by Sneha Bhagwat

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“अरे! हम हैं तो समाज हैं। और इतनी ही फिकर हैं तो मर्दो को बांध के रखो ना घर पे| मर्द खरीदता है तभीच तो औरत बेचती हैं अपनेआप को।”

Rukminibai (Shabana Azmi) thunders as she walks with the gait of a tired old womxn, pulling her loose पल्लु over her breast with the unashamed sultriness of a former courtesan. She then asks the prized virgin of the bordello, Zeenat (Smita Patil) to sing her a song to ease her worries as the matriarch of a household that is constantly threatened by the patriarchal society outside its walls.

Mandi tells the story of this feisty old madame of a bordello and her ‘girls’ who try to survive on their matriarchal island in the middle of a patriarchal society that constantly tries to break the sanctity of a place where womxn are not bound by social, economic and sexual mores that are dictated by the patriarchal, middle class morality.

I have, over the past year been making a conscious effort to access literature and films that narrate stories that I, as an Indian womxn identify with or am aware of as a part of the realities that exist around mine. It is when I actively started seeking the multiplicity of narratives created by storytellers within our country that I came across Shyam Benegals work. Mandi being the first of his movies that I watched, I had not known what to expect, except for a brutal kind of realism that one associates with the Indian alternative cinema. Watching the movie without any context was one of the reasons why it left such a lasting impression on me, because I had not expected this honest, yet sensitive portrayal of womxn’s issues from a movie made by a man.

The plot is loosely based on Ghulam Abbas’s short story ‘Anandi’ but Shyam Benegal adds multiple layers of complexity that Abbas chose to leave out of his story. The plot primarily consists of the characters from the ‘civilised’, patriarchal society attempting to ruin Rukminibai’s flourishing ‘mandi’ of sensual pleasures.

I use the term ‘sensual pleasures’ purposely, because the womxn of the bordello are not just your everyday sex workers, adept at providing for their customer’s sexual needs, but pride themselves on being skilled courtesans.

“हम लोगा कलाकारा हैं| हमारी कला में ही तो हमारी जान बस्ति हैं|” Rukminibai proudly proclaims in her anachronistic Urdu dialect.

Every one of the bordello girls is trained in classical dance and music, particularly Zeenat, whose haunting रियाज़, singing ठुमरी and ख़याल, makes the bordello seem like an artful refuge from the crude masculinity of the world outside.

Rukminibai’s assertion about them being the only carriers of the dying art of court music and poetry is believable on listening to Asha Bhosale’s tragically spot on rendition of all of Zeenat’s ग़ज़ल performances. Vanraj Bhatia’s music, full of Hindustani classical tunes and Urdu ग़ज़लs by शायरs like Mir Taqi Mir softens the harshness of the realities the movie portrays while emphasizing on the feminine and artistic mandi that the bordello comes to signify; a relic of debauched times.

One of the most endearing and rebellious qualities of all the womxn from the bordello is that they are unashamed by their profession. They own their bodies and sexuality the way no womxn from the patriarchal world can. They admit to their work being a financial necessity and refuse to leave their ‘धंदा’ when the municipal committee unanimously decides to evict them from the bordello or when Shantidevi, a social activist, arrives at their doors with her middle class morals and a servile group of followers, to stop the ‘immoral’ and ‘evil’ Rukminibai from keeping Phoolmani, the newest addition to the bordello’s girls, captive. Rukminibai’s marketplace, in all its cruelty, admits to being one, while the world outside, a patriarchal marketplace, sells womxn’s silent suffering without acknowledging its own moral corruption.

The crux of the movie’s social observations and critique comes from a series of juxtapositions that Benegal makes between the ways of the self-righteous, patriarchal world at large and that of Rukminibai’s matriarchal bordello.

The primary juxtaposition being that of the two ‘mandis’. The ‘ज़नान-ए-बाज़ारी’ or the market place of womxn as Abbas refers to it in his story and the ‘moral’, patriarchal marketplace that trades in people’s lives and happiness.

Zeenat, the prized virgin of the bordello, has not been put out into the market by Rukminibai, who is waiting for the perfect customer to arrive and offer a price that satiates her greed. Rukminibai is ready to curtail all her movement and denies her any sexual freedom to maintain her virgin status; Phoolmani, the newest addition to Rukminibai’s girls is coerced into staying at the bordello and forced to have sex with a customer when she obviously is not ready for it; Tungrus, the servant and ironically enough, the only man in the house, runs around being insulted and kicked around by all the womxn. They are all victims of the power structure in the bordello. Rukminibai decides and everyone follows, whether they wish to or not. Every one of these infringements on the rights of these people is symptomatic of how even the most well intentioned systems of power have the potential of being oppressive. Benegal, while showing the upsides of this matriarchal society, never ignores its failures.

However, these violations seem forgivable when juxtaposed with the cruel, inhuman marketplace of the patriarchal world. Every man who enters the bordello, other than Susheel (Zeenat’s lover) and their regular Doctor, deprive these womxn of some of the agency, economic, social or sexual, that they have created for themselves. However, in their interactions with these men, the bordello girls are unapologetic, unafraid and use their sexuality to their advantage. If the men are trying to play them, the womxn play them right back, by crying for mercy or beating them up, if necessary. They manipulate these men in their favour by any means possible. They have adapted to survive the constant onslaught of greedy, lecherous men on their sanctuary.

Just one of the instances of how market-like the patriarchal world is, can be found in the ‘transaction’ between Mr Gupta (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), a rich, lecherous contractor and Mr Agarwal (Saeed Jaffrey), the bankrupt municipal chairperson. They form an alliance to oust Rukminibai from her bordello and build a commercial complex in its place and split the profit. They seal this ‘deal’ by deciding to marry their children, without ever considering their wishes. Mr Agarwal’s son Susheel (Zeenat’s lover) and Mr Gupta’s daughter Malati (Ratna Pathak Shah), a spoiled, shy girl. These two are the prized virgins of the patriarchal marketplace who are mere assets traded in the financial transactions made by the patriarchs. Malati’s fate is just as awful as Phoolmani’s since she is being forced to have a relationship against her wishes. Additionally, she does not even get economic and sexual freedom that the bordello girls like Zeenat do.

This juxtaposition of the fates of the womxn who belong to a womxn’s world and the womxn who live in a man’s world sends a powerful message about the blatant oppression of the patriarchy. The womxn here do not even have the right to speak up for themselves, let alone having autonomy of any kind. Mr Gupta’s wife and daughter, Malati, do not have more than 10 lines between the both of them in the entire movie. Their loud silences, as they are quietly coerced into a life of economic, social and possibly sexual exploitation, is a pointed critique of a society that conveniently finds fault with something that challenges its entrenched power structures in the form of Rukminibai’s bordello, but never tries to change equally exploitative institutions within its structure, like arranged marriage.

Even a womxn who holds power in a man’s world, like Shantidevi, has to do so in a very masculine, power hungry fashion, within the ambit of the patriarchal morality. In-spite of her well intentioned claims about being concerned for the welfare of the womxn in her town, she refuses to see the desperate financial situation of any of the sex workers. She instead chooses to vote for moving the bordello to the outskirts of the city in a meeting for the municipal council. The nature of her ‘democratic’ movement also has distinct feudal undercurrents. Her demeanor towards the people from the own rally is terribly demeaning. She expects to stand on a literal and figurative pedestal to address the clamoring mass of supporters and then refuses to let any of them in when the time for actual negotiations with Rukminibai arrives. She clearly believes herself to be better than the mass of people who throng around her. She is like a feudal overlord in the garb of a social justice crusader.

Benegal paints these two vastly different worlds and emphasizes on how difficult reconciliation would really be by trying to bring these worlds together in the form of Zeenat and Susheel’s love affair. Rukminibai commodifies Zeenat’s virginity and Mr Agarwal uses Susheel as an asset in his financial deal with Mr Gupta. Both are commodified by the power structures they belong to and more importantly, both are unaware of a secret that binds them. Zeenat is Mr Agarwal’s love child from one of the sex workers at Rukminibai’s bordello. These circumstances make Susheel and Zeenat’s flourishing love affair, which begins at a party thrown by Mr Gupta to announce Susheel’s betrothal to Malati, impossible from the very beginning. However, they continue to love each other, ignoring the barriers between them. When they choose to elope, however, the unsustainably transgressive nature of their love dawns on Zeenat and she ends up committing suicide before her matriarch or his patriarch turn them into captive assets again. The doomed nature of their transgressive love goes to show how inhuman and insuperable the entrenched power structures in a ‘mandi’ can be.

Mandi, in all its complexity, on the first watch was just a disturbing reminder of everything that is wrong with our society while being a sort of beacon for the ways in which womxn have the capacity to work their way around systemic oppression to create agency for themselves. These womxn were never mere victims. The movie in its bare bones, made me realize the strength of female companionship and the agency that they can create when they are forced to fight a hostile society. To watch a story about the struggles that womxn face without that sense of intellectual cynicism that is so typical of any serious film or novel on social issues was somehow heartening, knowing that all will never be lost and as long as womxn have got each others backs.

It is only now that I have written about it that I have realised the full extent of how elaborate and contextualised the plot of this movie is. Benegal brutally digs into the layers of social hierarchies to analyse the workings of a matriarchal island in a patriarchal society. The themes and motifs multiply and become a nebulous mass of ideas that one is aware of in the background but are truly understood only after some serious thought goes into unraveling the weave of the film. Its incisive critique becomes a weighty affair that might not be accessible to anyone who does not have significant social and gender sensitivity.

However, what the film loses in accessibility, it more than makes up for in other features. What has made me fall in love with Mandi, more than any of the insightful social commentary offered by the movie is its focus on details.

Benegal never left out the tiny, mundane yet significant details from the lives of these characters in his attempt to portray the larger social reality. Rukminibai performing the daily ‘पूजा’ and then carrying the ‘धुप’ around her house, humming a haunting folk melody (http://gaana.com/song/kitti-bar-bola-na) that stayed with me for days after I had watched the movie; Tungrus carrying tea for all the womxn or scrubbing Vasanti’s back while she bathed; Zeenat using coal and camphor to smoke her hair out over a wicker basket; Nadira, fiercely sexual and yet very protective of all her fellow womxn, ready to hit and fuck any man who comes in her way; Vasanti and Ram Gopal, the sleazy photographer’s little romance; one of the bordello girls singing a lullaby to her child. Every one of these scenes, though seemingly insignificant in the larger narrative about the multiplicity of systemic problems plaguing our society, made me a very happy and satisfied viewer.

Benegal focused and occupied these moments with subtle yet meaningful pauses for the viewer to experience every individual moment from the lives of his characters, to let the normalcy and humanity of these womxn sink in. Every little detail or revelation from the lives of these diverse characters is pointed out at multiple points in a sardonic manner of a bemused observer, in Ashok Mehta’s deft camera work with the right pause in the right place, giving the viewer an opportunity to make observations for herself rather than using the pompous dialoguebaazi, native to mainstream cinema of the 80’s.

The movie did not just use sex workers or any of its characters, as some kind of obscure, intellectual motifs, which I was worried would happen, especially since this was a movie about a specific class of womxn, directed and written by a man, based on a short story (Anandi by Ghulam Abbas) also written by a man.

Of course, a large part of the credit for the sincerity and honesty of the portrayal also goes to the stunning cast, from Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil, who dominate the tale, to Soni Razdan and Naseeruddin Shah who play the smallest roles with an accuracy and dedication that makes this messy, dark yet oddly humorous world come alive on screen. The movie is like a satirical observation of the glaring flaws of the society which we, as its respectable citizens choose to ignore in a sort of collective double-think.

In times when Indian middle class morality is becoming increasingly conservative and regressive, a movie like Mandi gains particular significance for calling out the blatant hypocrisy of our ‘civilized’ society. It forces its viewers to face the multiplicity of realities and identities that occupy what they would want to be a homogenous society.

May movies like these, with their painful, immoral stories, be the art that is too rebellious, too immoral, too sensual, too ‘womxn centered’, just too much in every way for our cowardly, patriarchal morality.

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Sneha is a human female who studies literature and does what most people do. She eats everything at arm’s length. She wants the world to be a better, colder, nicer place without humans, maybe. She aspires to be a mountain goat and live in Mussorie.

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