Without women, men are not human. This metamorphosis of the male into animal if the world were to become womanless is the theme of Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women. Perhaps the first full-length feature film on female infanticide, Matrubhoomi is noteworthy, not just because it is imaginative, but because it is less imagined, and more real, than it seems. Over 35 million girls have gone missing in our country in the last decade; killed while still foetuses, executed soon after they were born, murdered because of sheer neglect.
Writer-director Manish Jha (whose A Very Very Silent Film, won the best short film award at Cannes in 2002), extrapolates from our current reality to imagine an Indian village where, due to routine killing of female newborns, women have entirely been wiped out. The frustrations, fury, fanaticism that follow in this gender-skewed village have moved several international juries; Matrubhoomi has received awards at Venice, Kozlin, Thessaloniki and Florence. It hits Indian screens on March 26.
In Jha's village without women, crass, crude, confused and sex-starved men hanker for release, through pornography, bestiality, homosexuality and violence. The five sons of Ramcharan (Sudhir Pandey) crave sexual satiation. When a girl, Kalki (Tulip Joshi), is spied, she is hungrily bought by Ramcharan to be bride to the five. All of whom, plus Ramcharan, then, begin exercising their physical rights over her, turn by turn by turn.
Abused, assaulted, raped every night, and forsaken by her father for money, Kalki flees home with her last hope, the low-caste servant boy Raghu, but her husbands catch up and kill Raghu. This triggers off a caste war and Kalki finds herself at the receiving end of rage from both sides. Chained to a pole in the cowshed, she wastes away, as her husbands and Raghu's community rape her repeatedly to get at each other.
Pregnant now, Kalki becomes the centre of yet more strife, with everyone claiming paternity of her child. Amidst another round of caste riots that destroys the entire village, Kalki gives birth to a girl...
Matrubhoomi uses relentless brutality to shock, but at a certain point, the shock turns to numbness, as Jha hammers away with endlessly repeated close-ups of Kalki's battered face with yet another man untying his pyjamas in the background. But the film makers are unapologetic. Says co-producer Punkej Kharabanda (the film is an Indo-French co-production): "Ever since Tulip's mother and sister saw the film, they have stopped speaking to me. In a way, they feel that we made Tulip go through what Kalki goes through in the film, and they can't forgive me for that."
If repulsion is what Jha is aiming to evoke, the film works. It works perhaps even better if, while watching it, one doesn't feel awkward about having forgotten that this male malevolence is the offspring of a womanless world, "the instability which can creep into society due to the absence of women—be it physical, emotional and psychological".
Because finally, the violations that Kalki suffers in this womanless universe is, after all, the fate of many women even today, patriarchal property to be bought and sold, raped, tortured in marriage, abused, battered, mauled during riots, used as reproductive tools. Matrubhoomi blurs the present and the future.