Once Mahatma Gandhi said, and rightly so, that India lives in its villages. They are its spirit and soul. But today, Indian villages, struggling as they are having been left far behind by their more demanding cities, where the educated and the elite reside, are in a deep mess. The horrific suicides by farmers are a case in point.
But, unnoticed, by and large, India's small towns are emerging, pushing themselves up and trying to tell the nation that they too exist, and are capable of running the race – and winning it too. I have been seeing this for a while, and a movie like Bareilly Ki Barfi minces no words in exploring this new Indian development.
The film’s title is a take-off on this, and narrates the story of Kirti Sanon’s Bitti Mishra – a free-spirited young woman whose cigarette-smoking, boozing and carefree temperament make her most undesirable for the marriage market, filled as it is with prospective grooms dreaming of a bride who will be content being closeted in the kitchen rolling rotis. But Bitti is none of these, and when she finally decides to leave home, a life-changing event stops her during a railway journey.
What I found quite absorbing about the work was director Ashwini Iyer Tiwari's effort to spread out a canvas where we see life as it exists in India’s small towns, where people are still rooted in their culture and are affectionately connected with their families and even friends. But they aspire a degree of freedom, a kind of independence that will free them from the shackles of conservatism. Bitti is a rebel of sorts who smokes and drinks and hits off at Bareilly’s marriage parties with her breakdances.
In a way, the heroine of Sanal Sasidharan's controversy-hit movie, Rajshri Deshpande, resembles all that I have been saying about a small town trying to say, nay shout, I am here! Now at the ongoing Cairo International Film Festival promoting Sexy Durga (the original title still goes outside India), Deshpande is from Aurangabad in Maharashtra. Believe it or not, despite all the hullabaloo about the movie at the International Film Festival of India, Deshpande is hardly known. She has hardly been written about, and all those who have watched Sasidharan's riveting piece of work, will not even recall that its lead actress is Rajshri.
But five minutes into a conversation with her here in Cairo, I can feel that here is a young woman who is daring enough to say that she saw nothing wrong with the title, Sexy Durga, “because the people involved in its production were all sensible”. She adds that the movie is a classic example of how men perceive women, and this is exactly what we keep seeing in the film – with two guys in the van ogling at Durga (Deshpande) as she and her boyfriend, Kabir (Kannan Nair), are eloping.
The fact that Deshpande did not take the safe path while answering my question, instead heading towards the uncomfortably rebellious route, indicates all too clearly that here was a woman from a small place in India's heartland seeking greener pastures, perhaps trying to shake herself off the shackles placed on her by society. “Sanal and I discussed the title before we embarked on this journey”, she quips. “And we decided to go ahead with this”.
Sasidharan must have been impressed by her acting skills, as he must have been by her courage to be part of a work that was bound to slip into a storm. He has cast her in his next movie as well called Death of Insane (Unmadiyude Maranam). “It is all about dreams, and your dreams can come true”, Deshpande avers. Back again to the urge to get out into the big world!
And true enough, Deshpande is all set to start work with a Bollywood biggie, Anurag Kashyap. She will begin her shoot of Sacred Games (a Netflix original, with Saif Ali Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Radhika Apte) soon after she returns from her holiday in Prague in the first week of December. “I need a break. I have been working continuously for two years. So I take off from Cairo to Prague”. Will her husband join her? “No, I plan to travel alone. I am a gypsy traveller. Both of us do out own stuff”, she is candid.
I cannot but help notice a strong flavour of free-spiritedness in her that appears to pull her towards greater freedom, towards a kind of life she must have aspired back home in Aurangabad in her younger days.
However, I feel that Nandita Das's upcoming Manto (which had a big promotional event at Cannes last May) – where Deshpande plays the equally controversial writer, Ismat Chughtai, can be a turning point for Rajshri. Das told the recent Times Literary Festival: “The characters in the biopic include Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai, who was friends with Manto and who contested obscenity charges alongside him in 1942. The film will have a few scenes involving the feminist Urdu writer, of which one focuses on a letter by her to Manto after he moved to Pakistan. We can’t know what actually happened, but we know that his friends from India were writing to him constantly, asking him to come back, but he never even opened these letters. One can imagine that there must have been piles of letters in his home lying unread.” There is a scene in the movie where Manto's wife, Safia (played by Rasika Duggal, also seen in Anup Singh's Qissa), pushes him to read one of the letters written by Ismat.
Seems apt that Deshpande should be essaying Chughtai.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is now covering the Cairo International Film Festival)