MRITYUDAND (Prakash Jha, 1997)

Do not think you can rob me of my dignity. Do not think I am powerless. — Ketki in Mrityudand, giving voice to Hindi women and taking revenge against the men who have oppressed them

Overwrought, luridly violent, an eye-for-an-eyeish, Death Sentence announces how good it is with the opening sequence. Branded a witch and a whore, a mother and her unmarried pregnant daughter are hounded by Bihar villagers, who force them off a bridge, delivering them to their drowning deaths. The passage begins in scenic long-shot, like an evenly pretty picture postcard. Visual irony doesn’t get more withering than this.
     Prakash Jha wrote, produced, directed and edited Death Sentence. Its study of patriarchal society, and the corrupt alliance between business and politics that this fosters, concentrates on newlyweds Ketki and Vinay, whose initially affectionate marriage takes a disheartening downward turn when a vicious contractor, who is exploiting Vinay in business, poisons Vinay’s mind against Ketki. Meanwhile, Ketki organizes her sister villagers. Leading her force of resistance, she takes aim at the villain once he has murdered her spouse.
     I do not like everything about this film. None of the acting is other than blatant. Vinay and Ketki’s loving relationship is manipulative set-up, and one feels this from the get-go. There is too much yelling and screaming, both male and female, and the plot is irritatingly complicated, especially with regards to Vinay’s conflict with his brother, a temple priest. But so long as one doesn’t take too literally Ketki’s rifle-toting rampage of revenge, this is a good, stinging portrait of the forces arrayed against women in Hindi society. The aggressive style points to structural elements of social reality.

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