Filth and its extermination – the average vigilante drama often resembles a pest control operation. Devashish Makhija’s Ajji, set in one of Mumbai’s many slums, gives figurative garbage literal shape in the opening sequence. Manda (Sharvani Suryavanshi) is missing, and when her grandmother (Sushma Deshpande) and prostitute Leela (Sadiya Siddiqui) find the school-going girl, she is nearly inseparable from the pile of trash into which she has been thrown.
Manda has been raped, and since the culprit (Abhishek Banerjee) is the son of a local politician, he has not bothered to flee. Her parents want to forget the crime and move on, but the grandmother feels otherwise. The girl’s recovery is too painful and slow for the elderly woman, who has no faith in the corrupt local policeman (Vikas Kumar) or the medical system. Instead, the unnamed character (Ajji means grandmother in Marathi) relies on coloured powders given to her by a traditional healer.
The grandmother clearly lives not only on the margins of the economy, but also reality. Her knees have been hobbled by age and too many years at the sewing machine, and yet, she decides to avenge her granddaughter’s violation with Leela’s help. Does she succeed, especially when her target is hiding in plain sight and the slum they both inhabit seems strangely depopulated?
Ajji is a not a suspense thriller.
A sequence in which a friendly butcher (Sudhir Pandey) teaches the grandmother to eviscerate a chicken in painful detail is telling. There is plenty of meat displayed in the movie but not enough on the story. Makhija, who has previously directed shorts and the feature Oonga (2013), effectively creates a phantasmagoria, but relies too heavily on stylised cinematography and grungy locations rather than well sketched characters to convey the idea of hell on earth. The grandmother’s journey is typically bathed in shadows, and the tone is unrelentingly grim. The rapist’s perversity is thickly underlined to remove any traces of humanity, especially in a sequence involving a mannequin that is less shocking than sordid. There are just about enough ideas here for an extended short film.
There are two exceptions to the one-note performances. Sushma Deshpande is impressive as the watchful and volcanic grandmother who doesn’t let her advanced age and poor health interrupt her crusade. She cuts a poignant figure as she hobbles about the slum, and is particularly powerful in the climax. Sadiya Siddiqui, the talented television actress who has rarely been given a good movie role (Kali Salwar is an exception) embodies warmth and empathy as the prostitute.
Outrage over the rape of children is easily provoked, but it takes hard work to make a movie about the justice that is due to them. Ajji takes the easy way out.