Sujoy Ghosh’s Bengali-English motley short film Ahalya – which is a modern rendition of a mythological saga from the Ramayana – not only does its job at being a perfect contemporary analogy of the epic, but also incorporates some refreshingly liberal tropes, turning it into a sharp piece of feminist art.
Radhika Apte exudes raw carnality playing the young and Ahalya to Soumitra Chatterjee’s much older Goutam Sadhu. Tota Roy Choudhury is inspector Indra Sen, at their house for an investigation.
In Hindu mythology, Ahalya, wife of sage Gautama Maharishi, was seduced by Indra – the king of the gods- after he disguised himself as the maharishi and tricked her into bedding him. Many versions of the epic ensued, some where Ahalya indulged Indra in spite of knowing his truth, and some where she fell prey to his treachery unaware. In all versions, however, she gets punished by Gautama for infidelity, and is turned into rock.
Mythology and religious scriptures have been established as tools of patriarchal propaganda, with the tamed, silenced and secondary portrayal of most female characters, suffering at the hands of one oppressor before the next. Juxtaposed with that, Sujoy Ghosh’s present-day Ahalya is a confident and independent young woman who chooses to be in an unconventional marriage everyday. She is wearing an adorable – and most might say sexy- noodle-strapped dress, as she approached the door to let Indra- spellbound by her beauty- in.
Through the film, she is shown as giving Indra playful yet “accidental” nudges and brushes. When he follows her up to her room, she is shown to be sexually liberated, taking the initiative while inviting him into bed. This scene does a beautiful job in delicately portraying the sexuality of a woman, and showing her in control, showing her having needs too- as opposed simply reacting soullessly to a man’s needs. Without advocating flirting outside of marriage even slightly- a woman’s crude sexuality comes through.
Ghosh’s film makes a little tweak in the end- as Indra Sen dares to lure an unsuspecting Ahalya by pretending to be Goutam Sadhu and gets discovered by the old man – rather than Ahalya bearing the brunt, Indra is punished. Now turned into a miniature statue, he stands in line with seven other statue-men who had let desire blind them, and committed the same folly.
This one minor alteration changes everything. The shifting of the onus of the wrongdoing upon the man, reflects a change in perceptions. Where a woman is shamed and tainted for being sexual, often even when she is the victim of rape (various renditions describe Indra’s act as rape), here- by punishing the lusting inspector, justice is served. Not once does Goutam Sadhu point a finger at his wife for being scantily clad and hence, “causing” the lapse in judgement. Not once does he imply that “men will be men” and that it is the duty of the woman to keep her natural sensuality bridled.
Besides, instead of portraying a relationship with this combination of ages in a negative light, the couple is shown to share an endearing bond. Not dysfunctional at all, rather – healthy, in sync and in love beyond conditions. Goutam’s references to his wife’s role in his success as an artist, how every inch of her body inspires him to create something- only helps the cause.
Without a single instance of being preachy or giving out a message or call for action- various elements of the film successfully exterminate many notions around the ideal image of an Indian woman. The film in its simplicity and non-didactic approach to story-telling, stands to move many to change their dogmatic and outdated moralities.