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Indian film Mirch Masala makes for peculiar viewing

Tearsheets: MFA

Suggested headline: Indian film MIRCH MASALA makes for some particularly peculiar viewing

MIRCH MASALA

[SPICES]

Directed by Ketan Mehta.

Written by Shafi Hakim and Ketan Mehta.

From a short story by Chunilal Madia.

Starring Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah,

Suresh Oberoi, and Om Puri.

Plays today through Friday at 5:30 and

7:50 pm at the Museum of Fine Arts.

By MANAVENDRA K. THAKUR

THE GARISH MUSICALS AND sappy melodramas that dominate Indian cinema have been the bane of serious Indian film directors for decades. So when an ostensibly serious director declares his intention to use melodrama as the primary vehicle for his films -- as Ketan Mehta has done with his newest film, Mirch Masala ("Spices") -- one can't help but approach his work with measured ambivalence.

The film improves as it goes along, and it actually manages to build to a startling conclusion. Taken as a whole, however, the scattershot nature of the film makes for some particularly peculiar viewing and an annoyingly bumpy ride.

The film is set in colonial India during the early 1940s when tax collectors known as Subedars would travel from village to village with their bands of soldiers and demand payment of land taxes. From their positions of considerable power, they would terrorize villages and confiscate women along with money and property.

The film tells the story of one such Subedar (played by Naseeruddin Shah) and a woman named Sonbai (played by the late Smita Patil) who courageously resists his advances, flees from his grasp, and takes refuge in a local spice factory. Soon, the standoff between Sonbai and the Subedar plunges the whole village into conflict. A group of women, led by the village chief's wife, want to join Sonbai in her unprecedented rebellion. But before they can even begin to help Sonbai, they are confronted by their own husbands: the men in the village have decided to force Sonbai to give into the Subedar's demands and thereby save the village from being pillaged and destroyed by the Subedar's soldiers.

Such a story obviously has tremendous potential, and Mehta's exposition of the complexities underlying the situation helps bring forth the drama inherent in the events. For example, the one person who unhesitatingly stands up for Sonbai's honor is the aging watchman Abu Mian (Om Puri), who guards the spice factory. The local schoolteacher (Raghu Nath) also tries to speak up on her behalf. In marked contrast, some of the women trapped in the spice factory turn on Sonbai and accuse her of selfishness for refusing to sleep with the Subedar. One woman even tells Sonbai that she will have a good time if she does agree to the Subedar's demands.

Nuances and conflicts such as these can serve a film well. Mehta, however, undermines his own work -- especially in the first half -- with one silly and embarrassing scene after another.

For example, early in the film, Sonbai returns home to find her no-good husband sleeping lazily on a cot. Soon thereafter, the postman comes by and announces a letter has arrived. Up jumps Sonbai's husband. He grabs the envelope and exclaims "I got a letter! I got a letter!" He begins dancing up and down, all the while shouting "I got a letter!" over and over again. This repetition continues for a minute or two. Then he rushes off to ask the schoolteacher to read the letter aloud to him, since he can't read. The letter, it turns out, informs him that he has gotten a job at the railway station in the city. Upon hearing this, once again he starts jumping around and exclaiming "I got a job! I got a job!" This scene goes on for several minutes on end, and while it begins on a note of silliness (comic relief?), it becomes downright embarrassing and painful to watch by the time Sonbai's husband calms down enough to leave for the city.

At many other points in the film, Mehta undercuts himself by repeatedly using slow motion shots. He overuses slow motion shots so grossly that their cumulative effect is absurd. Some may consider this kind of exaggeration a form of satire, but the only one who ends up looking foolish during these scenes is Mehta himself.

As for the foray into melodrama, it is simply not possible to put Mehta's film in the same league as the films of other directors who have worked with melodrama. Both Douglas Sirk and the great Luis Bunuel created powerfully restrained melodramas during their careers, while the reknowned Alain Resnais created an elegant thinking-person's melodrama in 1986 and named it Mel'o -- which is short for "Melodrama."

Comparing Mirch Masala to such accomplished films makes it dismayingly obvious that Mehta has yet to develop the narrative skills needed to realize his goals. The best one can say about the film as a whole is that Mehta has managed to avoid the worst excesses and mistakes of his peers in the commercial Indian cinema and that his goals remain commendable ones. One may be willing to give Mehta the benefit of some doubt, since this is only his third film. Also, the film's running time -- 98 minutes -- is remarkably short by Indian standards, which raises the distressing possibility that some potentially redeeming footage has been deleted for the film's American release.

In any event, Mehta's use of vivid colors and sharp, crisp photography and his ability to uncover underlying realities do hold promise for his future works. If he can excise the worse elements that plague Mirch Masala and at the same time concentrate on his strengths, he offers the tantalizing hope that he can become the director who demonstrates anew the artistic possibilities that melodrama has to offer. In light of the dismal state of so much Indian cinema, such an accomplishment would be remarkable indeed.