'A Nation Without Women' to screen Nov. 2 in San Francisco

'A Nation Without Women' will screen at Third I's first San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival, Sunday, Nov. 2 at 8 p.m. at the Roxie Cinema (3117 16th Street, at Valencia). For more information on ticket prices and the rest of the festival, click here.

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‘A Nation Without Women’
Jha’s Chilling Film Set in an India of Future
India-West, Sept. 19, 2003

India-West Staff Reporter
TORONTO — In the dusty streets of a Madhya Pradesh village, a goat wanders by. No laughter, no activity, no women’s voices can be heard; only a threatening silence. The village’s men — prey to their own baser instincts — inhabit a world of violence and unchecked impulse, and a spiritual darkness fills the airless sky.

This is the world of Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women, a chilling and unforgettable film set in an India of the near future. Matrubhoomi, which had its North American premiere Sept. 10 at the Toronto International Film Festival, also took the top prize of the International Federation of Film Critics award at the recent Venice Film Festival.

After centuries of female infanticide, abortion and dowry deaths, India’s women have slowly but methodically been almost wiped out. Writer/director Manish Jha asks, then what? What’s the worst that could happen?

“I wanted to make an effort to look at our status quo and see what would happen if India continued the way it’s now going,” Jha told India-West on the sidelines of the festival Sept. 10.

“India is missing 50 million women and girls. For every 1,000 men, in Mumbai, there are only 774 women. I wanted to talk about something that is relevant and imminent in our country today.”

At 25, Manish Jha is already one of India’s most watchable young directors. Born in Bihar, he was educated in Delhi and came to Mumbai to learn to become a filmmaker, and he has made only one other film to date: the disturbing A Very, Very Silent Film, which won the Jury Prize for the Best Short Film at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival.

Compact and energetic, he shows up for an interview in a stylish, embroidered white linen shirt; his gaze and his shoulder-length wavy hair streaked with blond and red give him an appealingly wild look.

As Matrubhoomi opens, an expectant father paces nervously outside his hut as his wife goes into labor. On the father’s face is tension and dread, which gives way to joy when he hears the newborn’s first cry. But his joy is short-lived: a midwife emerges from the hut to announce darkly, “It’s a girl.”

The baby girl is ritualistically put to death, drowned in a vat of milk, and we learn that this is a perfectly normal state of affairs. The story of Matrubhoomi (literally, “motherland”) focuses on one family — a wealthy but widowed father who is desperate to find wives for his five sons. The task seems impossible, because there are simply no women to be found. Word comes that Kalki (Tulip Joshi), a beautiful young girl, is being hidden away in a neighboring village, so the boys’ father manages to “persuade” her father (for an exorbitant sum) to marry all five of his boys.

In her new home, Kalki lives a dismal life of slavery, forced to cook and clean by day and to service each of the sons — and their father — by night. Only one son, the sensitive and compassionate Sooraj (Sushant Singh), treats her with dignity and respect, and a young, low-caste servant boy becomes her trusted friend.

Kalki responds by falling in love with Sooraj, to the fury of the father and brothers. The men come to see Kalki as the cause of all their problems, and jealousy between the brothers flares to the point that one of them is murdered — as is the servant boy.

The murder of the servant leaves his relatives vowing revenge, so the village’s low-caste men gang-rape Kalki. When it is discovered that she is pregnant, class warfare erupts. Finally, Kalki gives birth, and the future of her baby, and perhaps that of India, is left to the viewer’s imagination, though Jha hints at hopefulness.

There are moments of raw humor — in scenes of a local man dressing up in a spangled choli, rouged cheeks and a wig to entertain a crowd of men with bawdy dance and pantomime; or later on, in the subversive hijinks of the resentful servant boy.

But there’s shock value, too, in the way the village’s men find sexual release in the absence of women (there is homosexuality, pornography and even bestiality) and in the scenes suggesting the repeated abuse of Kalki.

Although the film is unsparing in its depiction of sexual brutality, Jha keeps most of it offscreen, unlike Bawander, Maya and a few other recent and controversial films. “I made a deliberate attempt not to show the most gruesome parts,” Jha explained to India-West.

“The film is talking about a very important issue. I didn’t want the viewer to start lusting for Kalki. They should feel sorry for her. “I’ve got nothing against porn! But I was definitely not trying to titillate the audience.”

Jha will be gratified to know that Toronto festival attendees were unanimous in their praise for the film (even more so than the hotly anticipated Aishwarya Rai vehicle Chokher Bali), which may vindicate Jha’s perceived snub at last year’s Cannes fest, where it is said he felt overlooked by starstruck Indian delegates and press there who stampeded for a chance to glimpse Rai and Shah Rukh Khan.

The film is an Indo-French co-production between Punkej Kharabanda of SMG Pictures and Patrick Sobelman of Ex-Nihilo, and will travel to festivals in Morocco, Pusan, London and Thessaloniki. The film screens at the Third I Film Festival in San Francisco Nov. 2 at 8 p.m.

Salim-Sulaiman (Bhoot, 3 Deewarein, Darna Mana Hai) lend a powerful soundtrack that’s restrained in all the right places, and the film is aided by an excellent cast, including Sushant Singh, who made such an impact as Ajay Devgan’s costar in Rajkumar Santoshi’s The Legend of Bhagat Singh, as the youngest brother Sooraj. But it is Kalki’s story, and Tulip Joshi is a revelation. The role required minimal dialogue and maximum expression, and Joshi expresses a perfect mix of vulnerability and world-weariness. Jha had only met her briefly before casting her, and so he says, “I was constantly asking myself, ‘Am I exploiting Tulip the way these men were exploiting Kalki?’”

In several scenes, Kalki is shown as a prisoner kept in a filthy cow shed, chained by her ankle and forced to sleep on the ground. “We had put cow dung in her hair and body,” said Jha. “Those scenes affected me as much as they did her.”

Jha says he’s never been to film school, but what he learned while making A Nation Without Women will stay with him for the rest of his life.

“Filmmaking is about managing people, not technology,” he told India-West. “I’ve learned that you have to be focused, and that the script is important but what is more important is the execution. “Above all, you have to be a good human being. Only then can you make a good film.”