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Deepti Naval and Nandita Das in ``Bawandar''.

RAPE IS not about sex, it is about subjugation. It is a power statement. Specially so, when aligned to it is poverty and the helplessness it breeds in the hapless and the lowly, and the arrogance it breeds in the well-entrenched forces of patriarchal, casteist society. Many mainstream Hindi films have dealt with the subject with as much sensitivity as a toddler invests in his next step. One recent exception was Shekhar Kapur's ``Bandit Queen'', the story of Phoolan Devi who dared to take on her tormentors.

The film, with its graphic visuals, left the viewers with a repugnant feeling at a crime most inhuman. Now comes ``Bawandar'', a different film in the sense that here the protagonist does not take up arms to maim and murder her assailants but dares to expose them through the judicio-socio-political system. Her faith in the system is touching, the system's lack of honesty absolutely appalling.

Based on the story of Bhanwari Devi, the Saathin worker who was allegedly gang-raped for raising her voice against child marriages, watching this Jagmohan Mundra film is a ghastly experience. There are occasions when it leaves you with goosepimples, there are shots when you want to escape out of the cinema hall. Yet, it is a gripping story of a kumhar woman who showed exemplary courage to speak out against the crime perpetrated by the upper castes. This, in a remote village of Rajasthan, where the low caste are not even allowed to touch Ganga water, a place where even water is segregated.

It marks a comeback of sorts for Mundra. He is back to the form he displayed in ``Kamla'' nearly 20 years ago. After a number of seamy quickies, he gets down to making a realistic film on a real-life occurrence. His handling of the key rape and court sequences is adept. He is suitably sharp in capturing the gang-rape scene. It leaves the viewers with a horrible feeling, much like what Shekhar Kapur had been able to deliver in ``Bandit Queen''. He is also able to expose the nexus between caste-politics-judiciary. Not to forget the shallow feminists for whom the tragedy is just another opportunity to enjoy the sand-dunes of Rajasthan and hog the media limelight.

While Nandita Das enacts the title role with the flair and finesse of a veteran — the actual victim in the alleged tragedy was much older — it is Deepti Naval who is a bit of surprise. Clearly, Mundra has not forgotten his ``Kamla''.

Raghuvir Yadav as the helpless husband of Banwari Devi is a case of perfect casting but Govind Namdeo as the politician is a bit of a giveaway.

``Bawandar'' is not the kind of film to watch over the weekend. It is a realistic fare which hits you hard. Though it is tantalisingly close to a documentary at times, it still deserves to be seen if only to reappraise how we treat the unfortunate victims in our society.


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