Sunday, December 24, 2017

Ajji: Review

I’m curious to know why Ajji, Devashish Makhija’s take on the rape-revenge drama, begins with the disclaimer: “We neither encourage nor condone taking the law into your hands.” If it was foisted on him by the censors or some government body, it would at least explain why a film which clearly has no problems with the right people taking the law into their hands is claiming to be averse to it. But if the line came from Ajji’s makers, it would seem to point to wilful self-deception about what the film stands for, or an attempt to have one’s liberal-minded cake and eat it too.

Ajji is the fifth Hindi film centered on rape and revenge to release in theatres this year, and the third—after Mom and Maatr—with a female protagonist. The film is grimly artistic where Mom and Maatr have a more mainstream aesthetic; it’s set in a chawl, while the other two are upper-middle-class narratives. In terms of world-view, though, there’s little that separates these films. It’s the same convenient argument we’ve been hearing for years—if the system can’t bring rapists to justice, it’s understandable if they’re hunted down and castrated or killed by the victims.

A young girl is raped, her body discovered in a garbage heap by her grandmother (Sushama Deshpande), whom everyone calls Ajji, and Leela (Sadiya Siddiqui), a sex worker. She’s badly bruised and traumatized, and won’t talk at first when a brusque police officer (Vikas Kumar) comes to their home. Finally, she reveals that her attacker wore dark glasses—an indication that it’s a man named Dhavle (Abhishek Banerjee), the son of a local politician. The cop, in the pay of Dhavle and his father, intimidates the family into not filing charges, and everyone agrees to move on. Everyone, that is, except Ajji.

Having an arthritis-ridden granny as a righteous avenger is a gimmick—it’s hard not to see it as one—but a promising one nevertheless. Ajji sets about her task systematically, confirming the identity of the attacker, spying on him, taking meat-chopping lessons from her butcher friend. If the crime was less heinous, these preparations might have been fun to watch, but the film is deliberately harsh and discomfiting. We’re constantly updated on the little girl’s condition—one recurring detail is Ajji’s search for a medicine that’ll stop her bleeding—lest we forget how brutal the crime was (and, by extension, why it deserves a brutal response). Cinematographer Jishnu Bhattacharjee trains a hard lens on the dirty, dangerous neighbourhood: everything is decay and collapse, from a faltering light bulb to the flies buzzing around the butcher’s meat.

The film pushes the case for vigilantism even further with its characterization of Dhavle as a psychotic mess of sexual hysteria so reprehensible that—in theory at least—it would seem strange to insist on due process in his case. There’s a scene in which he’s presented with a mannequin by one of his friends. The sight of an available, mute female figure that won’t fight back seems to drive him mad with lust—but before throwing it on the ground and humping it, he tears it from limb to limb. All the hatred he bears women comes through in this action. It’s a horrifying scene. And the implicit point it makes is: if anyone deserves to be killed, it’s this guy.

Makhija has spoken in interviews of his desire to subvert the rape-revenge narrative. To my mind, true subversion would be getting the audience to feel some empathy for a child rapist. Making the villain more villainous and the avenger more unlikely isn’t subversion, it’s just pushing the formula to its extremes. This year, two other rape-revenge films besides Ajji have had unlikely avengers—the victim’s mother, a schoolteacher, in Mom, and in Kaabil, a blind man.

What are we left with? Anger, mostly, and a desire to jolt the viewer out of supposed complacency. This is a film that’s frequently well-directed (the long scene where the officer interrogates the family, the false flashback, Ajji’s visits to the butcher shop) but has trouble reigning itself in (the distractingly weird choreography of the meeting between Dhavle and the cop, the excessiveness of Banerjee’s performance). Ajji is one of the most unsettling experiences you’ll have at the movies this year. Whether it adds up to much more than exploitation-art is another question.

This review appeared in Mint.

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