The most commonly uttered line in English films is “Let’s get outta here” (or its variants). The most commonly uttered sentence in Indian Hindi films is “Driver, us gaadi ka peecha karo!” (“Driver, follow that car!”).
What is the price of a woman’s honor?
In colonial India, Tax Collectors tyrannized villages with soldiers, collecting much more than just taxes. One such Collector lusts after one woman (Sonbai) in the village. She refuses to bow and even slaps him. He holds the entire village to ransom. What follows is a social drama that is both agonizing and inspiring.
Sonbai rushes to safety in the confines of a spice factory, where several village women work. The entire men folk in this patriarchal society are cowards, and the showdown between Sonbai and the Collector brings the village to its knees. The only support Sonbai gets is from the gatekeeper of the factory, the town’s Gandhian teacher, and a few women led by the mayor’s wife. Needless to say, whatever the moral conviction of all the supporters, the physical and cultural power is sufficient to subdue them.
The drama progresses to the horrendous possibility of a village-approved rape and the inevitable final face-to-face confrontation. The varied reactions of the villagers to the unfolding events provide the perfect social backdrop to the drama. The climax is cathartic without letting the viewer free of the weight of the story.
Naseeruddin Shah proves his mettle as one of India’s finest actors with the devilish Collector. I have heard that he enacted this brutal role while at the same time performing in another film Pestonjee as a meek Parsi, which is remarkable. Smita Patil epitomizes the beautiful, strong-willed Sonbai. Her passionate performance is the backbone of the film. Om Puri as the gatekeeper and Deepti Naval as the mayor’s wife are solid as are the rest of the supporting cast.
If I were asked to select 5 Indian films to be shown to a foreign film critic who is a newcomer to Indian cinema, Mirch Masala (Spices) will be one of them. This is one of the most powerful films made in India, with a compelling script, gripping drama, magnificent performances, brilliant cinematography, great direction, and an overall uplifting experience.
If the cinematic production seems primitive (as I saw in some international reviews), one should realize that the film was made in a remote village of India, the cast and crew surviving a 15-day shooting schedule in the desert miles away from anywhere, and in a budget of just $100,000.
Washington Post’s review compares the ruthlessness of the drama, the vibrancy of character, and its moral obstinacy to Kurosawa’s samurai movies – an interesting viewpoint that had not occurred to me.
Also read Ketan Mehta’s interview with the New York Times to get inside the mind of the director.
There are so many contenders (see below) that I cannot select one of them.
Mephisto, Istvan Szabo’s film adaptation of Klaus Mann’s novel on Goethe’s Mephistopheles/Faust theme. Klaus Maria Brandauer’s performance is one of the best acting performances I’ve ever seen in cinema.
My Neighbor Totoro, Miyazaki’s fantasy animation creation, rated one of the best family films of all time. No villains, no fights, no darkness, no scary monsters, yet full of awe and adventure!
The Manchurian Candidate, a chilling classic, a timeless political and social thriller with Frank Sinatra’s best performance.
The Marriage of Maria Brown, Fassbinder’s most commercially successful film, a landmark in German cinema for its personal view at post-war Germany. Amazing that he could direct with this precision under the influence of drugs.