Bold. Engaging: Bavandar
"What was the width of her vagina?"
"Did you secrete when they were coming on to you?"
If Shekhar Kapur's mention of 'quinny' in Elizabeth could not get past the Censor Board, the two-hour-long Bavandar will certainly have these lines -- and many more -- lopped off before it makes to Indian cinemas.
"As we speak, the Censor Board is watching another print of this film," says producer Dr Jagmohan Mundhra, "I can't tell you how difficult they make it for you."
Amidst ringing cellular phones in the audience and a constant murmur in the auditorium, the US-based Dr Mundhra told the group of women -- invited for a special screening -- how he
was struck with the idea for the film at London airport.
The seeds for the film were sown by Suzanne Goldenberg, the journalist from The Guardian newspaper. So moved was Dr Mundhra by her account of the courage of an Indian villager that he knew this would be his next film.
Bavandar -- or The Sandstorm -- is based on the true story of Bhanwari Devi -- a community worker in rural Rajasthan -- who was raped by three members of a family because she protested against a child marriage in their family.
Nandita Das as Saavri, the main protagonist, plays her part with natural ease and lends credibility to the character with her Rajasthani accent. Raghuvir Yadav is her rickshaw-puller husband and, as is his wont from his Massey Sahib days, excels in the role.
The story is told in narrative flashbacks by Amy (Laila Rouass), a Western researcher, who is assisted by an old classmate Ravi (Rahul Khanna), a resident of Jaipur. A glamourous Amy comes to India to meet Saavri and phut! finds the most vital link to her subject in the first rickshaw she climbs into. The turbaned rickshaw-puller is Saavri's husband.
And, before you know it, the couple is on their way to Daabri village.
The easy encounters with luck continue and the first people they meet around the village tea stall are Saavri's rapists who belong to the Gujjar caste. Saavri is from the lower Kumhar caste and her troubles begin after she is appointed a saathin -- a community worker -- by Deepti Naval, who works for an NGO.
Saavri's quiet crusade is particularly against child marriage, for which she incurs the wrath of the upper caste Gujjars and is raped by three of them in front of her husband. The scene is brutal and explicit -- after their deed the men stroke their moustaches and leave Saavri a battered heap in the sand.
From there begins her journey through a humiliating system that make it almost impossible for her to get justice. A village doctor far too eager to put his fingers inside her to examine her; the cop lasciviously ordering her to take off her ghagra in front of him so that he can keep it as proof and later masturbating in the same garment; the local MLA reprimanding the accused only to ask them next whether they enjoyed the "experience" and the lady inspector at the women's thana telling Saavri that she was lucky to have had three men when all
that she could manage in all these years was one.
Saavri's case has the ingredients to lure opulent, but insensitive, social workers from New Delhi. Clad in expensive saris and tasteful jewellery, they arrive with their bottles of mineral water to lend support. The director captures the character of India's urban elite very well -- particularly when the ladies want their pictures taken with Saavri, ensuring that the sand dunes in the background are not missed in the frame.
Gulshan Grover plays the Gujjar lawyer who takes on Saavri's case and sees four judges changed during the course of the trial. The film is infested with characters working selfishly for murky purposes -- with the exception of Grover, Deepti Naval and Yadav. Govind Namdeo as the wily MLA seems to have mastered such roles after playing them for years on the big and small screens.
Yet, the character played by Laila Rouass does not ring true -- the ease with which she gets her info could make any investigative reporter envious. Eager to please her, the cop bares every shred of evidence most obligingly and shows her the prized ghagra.
On easily discovering the stack of porn magazines under his FIR register -- it is the researcher who arrives at the conclusion that the DNA tests of the semen on the garment did not match the accused because it actually was the cop's.
But it must be said: Bavandar is engaging. It breaks new ground because in a largely kitsch Indian film culture, the director has been bold enough to make a movie about a real incident. Where it brings to life the injustices done to an illiterate woman who not only had the courage to speak out, but the conviction to fight for that right.
That in itself merits a viewing.