to start with, it’s the story of one spunky lil’ girl’s holiday adventure to her father’s rural ancestral village and the secret that was hidden there among the dust and poverty. Our heroine Shreya (played by the delightful young actress Lehar Khan) is a peculiarly modern young tomboy growing up in the city of New Delhi, where her irrepressible spirit and fairly “unladylike” attitude place her at odds with Hindi society at large. To put it simply… she doesn’t feel the need to “color within the lines” and be what Indian culture says a young girl should be. She’s without a mother, thanks to a tragedy we never really hear about, leaving her to be raised by her father and grandmother (played by Suhasini Mulay). Thankfully, although her antics distress her grandmother, her physician father, Dr. Dev (played by Parvin Dabas) loves her with all his heart and actually encourages her independent spirit despite the trouble it sometimes brings to his door.
Like the Police… from the ominously named Security Branch… here to apprehend a potential terrorist, who it seems turns out to be the result of Shreya carrying on a correspondence with a pen-pal named Imran in Pakistan. I don’t know what’s scarier… the idea that the Security Services would actually come to arrest a little girl for some innocent letters to another child in another country or the implication that all mail from India heading to Pakistan is automatically read by nameless government goons as a matter of routine. It’s merely a tiny moment in our films beginning, but it stuck with this lady nonetheless.
Her little brother Sam (played by Krishang Trivedi) isn’t worried about his sister… Heck no!! he knows she’s scarier than any jail, and he’s just overjoyed at the prospect of inheriting his bossy big sister’s room. Yep… some serious “sibling rivalry” there… 😉
But Dev gets things straightened out in time for Shreya to star in her school’s big stage play about mermaids. We get a really nice little song and dance sequence as Shreya happily takes the stage as “Princess of the Mermaids”… and afterwards, she’s aching to be able to accompany her father on his upcoming trip to the rural village he grew up in where he hopes to found a hospital to improve the lives of the rural poor his family left behind years ago. Finally… our “Mermaid Princess” hopes to actually be able to frolic in the lakes and pools she’s heard of but never seen in the city and actually learn to swim!!
But despite her eager excitement, her father is reluctant to bring her and Sam along with him. The rural village is a place he remembers as backward and ignorant… and probably not a welcoming place to a young woman aching to run free and express herself like Shreya does. Think that will stop our girl from trying to melt his heart and sway his decision? Heck no….
So before even the credits have rolled, our little family finds themselves on the dusty road home to remote Madhogarh village, in the Mahendragarh district of Haryana. Shreya is in for some surprises though… far from being the fertile farming paradise of her father’s youthful memories, the village is now nearly a drought plagued desert wasteland, with none of the ponds and lakes she’d been expecting.
The villagers themselves? Well they are as backward and superstitious as her father expected… seemingly pleased with his proposed gift of a hospital clinic, but also reluctant to accept his services as a doctor. The village headman even seems to resent his very presence, saying they already have a doctor who visits and cares for their need sufficiently. And Shreya? Well… at first the villagers take her and her short hair and jeans to be a boy rather than a girl… and once they find out otherwise, she gets some pretty peculiar looks from most of the locals.
Our heroine takes it all in stride. Her wild spirit wins over first her grandfather, and then his pretty housekeeper Shabri (played by Tannishtha Chatterjee), and even local boxing champion Veer (played by Rahul Singh), who all see her as a bright shinning bit of life come to awaken the color long missing in the otherwise drab village. Even without the streams, lakes and grasslands she expected, she’s determined to explore the surrounding countryside, convinced that somewhere out there must be a pond… one pond… where she can learn to swim before her vacation comes to a close. She just knows it has to be there, waiting for her.
This part of the film is pure magic… as Shreya and Sam have their own version of “Tom Sawyer & Huck Finn” getting up to mischief and having adventures with the local gang of kids. All boys… for strangely enough Shreya finds herself to be the only girl in the whole village… more on that quirk later. 😉
My goodness…. how I really loved the character of Shreya!! She’s spunky, feisty, and fun with an irrepressible spirit of adventure and daydreams of being a magical mermaid princess. Watching her roam around the village in her jeans, with her trusty satchel and “fighting stick”… a gift to “the young warrior princess” from Veer… brought back oodles of fond memories of myself as a young girl. Little Miyuki, future “Catgirl Princess”, was that same crazy little tomboy back then, and if Shreya and I had ever met for real at that age, I just know we would have been kindred spirits and the best of friends… and probably gotten into all sorts of trouble together. 🙂
So what sort of adventure can such a girl get up to in such a dusty and boring backwater village? Well… luckily for Shreya, the local boys tell her about the Dayaan… the witch… that haunts the old ruined fort on the hill above the village. Wanna know why there aren’t any other girls here? It’s because the evil witch is reputed to stalk the village by night and has snatched them all away and eaten them!! Gasp!!
OK… OK… a cannibal witch!! Now we’re getting somewhere!! The gang of boys dare Shreya to visit the fort by night to prove her bravery and our lil’ heroine is more than brave enough to try despite the fact that the fort is supposed to be “off limits” by order of the village headman. Even her father tries to dissuade her, but naturally she sneaks out that very night to test the truth of the local rumors. Only to find…. they apparently are very, very true!! Something really does lurk in the darkness of the old fort!! Is it the witch? Is Shreya in danger of getting eaten like all the other girls before her?
Well… for you to learn that, Neko’s gonna have to give you her “Spoiler Alert”… cause we really can’t go any further without ruining things. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya… 😉
Yes… someone does linger withing those forbidden ruins. Someone who is interested in lil’ Shreya, and someone who knows the terrible secret the villagers have been keeping. Where are all the little girls….?
After her close encounter with the witch, Shreya finds herself suddenly thrust into the role she’s never really wanted… to be a proper Hindi girl… even for just one day. You see, there’s also a local tradition in which on one day of the year, all girls are honored as “living goddesses”… all given the respect and expected to visit around the village sharing their beauty and the gift of good fortune with all. But it’s been a long time since there were any girls here, so our heroine finds herself in the uncomfortable position of accepting this duty. She even blesses the sick daughter-in-law of the village headman’s son… even though the headman has refused her father’s offer to doctor the sick girl. We are given the impression it’s because it would be unseemly for Dev… a man… to deal directly with a woman. Just not proper, you see… but this is just an excuse, a smokescreen to hide the truth. So of course… without prompt proper treatment, the woman dies and Shreya gets blamed. Her visit to the fort… the villagers believe she’s angered the witch and awakened her curse, so they want the kids to leave and for Dr. Dev to take them away before things get worse. Bullshit… 😦
Finally… one evening before Dev was to take them back to Dehli, Shabri’s husband Trilochan mysteriously takes her away at the angry request of his mother on an unknown midnight excursion. Shreya sees them leave… something unheard of after dark in this village and decides to get Sam and follow them. Where does that journey lead them? Why over the hill beyond the ruins of the fort into the “off limits” land where a deserted warehouse hides the real horror hidden here in Madhogarh village. A clandestine abortion clinic run at the orders of the village headman where illegal sonograms are used to determine the sex of unborn babies so that girl fetuses can be quietly aborted and thrown into that single remaining pond in the hills. The very pond Shreya has wanted for her joy, now revealed as a place of stinking misery and horror. The very butchery that the headman subjected his own daughter-in-law to and the botched complications of which killed her… 😦
Arrrrrghhh!! This is the real message of our film, a very real and incredibly shameful practice plaguing modern India today. Female foeticide practiced to favor the birth of sons for Indian families. Yep… girls are without value you see… they can’t be the heads of families, “traditionally” don’t have the right to inherit land and money, and are a drain on a family’s resources, especially when you have to provide a “dowry” to even see them married and then become their husband’s “problem” to support. So it’s become a real shameful practice to quietly see that they never get born….
Our lil’ heroine interrupts such a shameful operation being forced upon the helpless Shabri, and it earns her a death at the hands of the headman’s goons who catch her and try to drown her in the fetid pond despite Sam finally finding his bravery and fighting to save his sister.
Shreya can’t swim… but miraculously she is borne to shore by the mysterious “witch”, who is still following her. It turns out to be the old village midwife, driven out by the headman long ago, who has been living in the ruins of the fort, despised and forgotten by the locals who are all secretly complicit in one way or another in this conspiracy. Luckily before the thugs can finish them all off, Dev and Veer arrive to put the evil doctor, his minions, and the headman in their place, saving Shabri’s baby and calling in the local police to arrest the villains.
These shameful secrets finally brought to life, the implication is that Dev will use his clinic to help restore the village to normal… to get them to see the value all these girl children could bring, and all because of the bravery and pluck of our little heroine who provided the inspiration for all the girls to come.
It’s a hopeful ending… but one that leaves you saddened by the reality behind the story. As an American woman, I myself sometimes take the freedoms and rights I have for granted. Films like this remind me that my life could have been terribly different had I the misfortune to be born in a less enlightened part of the world. What would have been my fate, had I been born somewhere that would have wanted to crush my spirit and mold me into their idea of a “woman’s place”? It chills my heart to even imagine it… Even Shreya’s final letter to her pen-pal Imran wonders what would have been her fate had her father not left that village when he did to embrace the modern world.
As angry as all this made me… and my adorable wife could see how those wicked ideas made me bubble and seethe with barely suppressed rage as our story reached it’s climax… I suppose I should be happy that director Nila Madhab Panda has made this film and shown that those stupid practices don’t have to continue to represent the future of India, that such practices can be changed. I hope they heed this and do… (Trust me… nobody wants this lady to be pissed at you. I have a particularly vicious streak hidden in this petite lil’ body… 🙂 )
So there we are. A “mermaid” movie without a real mermaid, and a “witch” who isn’t really “wicked”, but with the most delightful lil heroine I could imagine battling perhaps the most evil idea one might imagine. I really did like this film a lot… even if the “real” subject made me angrier than I’ve been in quite a while. I’m going to give “Jalpari” a well deserved 4 “Meows” out of 5. Much of that is the very sleek, very easy to follow plot, presented in a very “abbreviated” (for a Hindi film, anyways..) hour and a half. The music is integrated well… only a couple of songs really… and isn’t as jarring as some Hindi films. My biggest joy was with the character of our wee heroine Shreya herself… I enjoyed young Lehar Khan’s performance throughout and I hope she’s an inspiration to all Indian girls watching this one that you can grow up to be both a woman and be strong and independent minded too charting your own course in the world.
Now this one is easy to find on DVD… but unfortunately not with English subtitles. Luckily for you, it’s currently available for streaming on both Amazon and Itunes with those ever important subtitles on board for your enjoyment anytime. I’d say it’s definitely a must see… even if “social commentary” films aren’t your usual cup of tea either… 🙂
Naturally your Favorite Catgirl Princess snagged you a Trailer… with English subtitles to boot!