Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala (1986) wastes no time in calling out the active, hypocritical and even passive culprits of a deep-rooted patriarchal order. Based on a short story by Chunilal Madia, the film is set in the Rann of Kutch in the 1940s, where drought threatens a parched riverside village. Here, men abuse women with impunity and “Me too” women squirm in the systemic oppression. The local priest sanitises the endemic evils of caste, class and misogyny as maya (illusion) or part of the ephemeral. Amidst ignorance, prejudice and illiteracy, it takes little for a whip-wielding colonial stooge (an almost manic and excellent Naseeruddin Shah) to increase his own ambit of aggression.

Smita Patil and Naseeruddin Shah in Mirch Masala. Courtesy National Film Development Corporation.

While the men of the film are given status, the women are given identity. The lovely Supriya Pathak of Bazaar (1982) plays Radha, who, in spite of her father’s beatings, dares to romance above status. Lakhvi (Ratna Pathak Shah in a cheeky cameo) sees the point of sex for payment and even pushes her luck. Other women question their lot, but it is the gutsy Sonbai (Smita Patil, in the role that has immortalised her after Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika in 1977) who stands up to the subedar’s gall with fiery gumption.

After their first encounter at the riverside, it is clear that the lascivious subedar’s thirst is not for water. Two more sightings of Sonbai make him stride up close and obnoxious. Sonbai delivers a well-deserved slap across his leering face, thereby asserting her sexual autonomy and agency. The moment takes the wind out of the subedar’s sails, but Sonbai recovers first, realising she has set danger afoot and now has everything to lose.

As she takes to her heels, the outraged subedar commands his mounted soldiers to hunt her down and bring her back to him. Brandishing their rifles, the soldiers tear through the village they regularly plunder and leaving a smoking road behind them, hurtle out onto the dusty terrain beyond. Intercut with shots of their noisy pursuit are striking pictures of Sonbai in flight. Hair askew, the wind snatching at her garments, she is a barefooted, wild creature desperately seeking a haven. Somewhat camouflaged in the colours of her clothes, Sonbai darts and dodges behind pyramids of red chillies roasting on the burning land. Breathless, she finally bursts into the masala karkhana, where women of her kind work in safety. Rajat Dholakia’s music is dramatic and the urgency of action is spectacularly captured by ‎Jehangir Choudhary’s camera.

Mirch Masala (1986).

Sonbai’s counterpart is played by Deepti Naval. Minus her warm girl-next-door smile (Katha, 1983), Naval competently plays against type. At first, we see her as the dutiful but distracted wife of the macho Mukhi (Suresh Oberoi), who rejects her bed. She takes a stand, locking him out of their house and saying she will let him enter only when he learns to treat it like a home. As a woman who is somewhat educated (she is named after Saraswati, the goddess of learning) and inspired by the masterji of the village, she now dares to challenge the established order and takes her young daughter to school.

This initiative has violent consequences. Her husband storms into the school, scoops up his daughter and returning home, flings the child into his wife’s arms. Another act of disobedience, he threatens, and he will break his wife’s legs. He is almost as bad as his word.

When the fearless Saraswati tries to summon up a sisterhood of solidarity for Sonbai, he drags his wife by her hair, pulls her into their verandah, and after a few resounding slaps, locks her indoors, setting an example for others whose wives had had the temerity to join Saraswati in her mission. The audience’s last view of Saraswati shows her tearlessly battering against the cement grilled prison she still has to call home.

The actions of two women at two ends of the economic and social spectrum speak for all women in between.

Mirch Masala (1986).

In the final sequence, a crowd of emasculated men stare open-mouthed as the harrumphing subedar breaks into the chilli factory. With menacing chuckles, he advances towards Sonbai, for whom he has lusted all along. Sonbai looks at him squarely, her hand reaching for a sickle. Should she attempt to take his life or her own? Suddenly and utterly united, the women of the factory rush towards the predator, blinding him with fiery red chilli powder. The unwitting catalyst of an uprising long overdue, Sonbai stands swathed in red fumes. She is now the triumphant mascot of oppressed women who have won their day.

Spun in rustic earthy colours, ground in folklore and pounded with melodrama, Mirch Masala is a must-watch tale of spiced vengeance.