Kalpana Lajmi’s film Rudaali completes 25 years this year.

It is relevant not because it is a brilliant film but because the subject it deals with is relevant today – socially, politically and in terms of casteist politics as it exists today. As well as the ghettoisation of women of some given Dalit communities trapping them into an occupation assumed to be exclusively a female domain – selling tears and its associated paraphernalia – wailing loudly, rolling on the floor, chest-beating, manufacturing tears and so on just to keep body and soul together.

These women are called “rudaalis” probably derived from the word “rona” meaning crying. Ostensibly, they are paid for it in cash and in kind though this keeps their livelihood at the subsistence level with great difficulty.

Where do they cry and why do they cry? They cry when a rich, high-caste and powerful member or head of the landed gentry, in this case, Rajputs, dies and the family members wish to demonstrate their affluence and power over the ‘subjects’ by organizing a grand funeral ceremony which includes hiring a group of women to come and cry-by-proxy because the women in the family are generally in ‘purdah’ and not permitted to step out to express their grief.

The death of the patriarch is not a source of grief for his sons or the extended family. It is a cause for showing off how wealthy they are and how much they are spending in honour of the person who died. Grief is not involved in this death in any way except the “manufactured” grief that is done by these rudaalis. But ‘death’ cannot be a regular source of income so these women become sex workers living in the “randi areas” of the village/town or, become ‘keeps” of these zamindars and their sons. They are ostracised because they are ‘untouchables’ but that does not stop the powerful gentry and the upper caste men from touching them for sex!

Lajmi picked a much-discussed, well-researched and scholastically critiqued story by Mahasweta Devi to make her second feature film, her first, Ek Pal (1986), adapted from a short story by Maitreyee Devi.

Lajmi would have come out with a much better film than what Rudaali turned out to be because the film is merely a skeleton of the original story that is filled with multiple layers that flesh out the torture, oppression, marginalization and impoverishment of certain Dalit communities, men, women and children by upper-caste men and affluent men which ranges from an ordinary shop keeper to the village priest to the landlord of the area.

The film therefore, is so distanced from the source that those who have read the story or about the story, will be disappointed, if not shocked by the film. For those who have no clue about Mahasweta Devi or the original story, Rudaali can be watched as a film independent of any literary source. Then, the audience may accept it at face value without the literary association with the original novella. This film Rudaali, succeeds in romanticising the tragic story of Sachichari, named so because she was born on a Saturday considered unlucky for birth and her father died as soon as she was born. Her mother runs away with another man from a natak company and never comes back.

In her in-depth study , Rudaali the Mourner – The “Cry” of the Margin, (Episteme: an online interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary & multi-cultural journal Bharat College of Arts and Commerce, Badlapur, MMR, India Volume 4, Issue 1 June 2015 BCAC), Dr. Mahua Bahumik writes:

“Mahasweta Devi’s primary focus is the portrayal of the community life of ‘ganjus and dushads’(Devi, Ganguli 54) who form the majority in Tahad village. But ironically this majority is pushed to the margin by the malik mahajans who have ‘elephants, horses, livestock, illegitimate children, kept women, veneral disease and a philosophy that he who owns the gun owns the land’(Devi Ganguli 73). This is in sharp opposition to the lives of the lower castes who inhabit ‘decrepit mud huts roofed with battered earthen tiles’(Devi Ganguli 73). Exploitation goes to such an extent that a child Budhua is turned into a ‘bonded labour’(Devi Ganguli 57) for five years since his mother, Sanichari, takes a loan of fifty rupees from Mahajan Ramavatar.”

But not much of this comes across in Lajmi’s celluloid essay. In her film, Sanichari is not a Rudaali but a member of the Ganju community in Tahad village but is a widowed woman who is forced to become a rudaali only in the end of the film which however, reduces the original story to the individual struggle of a Dalit woman to live life within extremely oppressed situations only because she is Dalit. Mahasweta’s story is not about the individual story of a rudaali. If Sanichari is a microcosm of her community, she is also instrumental in creating a solidarity group of sex workers she includes to form a group of rudaalis as an extra source of income for these women. Mahasweta did not intend to make it an individual story of struggle nor did she wish to ghettoise it within the woman question.

Mahasweta Devi is firm in rejecting the idea that her text could be especially identified with women in any way, since, for her, gender is subsumed into the discourse of class. To emphasize the former at the expense of the latter is a 'denial of history as she sees it. (Samik Bandopadhyay during an interview for Seagull Theatre Quarterly).

Lajmi’s directorial works are filled with a lot of pomp and style that does not go at all with the raw reality and ugly poverty of Mahasweta Devi’s original story stripped completely of any melodrama or attempt to appeal to the reader through a garnering of sympathy for Sanichari’s and Bhikni’s terrible state of life. Lajmi is unable to give Rudaali, the film, a distinct identity of its own. If she has chosen ‘women’ as her beat, as all her feature films go on to testify to, she loses out to the lavish mounting and the musical gimmicks of commercial cinema.

Lajmi has structured the film as a dialogue between an ageing Sanichari who is not yet a “rudaali” and her new-found friend Bheekni who has been commissioned by the landlord’s employees from another village to wait for the ritual crying and weeping when the patriarch finally dies. It is Bheekni who keeps telling Sanichari that she will teach her the rudiments of being a rudaali and earn some money.

In the flashback, we see a brief romantic liaison between Sanichari and the landlord’s son which pushes the young man to hire her services as his wife’s special maid. This does not exist in the story. On hindsight, one may even call it a blasphemy on the original because Sachichari’s life is so preoccupied with how and where the next meal will come from that romanticism does not exist in the lexicon of her life.

The cast-ridden values of the community and the patriarchal attitudes of the affluent represented by the landlord’s young son (Raj Babbar), would never deign to even talk to a low caste woman ever, much less to ask her to raise her head and look into his eyes!

There are some moments in the film that offer us a wee glimpse into the expendable lives of these Dalits. At a village fair, the milk used to bathe the Gods is given to the low castes. Many of those, including Sanichari’s husband who drink this milk die of cholera but there is no investigation, the low caste and poor and expendable.

Another scene shows Bheekni haggling over the price she will take for crying when the patriarch dies including “extras,” spelling out separate “rates” for weeping, beating chests, rolling on the floor, and so on. Her matter-of-fact manner of haggling shows the nature and degree of oppression they live within without questioning the inhumanity of the system.

Her fondness for spectacle tends to diffuse the focus of the film. If it worked to a certain extent in Ek Pal, it fails completely in Rudaali never mind the three National Awards the film bagged for Dimple Kapadia (Best Actress), Samir Chanda (Best Art Direction) and Simple Kapadia (Best Costume). Late film scholar and critic Chidananda Dasgupta rightly said, “Spectacle creates distance between the observer and the observed; the understanding of the mind of the human being in a predicament requires closeness between the observer and the observed, asking for the removal of all sights and sounds.”

In 1992, Usha Ganguly, the doyen of Hindi theatre in Kolkata and a Sangeet Natak Akademi winner, presented a dramatized version of Rudaali which did not play around with Mahasweta Devi’s story and yet came out with her individual perspectives on the story. It played to packed theatres in Kolkata though the Kolkata audience seems more inclined to Bengali plays. Seagull Theatre Quarterly Issue 1 (The Metamorphosis of Rudali),focussed mainly on Rudaali the original story and interviews with both Mahasweta Devi and Usha Ganguly. The English translation of the play, done by Anjum Katyal, editor of STQ, was also published in the magazine.

While the original novella is about how a woman marginalised by extreme poverty, caste- oppression (that encompassed everyone of her community including men) not only gains awareness that suppression and torture is not hers by birthright but there are ways to fight it out through manipulation of the very system that oppresses and marginalises her.

She does it slowly and surely through her inclusion of other marginalized women, including sex workers of her community, into a unionised group of Rudaalis without whom no funeral of the rich and the famous and the powerful can be complete. Sanichari, despite her name that is said to bring bad luck, empowers herself and this informs us, from the already empowered communities – upper castes, affluent, powerful and already empowered men and women about a system we knew little or nothing about till Mahasweta Devi wrote this story, Kalpana Lajmi made a film based on the story and Usha Ganguli dramatized it.

Sanichari is a woman who has constructed and deconstructed the text, and each version can be read and seen as an important feminist text in contemporary India. The text also leaves it open to different interpretations, liberating the context from its purely feminist message. The men in the story are no less victims of their caste, class and social status than women.

We are seventy years into “Independence” but the rudaalies are still there in different pockets of India, manufacturing grief for a price!