Shyam Benegal has a well-deserved reputation for making hard-hitting social dramas which tell true Indian stories in a realistic manner, so you'll find no concessions to Bollywood here. The plot is brutal and compelling, and the film features an all-star cast who give uniformly excellent performances.
Vishvam (Naseeruddin Shah) is one of four brothers who rule their feudal village in pre-independence India with an iron grip. They execute various criminal schemes to increase their own wealth at the expense of the villagers, with the village priest and constable powerless to stop them. However unlike his brothers he tries to lead a relatively restrained life, and at the start of the film we see him married and refraining from drinking and smoking.
His brothers regularly exercise their droit de seigneur, ordering villagers to send their wives and daughters to the haveli so that they can be raped at leisure. At first Vishvam, restrained by his wife (played by beautiful and brilliant but tragically short-lived Smita Patil), refuses to join them. However when the new school teacher arrives with his young child and lovely wife he finds himself tempted, and the brothers abduct her.
The rest of the film concerns the resolution of the abduction, with the villagers forced to make tough ethical decisions. The film ends in a shocking way which will leave audiences deeply disturbed, which is no doubt the cause of the low score that this film has received. However upon reflection the ending is thoroughly realistic, and provides a deep and unsettling insight into the human condition.
Shyam Benegal grew up in rural India and so this film, which is based upon a true story, draws closely upon his own perceptions of village India and the people that inhabit it. However the story has universal appeal, and reveals how people's lives play out in the many parts of the world where civilization is still primitive and brutal.
I am sad but unsurprised to see this film receive such low ratings. No doubt the viewers who rated it will have been expecting light Bollywood style entertainment, or at least some kind of feelgood resolution.
This is an excellent social drama in the tradition of Ankur and Mandi, and should be seen by anyone interested in compelling stories, excellent acting and the realities of village life in the developing world.
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