“Maatr”… An exploitation movie that’s single-minded, but has too few lurid kicks

Posted on April 22, 2017

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Spoilers ahead…

For once, just once, I’d like to see a rape-themed film where the rapist isn’t a minister’s son. I know I’m treading on dangerous territory here, but aren’t there chartered accountants or barbers out there siring progeny with scant respect for women? The reason for this screenwriting cliché is, of course, that a minister is a big shot. He represents the corrupt, moneyed, all-powerful Establishment, the Goliath end of the spectrum – and any David who rises against him instantly becomes one of us, someone we can root for. Still.

The David of Ashtar Sayed’s Maatr (Mother) is Vidya Chauhan (Raveena Tandon; this seems to be the season for flawed protagonists whose names acronym to VC.) If you’ve been injected with a certain strain of Hindi cinema, the name should also tell you what she does: Vidya means education, Vidya is thus a schoolteacher. (Had she been a smoky seductress, she’d have been called Maya.) Vidya’s nightmare begins after a function at school where her daughter Tia (Alisha Khan) makes a presentation on the Ramayana. Soon, real-life demons – including a minister’s son – overtake her life. They rape her and Tia, leave them for dead. Only, Vidya doesn’t die. She embarks on a course of revenge.

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This story has been around for a while. In the 1980s, Dimple Kapadia played one such avenger in Zakhmi Aurat. After being raped, she banded together with other victims and lured rapists to an operation table and Bobbitted them: it was a sort of castration consortium. Earlier this year, Hrithik Roshan, in Kaabil, played a blind man who gets his revenge on his wife’s rapists. Maatr has a bit of both flavours. Vidya channels Dimple Kapadia’s fury. She also resembles the Hrithik Roshan character, in that she overcomes a perceived handicap. In Kaabil, the villains scoffed that a blind man could do these things. Here, they scoff that it’s a woman.

There’s a single-mindedness to Vidya’s journey that’s refreshing. In dramas about rape victims – say, Ghar or Insaaf Ka Tarazu – there’s usually an attempt to get into a psychological space. What the woman feels. Or how her husband attempts to come to grips with the situation. Or maybe there’d be an explanation about how Vidya, who’s at one point terrified to even step into an elevator carrying two men, turns into such a first-rate vigilante. Or whether she blames herself for what happened to Tia. There’s none of this in Maatr, which quickly nudges the husband (Rushad Rana) out of the equation. Over dinner, he says he can no longer live with her, and in the same breath, he says, “Can you pass the ketchup, please?” He might as well have said, “I am being written out of this film, it was nice working with you Raveena, hope the rest of the shoot is fun.”

Maatr is, in other words, a pure and simple exploitation fantasy: first, it brutalises the victims, then it brutalises the perpetrators. The lack of psychology should have led to an explosion of physicality – and though Maatr does stage some good scenes (a bike rider smashes into the pavement, and all kinds of bloody pulp oozes out), it makes it look too easy for Vidya. There’s not a scene where we doubt Vidya is in any real danger, either from the cops on her tail or the criminals she’s after. Raveena Tandon freezes her features in that “I am doing a serious role” style we know from Satta and Jaago. It’s the face of righteous indignation, but without the luridness that makes these movies worthwhile. She doesn’t make us feel that take-that-you-bastards! satisfaction. Why invoke the Ramayana if you’re not going to take us all the way to the hellfire of Lanka?

Copyright ©2017 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi