By Subhash K Jha, IANS
Ignore the rough edges. Forget her past follies. Kalpana Lajmi is back with a searing film about oppression and justice with an unparalleled central performance by Sushmita Sen.
Reformist cinema seems to be the order of the day. First Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra's chic spin RANG DE BASANTI on the cult of political radicalism. Far away from home Deepa Mehta has styled a lucid lyrical drama on female rehabilitation called WATER.
Back home Kalpana Lajmi in what can comfortably be termed her comeback vehicle, has styled a clarion call for socio-religious reform in the nexus between religion and sexual oppression. Based on a short story by composer-lyricist Bhupen Hazarika, CHINGAARI brings Lajmi back to form in the ferociously flaming colours of black blue and dread.
Set in a village the film's excellent though uneven cinematography (by Vishal Sinha) revolves around a group of prostitutes. Though the camaraderie in the brothel cannot equal what Shyam Benegal depicted in his ribald and rhythmic MANDI, Lajmi's whorehouse is a feast of raunchy repartees and terrifying sexual innuendoes that reach a blood-curdling crescendo every time the village priest (Mithun Chakraborty) pays a visit to ravage the star-whore Basanti (Sushmita Sen).
Admittedly some sequences of sexual repression shared by the astonishing Sushmita Sen and the villainous Mithun Chakraborty are way too repressive. A bit of subtlety in depicting their sexual friction would have gone a long way in giving the film that much-needed quality of lyricism that it sorely needed.
Also, the romantic chemistry between the prostitute and the postman is pulverized largely due to a limited performance by Anuj Sawhney as the voice of reformism in a village striven by fear bigotry and terrorism. It's a gloriously redemptive role played by Dharmendra in Bimal Roy's BANDINI and Hrishikesh Mukherjee's SATYAKAM. It required an actor who understands the socio-political and the sexual contexts of Lajmi's powerful plot.
Sushmita Sen, known to have lent her striking presence to a whole lot of escapist drama, comes into her own with a dramatic performance that's unparalleled in its velocity by anything seen so far. In her key confrontation sequences with her tormentor and rapist, Sushmita pulls put all stops to deliver a powerhouse performance of volcanic proportions.
In lengthy one-shot sequences, Sushmita goes beyond the boundaries of cinematic acting to stare straight into that emotional space which most of us don't even know how to connect with. Her dialogue delivery, ranging from a hushed whisper in a romantic moment to a raging otherworldly growl in the climax (when taking on the avatar of the Mother Goddess she vanquishes the modern-day demon) Sushmita takes her prostitute's character to a dimension that would appear practically impossible for any actor to achieve.
To watch Sushmita Sen at work is to forget some of the film's more definable blemishes. The plot about female oppression and the right of dignity for the sex worker has been done in the past, and with greater finesse. Where Lajmi scores is in imbuing unconventional mannerisms and expressions in her heroine to the extent that we cease to see Sushmita Sen. Only Basanti is visible on screen.
The brutality and oppression of her life are charted with more gentleness and affection than visible in Raveena Tandon's performance as a battered wife in Lajmi's DAMAN. CHINGAARI is a worthy comeback for the RUDAALI director in every level.
While going into a microcosmic representation of female oppression and gender discrimination in the hinterlands, Lajmi uplifts her universal tale into a tale of acute suffering.
Like Prakash Jha's recent APAHARAN the treatment of the story of rural oppression is distinctly 'commercial'. Though songs, dances, rustic colours of riotous and raunchy merry-making are integrated into the plot the narration in no way suffers by the inclusion of these elements.
The large 'epic' canvas allows the director to dabble in the most basic colours of existence.
In her performance, Sushmita Sen imbibes these colours and gives this disturbing film on sexual politics a gloriously universal spin. A must-see for the pleasure of watching the director re-discover her métier through the magnificent matrix between desire and fulfillment created by the leading lady.