Mahishasur Marddini: Ranjan Ghosh’s letter of apology to generations of wronged women
Posters of Mahishasur Marddini

Release Date: – 25/11/2022

Cast: – Rituparna Sengupta, Saswata Chatterjee, Parambrata Chattopadhyay, Koushik Kar, Shaheb Bhattacherjee, Poulomi Das, Sritama Dey, Arunima Halder, Abhyuday Dey, Aryuun Ghosh.

Director: – Ranjan Ghosh

It is not every day that a director presents a synopsis of his film not so much for promoting it but more so to enable his film to be understood and his vision to be put in the correct perspective in the minds of his audiences. This was one of those rare occasions when I got to hear from the writer/director of Mahishasur Marddini what his film was all about and what was it that he was aiming to achieve with his cerebral and hard-hitting drama that is bound to make many uncomfortable.

The story: –

The film begins with the brutal gang rape of a poor 10-year-old deaf and mute girl who was spending her days and nights at a Hindu crematorium and a Muslim graveyard alternatively. The story then shifts to a palatial house owned by a landlady (Rituparna Sengupta) who happens to be an Indian Air Force test pilot and is all set to become an astronaut. Her tenants are four college students in their final year of study. They are all busy giving finishing touches to the idol of Goddess Durga and her family on the eve of Durga Puja at their premises.

As the night progresses, the landlady and the students discover an infant girl child abandoned behind their house in a garbage dump. They are then visited upon by some expected and unexpected guests who not only add to their heartbreaking dialogue about the existential crisis and current state of women in society but also bring in their own conflicts and experiences to the story making it richer in thematic elements and also adding different dimensions and shades to the drama and narrative.

What will be the result of all these experiences? What will be the impact of the night on these characters? Will it change them? Will it change the people and the society that they inhabit? The answers to all these questions lie in this masterfully directed cerebral, dark and dramatic tale of self-realization and penance.

The director’s take on the film: –

“My latest feature film is an intersectional work that throws light on contemporary Indian society, seen through the prism of women’s issues,” said director Ranjan Ghosh. “It marries the forms of cinema and proscenium theatre. The film is a one night-one location narrative about guilt-ridden memories, fake appearances of nobility, and how these appearances eventually crumble,” he continued. “It avoids a mechanical plot and the causality of usual plot-driven stories and is instead presented in the form of a seven-act play bringing together a collage of moments to establish the idea of a nightmarish world for the girl child and women.”

Ghosh sums up by calling his film Mahishasur Marddini, a letter of protest as also an apology to women for the wrongs done to her through the ages that continue even to this day.

 Theatrical structure and cinematic execution: –

Hailing from Assam, theatre is something that I have grown up with and its structure has always fascinated me. Many Assamese films these days are written by theatre playwrights and one can clearly see the influence of the theatre play structure in their writing of the scenes and how the narrative moves from one scene to another.

In Mahishasur Marddini, writer/director Ranjan Ghosh categorically uses the structure of a stage play and skillfully combines it with some of the best aspects that cinema has to offer like flashbacks, different colour schemes for different plot points and use of editing to highlight moments or enhance the impact of drama. This results in the film not only having a structure that serves its storytelling best but also ensures that every viewer who is willing to pay the slightest of attention to the storytelling can grasp the narrative even though it is fairly complex, nuanced, cerebral and a lot of it is open to different interpretations.

The director respects the intelligence of the audience and it shows in his storytelling: –

Bollywood has over the years insulted audiences by spoon-feeding them almost everything that there is to know about a plot or screenplay in their aimed-for-masses extravaganzas. I miss the intelligent storytelling of masters like Govind Nihalani, Gulzaar, and Shyam Benegal. These directors in their films challenged the audiences by not giving them everything through dialogues and expositions. They expected their audiences to interact with the film and characters and uncover details about the plot and the characters with their understanding of the story, the socio-economic state of the society and other influences that made up the screenplay.

This has become a rarity in Indian cinema but Ranjan Ghosh incorporates these qualities in every frame of his film. The audiences are expected to connect the dots. They are expected to understand the references. They are expected to understand the numerous references and real-life characters, scenarios and tragedies that the story and the screenplay heavily draw inspiration from. With this knowledge, the film becomes a lot more engaging and impactful.

Performances by the ensemble cast are phenomenal: –

Mahishasur Marddini is conversational in nature. It is about dialogues between characters and unfolds almost entirely in one location. The film is 112 minutes long and hence it cannot be called a short film. Thus, its success was heavily dependent on the performances of the ensemble cast and whether or not they were able to grasp the attention of the audience and keep them hooked.

Ranjan Ghosh does a smart thing by having a cast that is a collection of industry veterans and fresh new faces. Rituparna Sengupta, Saswata Chatterjee, and Parambrata Chattopadhyay enthral you with their power-packed performances that not only let you connect and retrospect with their respective characters but also understand and deep dive into their conflicts and demons through their expressive essays. Their performances speak as much through their expression as it does through their dialogues.

Sritama Dey, Aryuun Ghosh, Arunima Halder, and Abhyuday Dey as the four college students are just as effective especially when they revisit the demons of their past. They not only bring forth the conflicts and turmoil of the current generation but are also able to perfectly give shape and dimension to the confusion that plagues the current generation and its impact on the psyche of the individuals.

This is the best that I have seen Saheb Bhattacharjee perform and Ranjan Ghosh has to be applauded for extracting such a grounded, nuanced and impactful performance from him. Saheb’s portion with Poulomi Das is a scathing revelation of the stigmatization of innocent women when they have little in their control to even escape certain predicaments. The nuanced and sly dig at body shaming and how a woman’s physical appearance at many junctures is a measure of her character and biological state was heartbreakingly realized and executed. The performances from Saheb and Poulomi add the necessary authenticity to an otherwise perfectly written portion of the film.

Durga Puja as the backdrop of the narrative: –

Durga Puja is used as the backdrop of the narrative and its many themes are beautifully interwoven in the narrative. Many might find the negativity of the film and its depiction of the sorry state of women in society off-putting. What we must note here is that the director chooses to show only a certain portion of the existence of women and all that impacts these portions of their lives. This is not a film about the happiness, victories, or chest-thumping achievements of women in society. It is a film about the subjugation, systematic abuse, continued ignorance and stigmatization of women. Ranjan Ghosh does complete justice to this aspect of women’s existence through his film. Will this be a difficult film to sit through? Probably yes! But only for the ones who are hypocritical and dismissive of the reality and the appalling state of women in many parts of our society.

Neutrality in the treatment of characters: –

Indian cinema has always been partial to certain religions and communities when it comes to choosing its heroes and villains. This was always something that I noticed but have only been able to put in words and thoughts lately. Interestingly, Ranjan Ghosh takes a surprisingly neutral approach to his characters. This not only holds his film in good stead but also ensures that no one in society is exempted from his sharp criticism of their respective treatment of women. Even the protagonist of his film — if at all we may call her so — is not let off the hook cleanly. I was pleasantly surprised by this quality of the film and feel that it is at the core of the honesty of its director.

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Final words: –

Mahishasur Marddini has been consistently receiving rave reviews in some of the most prestigious film festivals that it has been to. It was screened at the 21st IHC Theatre Festival, 2022, making it the first Indian feature film to be screened at a theatre festival anywhere in India. The film was invited and screened at the 1st Barak Valley International Film Festival 2023 on the occasion of the 100th birth Anniversary of Mrinal Sen on 20th May 2023. 

Apart from being a picture of beauty and poignance, Mahishasur Marddini’s relevance and importance are undeniable and inescapable. While there might be little that we may be able to do in dealing with an issue, the first step is often the acceptance of the existence of the issue that sets us on a path to solving the issue. That is exactly what this film is for its subject and that is what makes it a must-watch.     

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