Maati Maay, with Nandita Das, rips into India’s caste system.
MASALA! MEHNDI! MASTI! 2008 and MMMovies! Nandita Das Retrospective Friday to Sunday (July 25-27). See festivals.
Nandita Das is a no-nonsense Indian film actor whose social activism and provocative roles in films like Deepa Mehta's Fire and Earth have set her firmly outside of Bollywood's unrelenting song-and-dance routine.
Das will likely bring a sombre mood to her personal appearances at Masala! Mehndi! Masti! The annual South Asian arts festival showcases some of the unconventional star's work in a retrospective that includes the films Bawandar (rating: N) and Maati Maay (rating: NNN).
Bawandar shows how rural Indian villages and their tribal customs continue to thrive, oblivious to the winds of social change. Based on a true story, the film stars Das as a potter named Sanwari who takes up the cause of women against child marriage and male chauvinism.
Sanwari provokes the ire of the upper-caste men in her village and suffers a vicious gang rape as a result. Refusing to lie down, she takes her fight to India's courts, where she discovers a legal system hell-bent on punishing obstinate women.
Bawandar should kindle sympathy and fury for its social causes, but unfortunately its inept delivery tickles the funny bone. The melodramatic characters, drawn as either saintly or laughably evil, lack shading.
It doesn't help that the story is framed by a tacky subplot about a foreign journalist reporting on the incident. The reporter delivers a running commentary that points out the obvious. Being talked down to gets tiresome. Das's nuanced performance, however, stands out.
She fares better in the whimsical Maati Maay, in which she plays Chandi, a grave-keeper at a children's cemetery whose morbid duty, she claims, is a birthright handed down from the gods.
Chandi attempts to get some distance from her profession, which ultimately turns her into a ghoul who haunts local villagers.
The film embraces and examines Indian folklore while providing a subtle but scathing commentary on the caste system. Unlike Bawandar and most other Bollywood movies, Maati Maay actually offers a fitting vehicle for Das's talent.