Last night I finally watched मृत्यु दण्ड - Mrityu Dand, or Death Penalty. The film tells the story of a family beset by financial troubles brought on, in part, by the machinations of a corrupt politician and a vicious, thieving businessman. When the businessman - Tirpat, the film's unequivocal bad guy - schemes to murder the local pandit, the owner of a valuable quarry takes the pandit's place. This leaves the new Pandit's younger brother Vinay, a newly-married aspiring contractor, in charge of the property and ripe for manipulation. Tirpat's schemes bring ruin to Vinay and threaten his blissful marriage to Ketki, played with intensity by Madhuri Dixit (below, with Ayub Khan as Vinay).
Meanwhile, Ketki's sisters-in-law face travails of their own. Kanti (Shilpa Shirdokar), is forced to give herself to Tirpat's men to repay her husband's own debts to him. And the eldest sister-in-law, Chandravati, played by Shabana Azmi, is devastated when her husband leaves her to become pandit. After a life-threatening illness, she finds comfort in the arms of a family friend and servant.
Inspired by Ketki, the sisters-in-law and an army of other women terrorized by Tirpat and his cronies stand up and fight against the subjugation they have endured. The film ends with a melodramatic showdown, a literal battle of the sexes, which leaves no doubt that justice has been done, though with a price.
It took me a while to grow accustomed to the style of this film. The opening scenes moved very fast, rapid dialogue and quick cuts introducing the characters and setting the stage for their unfolding relationships. I am accustomed to a more deliberate expository pace, and so was a little confused early on. I quickly sorted it out, however, and was drawn into the story as Tirpat's schemes spiraled around Vinay to ensnare him. And, being an Indian film, Mrityu Dand featured the obligatory musical numbers, which can appear awkward and cheesy to an audience accustomed to western films. Here, though, the songs were excellent, and woven well enough into the story so as not to be distracting - for example, one was a performance at a wedding, another a reminiscence of happier times when Ketki and Vinay's marriage was on the rocks.
There was little subtlety in Mrityu Dand's drawing of lines between good and evil. Tirpat is a mustache-twirling, manipulative, nasty villain who mentally tortures his wife for fun; Ketki is strong, outspoken, and spirited, but an otherwise unassailable Indian wife and unquestionably the character to root for. None of this detracts from enjoyment of the film, and may even make Ketki's rifle-wielding triumph that much more satisfying. As the women around her draw strength from her presence, Ketki herself seems to grow in confidence and stature.
Shabana Azmi's top billing was, ultimately, the reason I chose this film, and I would have liked to have had more of her, but Mrityu Dand is really Madhuri Dixit's show. Ms. Azmi's Chandravati spends the first half of the film lying about and moaning at her husband's abandonment. It is not until illness takes her away from her home that she finds her voice and springs to life. In one of my favorite scenes in the film, as Rambaran (Om Puri) begins to seduce her, the hesitant Chandravati retreats from him - right into the bedroom. I've never seen a more delicious and subtle portrayal of a woman's ambivalence at her desire, and Shabana Azmi's wide eyes and expressive mouth just complete the scene to perfection.
Chandravati's defiant return to her home is marked by a speech in which she announces to her husband that she has completed her penance for failing to give him children and wishes to live again, through desire. This moment is eerily reminiscent of the confrontation between Shabana Azmi's Radha and her husband at the climax of Fire. Ms. Azmi's performance in Fire was ultimately more satisfying - Radha was crafted with far more depth and subtlety than Chandravati, because Fire is entirely Radha's story while Chandravati is more of a sidebar in Mrityu Dand. But it is fascinating to me that Shabana Azmi played two such parallel roles in the same year, and I wish I could know more about how that came to be.
Below, the three sisters-in-law; Chandravati begs her husband not to abandon her.