Despite winning the National Award for Best Feature Film, I hadn’t heard much about this film until it was recommended to me by a friend living in the UK. Luckily Hellaro was also released here in Melbourne, and I was able to watch this Guajarati film on the big screen last week. And what a treat! Hellaro is a beautiful film, steeped in the vibrant colours of Kutch with an amazing soundtrack and excellent performances from all the cast. The story is simple, but powerfully compelling and overall, it’s an absolute joy to experience at the theatre.

The end titles advise that the film is based on folklore and both the telling and the subject matter fit into that style of story. Hellaro is a tale about female oppression and the struggle to overcome patriarchy as the women of a small village in Kutch try to escape their controlling and violent menfolk. The women are kept virtual prisoners by the men, and rarely leave their homes except to collect water from a small lake close to the village. Singing and dancing are banned, along with sewing and anything that might bring joy to the women’s dull and barren existence. New bride Manjhri (Shraddha Dangar) enters into this misery with her soldier husband Arjan (Aarjav Trivedi), who has been allowed home from the border for his wedding. On his wedding night he explains the rules of the village to the educated and city-bred Manjhri and advises her to cut her own wings and horns as it will hurt more if he has to do it himself.

Being educated and from a more liberal family, Manjhri raises questions about the village customs. The only chance she gets to speak to the other women is during their daily trek to the lake, but even then the women are conservative and hesitant to step out of their restrictive roles. On the way to fetch water one morning the women find a man dying in the desert and after initially avoiding any contact, they finally revive him with the water they are carrying home. Manjhri takes the lead in this rescue as many of the women are frightened and want to leave the man to his fate, well aware of the consequences if their husbands find out they have helped a male stranger. Manjhri’s compassion is quickly rewarded as the man they have rescued is a dholak called Mulji (Jayesh More), who is persuaded to play his drum for them, giving the women a chance to escape their day to day reality and experience freedom.

In the village the women hide in their houses as the man dance garba with swords, twirling their moustaches and ironically praying to a female goddess for rain. In the desert the women dance garba to the beats of Mulji’s drum in a brief moment of happiness and release from their suffocating lives in the village. The mix of music and colour is intoxicating and yet violence is never far away with the ever-present threat that the men will find out exactly what the women are doing.

Although the story follows a linear path, there are layers within the basic tale and adding in caste politics and the fate of widows in rural India adds more depth and texture to the plot. In Hellaro, writer/director Abhishek Shah and co-writer Prateek Gupta have taken a simple idea and crafted a vibrant screenplay that’s enhanced by Saumya Joshi’s dialogues. Small details build on each other, crafting a detailed picture of a world that really could be any time or anywhere, adding to the fairy-tale atmosphere of the film. The women are superstitious and some believe that their ‘sin’ of dancing may be the cause of various mishaps around the village, while others are fully aware that the men are the source of all their troubles. Throughout the film, the characters are mostly painted as either black or white, but each of the women have defining traits that round out their characterisations to some extent. While they are still mostly brief sketches, each of the actors shows personality and ensures each character is seen as an individual.

The men are less well defined and are mostly seen as brutal and violent although a couple are shown in a little more depth. Bhaglo (Maulik Nayak) travels routinely between the village and the city and as a result is rather more cosmopolitan in his views. He entertains some of the villagers by re-telling the stories of the movies he has seen, although the men are more interested in the bedroom scene from Bobby than hearing about Basanti dance in Sholay. Bhaglo’s open-mindedness and awareness of the women’s situation is well contrasted with Arjan’s more traditional view, despite both men having travelled outside the boundaries of the village.

As the dholi, Jayesh More has few dialogues, but he is pivotal to the story and is excellent in the climax sequences. Shraddha Dangar is fantastic in the role of Manjhri, but all the women are superb and I wish I knew more about them to be able to differentiate individual performances. Mehul Surti provides the wonderful music while choreographers Sameer and Arsh Tanna spin magic with their brilliant garba routines. Cinematographer Tribhuvan Babu Sadineni captures the harshness of the desert, but also its beauty, along with the fantastic colours of the women’s clothing and the details of the house interiors. The film looks amazing in every frame and it’s this mix of music, colour and performances that make Hellaro such a memorable experience.

The only downside is that this a rather simplistic view of patriarchy with mostly very binary characters. The few who do show more complexity are still mostly good; that is progressive, understanding, empathetic and believers in equality with little or no negative traits. Those who are bad show few redeeming qualities, but in reality most people are rarely quite so black and white and societal divisions are not as clear or as clean as they are in Hellaro. What does feel more contemporary though is the banding together of the women over a common source of happiness, along with the determined but passive way in which they fight back. Their taking a stand feels realistic and plausible, while the overall joy of dance that is so integral to the film is perhaps the one thing that will unite both men and women.

Hellaro really is a beautiful film in terms of the framing of the shots, the music, costumes and choreography. Although the subject matter is often ugly, the exuberance the women show while dancing and the wonderful imagery ensure that this is a film that will stay with me for a long time. Highly recommended, especially if you can find it in the cinema.

Gods of Dharmapuri (2019)

Director/writer/actor Anish Kuruvilla’s latest, Gods of Dharmapuri (G.o.D), is a ten part series currently available with English subtitles on Zee5. (You can sign up for a free trial – just remember to cancel before the billing date). The action is set in a remote mining settlement, opening with the arrival of Pratap Reddy, his wife, and kids. But this is not a heartwarming underdog story, or a Kaala Patthar-esque industrial relations primer. Think more like Animal Farm as the new arrival starts his climb to the top of the muck heap.

A taciturn and surly man, I’d love to tell you Pratap has a heart of gold but he is driven by ego not empathy. After becoming a spokeman for the miners, he forms a political alliance with Ranga Rao (John Kottoly) and opposes D.N Reddy (L.B Sriram), the incumbent member and dictator. The men of the community accept Pratap as their leader, and D.N Reddy loses the blind obedience he had commanded. But Pratap moves further away from being a voice for workers like him and resents being a tool of the party. He asks what has the power – the hammer or the arm that wields it. Raj Deepak Shetty imposes himself on every frame, looming like a dark cloud. He may not say much but his rage and hunger are palpable. He doesn’t have relationships so much as he gathers retainers and servants.

Pratap has two sons. Venu (Satyadev Kancharana in an impressively nuanced performance) is the eldest and a clean cut good guy who likes to keep his hands clean. Other people do the dirty work and then he agonises over it. Ravi (Karthik Rathnam) is 80% penis and 20% hair. He loves movies, sex, booze, and his hairdo. Subtlety is not his thing and Rathnam goes all in to portray that. The brothers are so different and they are perpetually in disagreement over how to handle problems. But they love each other and are each other’s most reliable friends. The boys always assume they are in the right because they have the power to punish anyone who insults them.  And Venu certainly wants to win at any cost, despite preferring to manipulate rather than go full machete. He was going to get out, but Ravi caused a problem and suddenly Venu couldn’t escape. He asks Pratap how much longer they have to keep stopping him from acting on his rage and digging them into a deeper hole. You can see the dynasty shaping itself as they jostle for position.

The wives are always on the fringe of things, listening and quietly organising and sharing resources. The husbands all turn a blind eye, trading their wives bodies to sleazy managers for job security. When Saroja (Sruthi Jayan) is raped by a supervisor she suffers in silence. The rape was horrible, but that wasn’t the only sexual violence in her life. And women have to pay for men’s crimes with their own bodies time and time again. Saroja was deprived of a much wanted baby because of Pratap’s pride and entitlement. Acutely aware that one day her family will pay for their actions, she tries to shake some sense into the boys but Pratap dominates their lives. Sruthi Jayan is effortlessly expressive, and the moral burden Saroja carries is etched on her face. It’s not all gloom, and she does have a loving and warm relationship with Venu. Maybe because he was the best bet for breaking the cycle of violence and scheming.

Divya Mathews (Samyukta Hornad) is the young reporter, a professional woman sent to do a story about the family dynasty. She doesn’t wear a saree and  she has sex with Venu, her interviewee, so we know she is Modern. I understood why her character was needed but there was something a bit off, and a sizeable mismatch between her career and the scale of the stories local politics could sustain. I also felt that her taking a cheap shot at Venu’s wife Swapna (Chandini Chowdary) was a misstep by the writers. She had plenty of grievances without resorting to petty and uncharacteristic jealousy. And for a reporter, maybe a bit more fact checking and insight into motives would have helped establish her career and credibility as a character. Or finding a different boss.

Writer/director Anish Kuruvilla also stars as Rao, a slimy rural Rupert Murdoch who manipulates the news he publishes to get the political results he wants. It might be a good indicator that I hate this character with the fire of a thousand suns. Media and politics in bed together is no surprise, but Rao has no real convictions. He just wants what is advantageous to him, and presumably for the bigger shark somewhere in the shadows.

The significant supporting characters are relatively few in number, which made the story’s world feel too small for the stakes we were meant to believe in. However I really enjoyed getting to know more about the various That Guys who enabled Pratap’s rise. Chalapathi (Jagadeesh Prathap Bhandari) is a relative of some sort, and he remains steadfastly with Pratap. Chinappa and Seenaiah are the peanut gallery, freeloading when they can and passing commentary on everyone. I didn’t mind their shenanigans as they gave a cynical fly on the wall perspective. Some supporters became disenchanted with Pratap’s tactics, some like Raghu were resigned to staying with the horse they had picked, most would go wherever the wind took them. One of my favourite scenes is when a woman insists on her right to vote. Seeing her stand up to male indifference and dismissal and claim her name and her democratic right was beautiful, and it anchored the story back to the the little people who had no control over the poltical wheeling and dealing.

I liked that the episodes are not uniform in length, but seemed to stop and start where it made sense to do so. While there are some stylised visuals they mesh well with the beats of the story.  For classic mass fans, there is a significant gold tooth and a significant horseshoe. Many of the male actors looked a lot happier from episode 5 onwards when the tight fitting retro wigs were left in the past.  I was very unimpressed by the prosthetics team. A scene that should have packed a visceral punch was ridiculous due to the amateurish crafting of dismembered bits and pieces. Depicting sexual violence is often problematic with a tendency to voyeursim or sensationalising the act. I was both horrified by what was happening on screen and impressed at the restrained direction that left no doubt but also left a lot to the imagination.

The subtitles are mostly good, and the saltiness of the language is appropriate to the setting and characters. There are a couple of episodes where it felt like a different person was writing the subs and sometimes the translations were too literal. Are fish smilies a thing? I want to know. Not enough to really research it myself, but still. The original soundtrack is excellent and yet sometimes too fresh and modern, not always suited to the rural recent past.

If you like your dramas to come with a kick in the head, this is highly recommended.

Double Seat (2015)

Sameer Vidwans’ Double Seat tells the story of newlyweds Amit (Ankush Choudhary) and Manjiri (Mukta Barve) starting out their married life in Mumbai, a city where space comes at a premium.

The film opens with a montage of a luxury resort honeymoon passing in lazy days, huge beds with drifts of crisp white linens, peace, and privacy. And then Amu and Manjiri arrive at his home in a chawl in Mumbai where they share a very compact apartment with his parents and brother Alpesh. Amu seems content with the way he lives, but maybe he just needed some encouragement. Manjiri is a pocket rocket, excited by achieving her dream of moving to Mumbai and her career in insurance sales. She sees nothing wrong with taking the occasional calculated risk and having aspirations. And so as they get to know each other, the dream of getting their own home is born.

I like the way the relationship between Amit and Manu is portrayed. They genuinely like each other and they’re dead keen to spend time alone together. They get around the limited privacy by texting each other, even in the same room, with little in jokes and hints. They get each other’s humour and enjoy talking about their hopes and dreams. They go out on late night dates, checking out the homes of the rich and famous, and talking about wonders like having a bath in your flat. Amit never wants Manjiri to change. He enjoys her cheerful blend of ambition and pragmatism, and encourages her. I loved how achievable and relatable some of her dreams were – like getting her first pair of jeans or learning to drive. She doesn’t want things out of greed as much as she wants to make the most out of her opportunities. Being so close to his parents, who are very warm towards her, still has an effect on Manjiri as time passes. She becomes a little less demonstrative and more concerned about what other people might think. She still gives as good as she gets, but she seems stifled.

Amit sees that change and doesn’t like it one bit, partly because it’s killing his nascent sex life. But he too has been squashing some of his aspirations and wishes in order to avoid causing ructions at home. I love the way Amu raises the subject of getting their own place, and how it’s what he needs and not just a thing to make his new wife happy. And then Manju falls pregnant. Both actors deliver likeable and well calibrated characterisations. When things take a turn for the worse Ankush Choudhary nails the blend of self-pity and fear that drives Amit to behave in a disappointing way. Mukta Barve gives Manjiri a spirit and energy that dims at times but is never really overcome. And I liked seeing a nod to realistic pregnancy with Manjiri looking more and more tired and uncomfortable as her due date drew closer.

Nothing ever runs that smoothly, or we wouldn’t have a 2 hour 20 minute film. There are a couple of incidents and scenes in the latter part of the film that I felt were a bit too clunky, but by and large the focus stays on the relationships and domestic life. Amu and Manjiri have some issues but realise they need commitment and communication to resolve their problems. And when financial woes hit, there is little blame or hysteria. Instead of wailing and moaning, Manju tells Amit to get his tears out today because tomorrow they start anew. But he has to remember he has not failed and he did nothing wrong by trying. Some people are a tad more dramatic than others, and some take a little longer to show up with practical support, but they get through things by coming together.

Vandana Gupte as Amit’s mother is delightful. She is very supportive of Manjiri having a job, but she is accustomed to certain rules for living so there is a little bit of friction between the kids and her husband. She usually aims her complaints at Amit though, expecting him to communicate the expectations to Manjiri. She bonds with her daughter-in-law over the mega popular soap Chhakuli Mami. And when she accepts the move will happen, she gets right on board to help the kids out. Her entrepreneurial spirit fires up and she takes to business like a duck to water. Vidyadhar Joshi is the mercurial and comfortable self-centred father and good at showing the wounded dignity that lies under some of his more inflammatory remarks. He’s not bad, he’s not horrible, he’s really quite friendly and tolerant to a point. But when his son wants move up in the world it exposes a tension between the generations and opens up a lot of anger and disappointment that Amit has been dutifully suppressing. He does come round to seeing that his son just wants to fulfil a dream. And as an almost full time dreamer himself, that is something dad can understand.

The remaining support cast are all good. I liked the contrast between Amit’s policeman buddy (Sandeep Pathak) and his wife with Amit and Manjiri’s relationship. Asawari Joshi plays the lead on the addictive soapy and appears as a kind of chain-smoking guardian angel for Manjiri. Shivani Rangole has a small role as Sapna whose proud and supportive grandfather was intent she complete her studies and get a good job.

This reminded me a little of the excellent Love and Shukla, although I like the couple’s dynamic more in Double Seat. See it for a thoughtful and engaging exploration of evolving values and relationships in the big city hustle. 4 stars!