Folktales provide good fodder for cinema. The tales have an inherent strength which has helped them survive for centuries. They also do not have a claimant author clinging to the content and commanding ownership. In the Indian context, where filmmakers have to ensure that the film includes certain ‘must-haves’, which will enable it a commercial life, the folktales also provide a flexibility in adaptation that would otherwise be difficult to secure in case of a celebrated work of literature.
Hellaro, directed by Abhishek Shah, which has brought laurels for Gujarati cinema by winning the industry’s first ever Golden Lotus at National Film Awards, is a folktale adaptation which tries to tick all the right boxes. This is something that has helped the film’s first-time director secure rave reviews, two national awards as well as a special mention at the recently concluded International Film Festival of India (IFFI).
Hellaro, which in Gujarati means ‘a strong gust of wind’, takes its plot from a popular folktale from a small and forgotten region of Gujarat — the sandy and solitary Prathand in the desert of Kutch, close to the frontier with Pakistan — and turns into a cinematic feast with vibrant visuals and overtly melodramatic ebbs and flows. In the process, however, the folktale that the film draws its story from is retained only in its
The plot follows a group of upper-caste women, who are living in an extremely patriarchal and suppressive system, and are barred from doing garba — the Gujarati folk dance — owing to a superstition that it would anger the village deity, who ironically is female. As the women suffer this injustice silently, enters a young, semi-educated and rebellious girl Manjari (played by Shraddha Dangar) after she is married into the village. During the daily ritual of fetching water from a far-off pond, the women discover a wayward, low-caste drummer (convincingly played by Jayesh More) who agrees to play for them at Manjari’s request. Although reluctant initially, the women join the dance and this becomes their secret routine during the daily trip to fetch water. As the crime is discovered and punishment is suffered, the women manage to retain their right to garba, not because of a change of heart on the part of men but as it’s discovered in the climax of the film that as women dance the goddess ‘blesses’ the village with rains.
The plot of the folktale, Vrajvani No Dholi (Vrajvani’s Drummer), is considerably different. Here, a handsome but ‘low-caste’ drummer walks into a village and starts beating his drum in the square. The sound is so enchanting and irresistible that women drop their chores, gather around the drummer and start dancing. The men find nothing wrong in this until a jealous priest turns one of the men against the dholi, pointing to his caste. The man kills the drummer, and as the beats stop, the women smack their heads with their bangles and kill themselves as if to atone the sin.
The film plays down the caste aspect of the story and reduces it to a sub-plot. Instead writer-director Shah invents the theme of women’s rebellion against patriarchy and suppression as the rallying point of the film. For this purpose it has to introduce the ban on garba, although, in the folktale, there’s no embargo on the dancing of women. This new plot works fine too — the changes can be ascribed to Shah being, confessedly, a ‘feminist’. But the apparent success of the screenplay, the bland characterisation dampens all the fun that the plot holds promise for. Bhaglo is a man with sympathy for women’s cause because of his regular trips to the city. Like most men in the village, Manjari’s husband is an incorrigible misogynist, who believes in violating his wife than loving her.
Such characterisation and overt melodrama takes the film closer to the aesthetics of the one strand of the Indian art-house cinema of ’70s and ’80s. One is reminded of Ketan Mehta’s Mircha Masala (1987) which, although doesn’t specify its setting, is based in the same desert of Kutch. In fact, the setting, structure and sartorial choices of its inhabitants, the ritual of fetching water from a far-off water body, hints that it’s the same cinematic village that
we have seen in Mehta’s film.
The film’s most celebrated part — its meticulously choreographed dance sequences — is also the most problematic one. The sequences designed by the celebrated Gujarati choreographers Arsh and Sameer Tanna, who have previously worked for Bollywood blockbusters Ram Leela (2013) and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999) — reduce the women’s brief interlude from the repression into a spectacle for the viewer. The group wears colourful chania-cholis and does synchronised dancing. It is done in a way that it is agreeable to the camera, to the extent that the vessels dropped by women in the sand arrange themselves in symmetric form at the edge of the frame. It makes one wonder if the women are dancing for their freedom from patriarchy or to the enslavement of the camera.
That said, the praise and recognition that the film has received is likely to reinvigorate the Gujarati film industry. What has been achieved by the team, in a respectable but small budget of Rs 2.5 crore, is no small feat. Hellaro is a celebration of colour and cause, and it’s an enjoyable film if you are ready to ignore its many shortcomings.