(2019) Drama (Saffron Pen) Neena Gupta, Aqsa Siddiqui, Budrani Chhetri, Rajeshwar Khanna, Aslam Sheikh. Directed by Vikas Khanna
India has an amazing culture with much to admire about it. One of the things that is an exception is in the way that women are treated, particularly widows and orphans. In many ways, Indian society is downright repressive to those who have few advocates.
Noor Saxena is one such advocate. A lawyer, she has wrangled a decision from India’s highest court that grants rights to widows that they have not had for centuries. In Indian tradition, widows only wear white. They live lives devoid of color – they are forbidden from taking part in the Holi festival that celebrates the oncoming of spring. You may know it as the one where people throw colored powders at one another in a frenzy of joyful fun. Widows don’t get to take part in that.
Chhoti (Siddiqui) is a street rat living in the slums of Benares, a Hindu holy city along the Ganges. She makes money by doing a tightrope act and selling flowers in the streets. She hopes one day to earn enough to go to school and rise above her station. She befriends 70-year-old Noor (Gupta), a widow living in an ashram for widows who live lives of colorless and passionless reflection. As with most widows, her life is expected to be over when her husband dies; her body is just walking around until she can join him.
Chhoti also hangs out with Chintu (R. Khanna), a fellow orphan who aids her in her high wire act. The two dodge police officers trying to make enough to survive. They are aided by transgender woman Anarkali (Chhetri) who supports herself as a sex worker, mainly catering to brutal men like Raja (Sheikh), an ill-tempered cop who sees himself as king of his little part of the world. He is doubly frustrated because his wife not only hasn’t given him a son (only daughters) but she refuses to bathe in a sacred pool which would guarantee the birth of a strapping young son. He passes through the world as kind of a rage junkie, always looking for a reason to cause pain.
Still, Chhoti never fails to stand up for herself and with Noor guiding her and pushing her to be better than her lot, she falls under the vengeful gaze of Raja, particularly after she witnesses the evil cop doing something particularly heinous, something that could get him thrown in jail. Will Noor defy tradition and stand with her friend?
The movie looks at cultural attitudes towards women in general and the more marginalized women – transgenders, widows and “untouchables” in particular – and the traditions that keep them down. First-time director Vikas Khanna has a wonderful eye for color; the movie is gorgeous to look at even in its occasional brutality and squalor.
Gupta also gives Noor a ton of dignity and gravitas, perhaps more than the movie deserves. It sometimes seems to move at a very deliberate pace which can be maddening; hammering us over the head with how widows and orphans are treated might get the point across but it also at times feels like we’re being talked down to. When you’re trying to deliver a message with your movie, that’s a pitfall you want to avoid.
Still, there is a lot here that is worth checking out. The movie had a brief Los Angeles run and may yet make some appearances elsewhere; there may even be a VOD slot in its future although nothing official has been announced as of yet. Either way, this is worth keeping an eye out for.
REASONS TO SEE: Wonderful use of color throughout the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Rather slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, particularly of the domestic sort; also, sexual situations and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Khanna is best-known as a James Beard award-winning chef. The film is based on a novel that he wrote decrying the state of women’s rights in his home country.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lipstick Under My Burkha
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10