First time director Abhishek Shah’s National Award winning film uses an art form (garba dance) to tell an inspirational feminist story
By Mayur Lookhar
If there was no mythology, there’d be no festivals. Myth or not, the customs, traditions are meant to celebrate good over evil but more importantly, it is supposed to bring people together. However, the customisation of traditions along gender lines defeated its purpose, thereby resulting in a regressive society.
First time director Abhishek Shah’s Hellaro (2019) condemns patriarchy, casteism, suppression of freedom. Hellaro roughly translates to outburst. Rebellion is out of limits, but the oppressed women find their momentary escapism through the art form of garba (Gujarati folk song and dance).
Set in 1975 in a remote village in Kutch, the Gujarati film is based on a folklore. The women in the village have accepted patriarchy as norm. They are too meek to raise a voice against the social injustice. Milked like cows for food and lust.
Manjhri (Shraddha Dangar), the new bride in the village, helps a bunch of other women find their brief moment of zenith. The only time the women gather together is when they fetch water from the lake. One day, Manjhri saves a parched dholi (dhol player). The woman seeks nothing in return, but the moment the dholi plays the dhol, Manjhri and other women can’t help but break into garba.
This happy routine continues for the next few days before an unfortunate tragedy shackles their feet. The bereaved woman believes that goddess Amba has punished her for her sin (garba). There’s a hell to pay though for all the dancing women and the poor dholi (played by Jayesh More).
Abhishek Shah nicely sets his film during the Emergency (1975-77) period. The villagers joke that their place is too far for any emergency to have its ugly effect. For the Kutch women though, each day felt like an emergency. They’ve surrendered to patriarchy and discrimination.
Theatre, cinema was introduced as an art form to highlight social issues. Hellaro reminds film industry of its social responsibility. For the women in Kutch, garba was no rebellion but it is simply an art form to express their individuality.
Language, expressions through art form are unique gifts to mankind. It’s baffling though how through its million of years, mankind has often curbed art through their misplaced beliefs, traditions. For the regressive minds in the Kutch village, granting freedom to their women would invoke the wrath of goddess Amba, who would then unleash drought and misery upon the villagers. One is always astounded by conservative men praying to goddesses, but the same men oppress the goddesses’ mortal women. The women are barred from doing garba for fear of drought. However, despite dancing, the men haven’t been able to please the weather gods. Shame on such hypocrisy.
Hellaro also reminds us of the true essence of garba that’s now largely reduced to a mode of entertainment. Any dance form should be self-liberating. Watching Manjhri and the ladies dance is like a flower blooming after being caved in the bud for long. One doesn’t look for technique when a caged soul breaks into a dance of liberation.
The inspirational tale is backed by a gripping screenplay by Prateek Gupta and Shah. Feminist in nature but Hellaro doesn’t really indulge into male bashing. The film simply reflects life in this Kutch village. While Mukhi Bappa (Shailesh Prajapati), the village head is a domineering character but his son Bhaglo (Maulik Nayak) disapproves of any discrimination. He can’t overrule his father, but he makes an sincere attempt to get the bull headed men think differently. Manjhri’s husband Arjan (Arjav Trivedi) is another intimidating character. For a army man, he disappoints with his regressive thinking.
While Shraddha Dangar is most impressive, it is the collective effort by the cast that uplifts Hellaro. Unheralded actress Denisha Ghumra, too, leaves a lasting impression as Radha. Radha is reluctant to join the other ladies in their dance. She may be a resenting voice, but this stems more from her fear of the consequences.
Jayesh More displays the requisite intensity. The dholi Mulji (More) is no piped-piper but through the dhol beats, he revisits his sweet past, that was ravaged by casteism.
Each character is armed with fine dialogues by Saumya Joshi. From attire to ethnic jewellery to tattoos, all the women ace the desi look. Hellaro is rich in visual appeal with cinematographer Tribhuvan Babu Sadineni taking some fine visuals to capture the beauty of each woman and her craft.
While this reviewer is not fluent in Gujarati, but Mehul Surti’s original compositions are equally soothing as any popular Gujarati folk songs.
Hellaro has its moment of drag in the latter half. The climax could have out played smoothly than rushed. However, it’s the simplicity of the story, empowering social message, Shah’s neat direction, matured performance and the engrossing music that makes Hellaro a worthy winner of the National Award.
(Hellaro is the first Gujarati film to have won the National Award for Best Feature Film)
Hellaro will be released on 8 November. The film will open the Indian Panorama Section at the 50 International Film Festival of India to be held in Goa from 20 -28 November.