The story is about a Delhi girl, 11-12 years old, who goes to visit her father's native village in Haryana during vacation. Her father is a doctor and building a new hospital near his village. An alien to these parts, she goes around exploring the area with her little brother and encounters situations that she does not fully understand. But her misadventures allow the mature audience to connect the dots... and come face to face with some of India's most deep-rooted epidemics like superstition, extreme gender bias and female foeticide. The audience is never preached about this, nor made to face these head-on; only glimpses are shown, somewhere in the background, as the central character goes around trying to blend with the local gang of boys, observing the village's strange lack of water sources and comprehending the legend of the witch that lives in the ruins outside the village. As she immerses herself in a childlike spirit of adventure, only hints are thrown in random exchanges of dialogues, and you start to notice that talking about certain things is a taboo with the villagers, the strange looks the girl child wearing jeans draws from people in the background, and there does not seem to be any other girl child of her age out in the streets.
It's this invisibility of things that builds up the horror. It's those words of reproach never spoken, but communicated through unblinking eyes. Nobody dares to be rude to the daughter of the big city doctor, but the hints are thrown in endless references. "Girls should be like girls" is repeated at least twenty times; mostly disguised as a light- hearted jape. The wife of the neighbour is a Bengali girl, who someone refers to as "imported wife" in a hushed tone. First you learn the witch eats children, then it is revealed she eats only girl children. For one day the central character wears a salwar (after a lot of protests), and next day the local boys start behaving differently with her.
At one point the theme grows so intense that you realise that the scariest scenes are not the ones where the ignorant city girl walks into the witch's house to look around. It's when she wanders the streets of the village. United in its biases, the village becomes a hostile entity, forever a threat to the girl for whom freedom of expression comes naturally. The extent of this threat is conveyed in a chilling way through a one-line realisation of the girl, "If my father had not left this place, maybe I wouldn't even be here."
The climactic moments, too, stand out in a major way. Not action packed or filled with game-changing revelations, they just make your worst fears come true. And these fears are not expressed through the witch, or any person, but the things you come across. The makeshift hospital with a computer and rusted ultrasound equipment. And the large pond filled with disposed corpses of baby girls. The ugliest face of the biases held dear by the patriarchal Indian society beating the drums of culture and tradition. That this horror does not fade away even after this film ends is made clear with an elderly person's emphatic assertion, "This is way things work here, and it's going to stay this way."
Hats off to the director, Nila Madhab Panda. And Lehar Khan, for bringing to life the endearing central character who would never stop asking questions and breaching boundaries.
Shot in Mahendragarh, a district with one of the lowest sex ratios in India, this film allows you no escape from the plague that haunts our country. Worth watching again and again. Recommended for everybody.
I mean, seriously, watch this film. Do it.