By Subhash K. Jha, Indo-Asian News Service
Film: "Chingari"; Starring Sushmita Sen, Mithun Chakraborty, Anuj Sawhney, Ila Arun; Written & Directed by Kalpana Lajmi; Rating: ***
Ignore the rough edges. Forget her past follies. Kalpana Lajmi is back with a searing film about oppression and justice with an unparalleled central performance by Sushmita Sen.
Reformist cinema seems to be order of the day. First Rakeysh Mehra's chic spin "Rang De Basanti" on the cult of political radicalism. Then Deepa Mehta's lucid lyrical drama on female rehabilitation called "Water".
Lajmi, in can comfortably be termed her comeback vehicle, has styled a clarion call for socio-religious reform, highlighting the nexus between religion and sexual oppression. Based on a short story by composer-lyricist Bhupen Hazarika, "Chingari" brings Lajmi back to form in the ferociously flaming colours of black blue and dread.
Set in a village, the film's excellent though uneven cinematography (by Vishal Sinha) revolves around a group of prostitutes. Though the camaraderie in the brothel cannot equal what Shyam Benegal depicted in his ribald and rhythmic "Mandi", Lajmi's whorehouse is a feast of raunchy repartees and terrifying sexual innuendoes that reach a blood-curdling crescendo every time the village priest (Mithun Chakraborty) pays a visit to ravage the star-whore Basanti (Sushmita Sen).
Admittedly some sequences of sexual repression shared by the astonishing Sushmita and the villainous Mithun Chakraborty are way too repressive. A bit of subtlety in depicting their sexual friction would have gone a long way in giving the film that much-needed quality of lyricism that it sorely needed.
Also, the romantic chemistry between the prostitute and the postman is pulverised largely due to a limited performance by Anuj Sawhney as the voice of reform in a village striven by fear bigotry and terrorism. It's a gloriously redemptive role played by Dharmendra in Bimal Roy's "Bandini" and Hrishikesh Mukherjee's "Satyakam". It required an actor who understands the socio-political and the sexual contexts of Lajmi's powerful plot.
Sushmita, known to have lent her striking presence to a whole lot of escapist drama, comes into her own with a dramatic performance. In her key confrontation sequences with her tormentor and rapist, Sushmita pulls put all stops.
In lengthy, one-shot sequences Sushmita goes beyond the boundaries of cinematic acting to stare straight into that emotional space which most of us don't even know how to connect with. Her dialogue delivery, ranging from a hushed whisper in a romantic moment to a raging other worldly growl in the climax (when taking on the avatar of the Mother Goddess she vanquishes the modern-day demon), Sushmita takes her prostitute's character to another dimension.
To watch her at work is to forget some of the film's more definable blemishes. The plot about female oppression and the right of dignity for the sex worker has been done in the past and with greater finesse. Where Lajmi scores is in imbuing unconventional mannerisms and expressions in her heroine to the extent that we cease to see Sushmita Sen. Only Basanti is visible on screen.
The brutality and oppression of her life are charted with more gentleness and affection than visible in Raveena Tandon's performance as a battered wife in Lajmi's "Daman". "Chingari" is a worthy comeback for the "Rudaali" director at every level.
While going into a microcosm of female oppression and gender discrimination in the hinterlands, Lajmi uplifts her universal tale into a tale of acute suffering.
Like Prakash Jha's recent "Apaharan", the treatment of the story of rural oppression is distinctly 'commercial'. Though songs, dances, rustic colours and riotous and raunchy merrymaking are integrated into the plot, the narration in no way suffers by the inclusion of these elements.