"There were issues like empowerment of women, health care and family planning and I suggested domestic violence," said Kalpana Lajmi recently, explaining how the Government of India's family welfare department and she came up with the idea of Daman.
"I consciously set the movie in an upper-crust background because many tend to believe bestiality exists only because of lack of education and civility. Domestic violence is all about the power we exercise on our near and dears because we think they are our property. I wanted to send the message that no one has the right to exercise such violence."
On paper nothing could sound more promising. On celluloid nothing could be more abject. Would that it had remained merely abject.
Daman, which connives with the worst clichés of Indian cinema, belies its noble social message of sexual subjugation and sets feminism back by decades. Nothing could, in fact, be more sinister.
We cannot dismiss Daman as a badly made film and leave it at that.
This is a film that was shoved down the throat of an unsuspecting jury. A film that was unceremoniously and unanimously given the thumbs-down by the awards panel. A film that got recalled by vested interests in the festival fraternity (if backstabbing can ever permit notions of brotherhood). A film that, by winning an undeserved prize, denied worthier efforts their place in the sun. A film that brought out unseemly battles. Resignations. Allegations of rigging. Mudslinging in the media. Shocked protests by thespians. Even a rash of awards being returned by winners.
A film that in the end tarnished the name of an annual awards event that has for long been held up as a fairly definitive benchmark for popularity and good taste. Till this year (despite subjective differences) there was never a whisper of a film's fate being decided in advance and being privately toasted as the winner before it was fully reviewed. Till this year, we didn't hear of culture turning saffron, of a name like Durga being politicized.
We cannot forgive this.
Nor can we forget about it because Daman was made by someone called Kalpana Lajmi. She fell out with Shabana during the making of Ek Pal about an extra-marital affair. She fell out with Dimple and Raakhee during Rudaali, about a bonded labourer and professional mourner. She fell out with Kiron Kher (if not Tabu) during Darmiyaan about the torments of being an eunuch son of a fading star. But all this never ruined the experience for the viewer. Those films went on to be critical and (except for Darmiyaan) commercial successes. Those films remain distinctive, award-winning but accessible films. Those films were clearly made with faith and love.
But Lajmi of late has become a woman in a tearing hurry. She looks all set to usher in a new genre. The quickie art-film. Within a very short frame of time, she has been talking glibly to the Press of projects like Singhasan with Madhuri and Urmila, of Govinda playing Laloo Yadav. She has spoken of creating Sehmat with Aishwarya, and of Checkmate. Then we hear Raveena who is starring in her CMjee -- on woman power, loosely based on (who else?) Rabri Devi. (Move over Laloo aka Govinda.) But wait, it is Karisma who is playing Rabri now. Lest Raveena start sulking, it is hurriedly announced that she is starring in Lajmi's Modh.
And what is that on? Quick, think up a politically correct idea. AIDS. Of course.
Regardless of whether she has the time, understanding or patience to follow these through, Lajmi has been too ready to think up hot actors and topics at the drop of a hat. Burning issues get government sponsorships; oversimplistic treatments cut out on interference -- they also automatically spell creative death, as some very senior filmmakers' disastrous government-backed "socially relevant" films have proved in the recent past.
With her unimaginative government sponsors twisting her tail, Lajmi has lost the old magic. This leads one to conclude that she has now started making films for all the wrong reasons.
Faith and love do not figure anywhere.
A serious theme like marital rape and gender dynamics requires a sensitive script, subtle direction, and nuanced characterisation. What we have in Daman are wildly exaggerated stereotypes in a melodramatic musical that makes a mockery of social realism.
Tragedy is conveyed through much breaking and throwing of props, dollops of glycerine, and Bhupen Hazarika's senile nasal bleating in the background. The audience cringes from an assault and battery of the senses. Breasts heave, hearts seethe, eyes brim, voices shriek. A savvy audience at Siri Fort and PVR Anupam is moved -- to laughter. It claps and yawns during the sad scenes.
This makes one very angry. At an opportunity lost. By ceasing to be thought-provoking, by making a farce out of the true nature of domestic violence, Lajmi desensitises an entire captive audience towards an issue that needs urgent addressing. This is indefensible.
We wouldn't have a problem if Daman was quite simply, flat and loud. It is, of course. But what is scary is that it is made with utmost seriousness. The less discerning, less emancipated sections in the audiences in the other halls and towns (for whom this film may well have served as an object lesson) are taking it at face value and coming away with very cock-eyed views on what constitutes true liberation for a woman.
Since the turn of the century, feminists have been fighting against the unfair expectations posited by the Ideal Woman in fiction as an object either of pity or reverence and denied flesh and blood. Daman drags its character (self-consciously named Durga) by the hair and falls splat into the classic dasi-or-devi trap of unrealistic extremes.
After directors like Mahesh Bhatt (Arth), Aparna Sen (Paroma) and Lajmi herself (Ek Pal) took so many risks with their women years ago, making something like Daman now amounts to taking three steps forward and thirty steps back.
This is a movie that pretends to be woman-centric and progressive. Raveena Tandon's holier-than-thou Durga is a larger-than-life victim, and a very safe one, for she raises no uncomfortable questions at all. She reflects nothing of the smaller, but more real, tales of victimisation in families across the country. The problem with having overdone villains and vestal virgins (except for one single act of marital sex under duress) is that real issues of genuine exploitation don't strike home.
In a "progressive" film made in the 21st century, Sita is the last thing we need. We need a Draupadi. (Significantly, a very tacky Pandavas was chosen as best animation film in the same festival because it was Hindu enough, but also because Draupadi wasn't overly forceful.)
But let us be generous and look at it as a masala film.
It has shoddy production values: it was made on a budget of under Rs 85 lakh, shooting round the clock within a few days flat, and it shows. It has inane dialogue and shrill sermonizing: Lajmi doesn't forget for a minute this is a film made with the family welfare department's money. (Of course, there is that one line aimed for the gallery: "Biwi khana garam karne ke liye hoti hai, aur rakhail bistar garam karne ke liye hoti hai").
It has sub-par performances: hardly surprising when Dimple and Rekha rejected offers for the lead role. And if Raima's anorexic frame needs urgent feeding, Shaan, fresh from churning out sub-standard albums on "Loveology", suffers from excessive enthusiasm and terminal silliness as her boyfriend. Small wonder that it didn't find distributors for a very long time.
It has uninspired music, despite a whole clutch of major singers. Music director Bhupen Hazarika's trademark wavy voice is at its dreary worst.
So then, let us be kind and look at it as a morally uplifting film.
The seven days of the Durga Puja tie up with the seven tormented years in the protagonist Durga's married life, supposedly from oppression to emancipation. The last 10 seconds of "emancipation" (she strikes her monstrous husband dead with a trishul) are a little hard to take, after 99 per cent of the film has been wasted in trembling fear and silent self-abnegation -- even after a kindly benefactress and a suitably lovelorn policeman chockfull of integrity magically come to her rescue. What makes this unbearable is that Durga rejects all the other alternatives offered: police intervention, divorce, remarriage, education, career, social upliftment of her sorority of sufferers, independence. It is all of a piece with other films that purport to take up cudgels for women but actually remain insidiously anti-feminist and backward-looking beneath all the histrionics.
After winning the best actress award, Raveena has quoted others as saying that "My performance stood out in a film that was technically sub-par. They are right." (After the Kalpana-Raveena mutual admiration society, is she finally saying the film wasn't good enough for her?). But she looks lachrymose and long-suffering in every take. If she is serious about non-mast-mast de-glamourised roles, she should stick to passionate directors like E. Niwas who made her convincing in his debut Shool.
The tea plantation owner's spoilt son Sanjay Saikia (played by theatre actor Sayaji Shinde) is a villain so utterly villainous he ceases to be credible. One shudders at the subliminal messages being sent to millions of susceptible viewers who -- smug in the belief that chauvinism exists only when it is outrageously out of proportion, as in the film -- will never question their own. Shinde makes threatening noises and waves his hands about and sends things flying for most of the film. He rejects his wife on his wedding night for a slut. He bullies his father. He shouts at his wife. He kicks her. He pours hot wax on her. He paints her face. He rapes her. He rejects his daughter because she isn't a son. He questions her paternity. He tries to get her married off while she is in her teens.
When wife and child run away, he insists she has been kidnapped. When his maidservant tries to set the picture straight, he pulls her hair. Then, when his father wills his property away to his wife and child, he hounds them. Oh, and in between, just in case this isn't enough, he suspects his wife of sleeping with his brother, and throws him into a river in spate one stormy night.
There is no development. Only a series of repeated, inexplicable, gross, and hence ultimately boring, humiliations. If Durga, the bride from a poor family, alternately trembles and weeps, the father-in-law remains helpless and talks far too long to his dead wife. The understanding brother-in-law (rather nicely played by fresh-faced Sanjay Suri, but isn't it time he graduated from squeaky clean second lead roles?) is the only support in Durga's life.Yet he is made to alternately gaze longingly at his bhabi and defend her from his brother's wrath. Strangely, the moment the chemistry between them gets too awkward for Lajmi, she turns coyly away from its tricky underpinnings of guilt, liberation or denial and quickly kills him off. Why? Lajmi's refusal to explore this relationship confirms a disappointing shift away from her earlier candid takes on relationships.
Raima as the bug-eyed daughter and central focus of Durga's life is lightweight -- appearance-wise as well as performance-wise; even her voice is reed-thin. Evidently, according to Lajmi, all that is needed to transform a terrorized village belle to a cocky college girl are long ribboned plaits before and very skimpy clothes after. In Godmother, Raima's debut, in Vinay Shukla's debut film was unimpressive. In Daman, Suchitra Sen's granddaughter directed by Guru Dutt's niece is a disaster.
One can only think back nostalgically of Lajmi till a few years ago, when she could still dare to come up with uniquely crafted gems like Rudali, based on Mahashweta Devi's work.