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Mrityubhoj preview: Detached documentary on the price of death

Akanksha Sood Singh travels to the heart of Chambal to unravel how centuries of caste and religious oppression are propagated through a feast for the dead that debilitates the living.

Shriram Iyengar

One of Munshi Premchand's most famous short stories, Kafan (Shroud), tells the tale of a decrepit, broke father and son who benefit when the woman in the house dies. The death, caused by hunger, earns them sympathy, and one proper meal for their stomachs. In the documentary Mrityubhoj, director Akanksha Sood Singh provides evidence of a similar tradition where the death of a patriarch puts the family on the path of self-destruction.

The documentary tracks the 13-day journey of a family mourning the death of Shriram Khushwa, a farmer in the infamous Chambal region. The death of the patriarch triggers a whole new cycle of preparations that go into the centuries-old tradition of the death feast. The tradition of Mrityubhoj refers to 13 Brahmins being fed on the 13th day of the death, to prevent the soul from lingering in limbo. However, centuries of feudalism and casteism have distorted tradition into an oppressive means of extortion from the poor. Lower-caste farmers now take loans, enter bonded labour, and even face death to help feed 3,000 people, simply because 'tradition' demands it.

But the feast is not just a tradition. As the documentary explains, it is also a means to establish caste status, prove your standing in society, and build new relationships.

On the other side of the cultural divide lies a group of social workers, and the police, led by Dr Virendra Raj Sharma, who seek to stop this practice that has taken the lives, and livelihoods, of several poor farmers and villagers.

But breaking tradition is not easy. The brahmins of the village, while not 'forcing' the feast, suggest that it is necessary to celebrate 'because you have to live in a society according to its traditions'. As Khushwa's son says, 'The dead have nothing to do with society. The living have to go on and live in it.'

This fear of societal pressure and of religion and tradition lies at the centre of this social conflict. As each day passes, we learn of a new dimension of cultural oppression and superstition that is sanctified as tradition.

Singh's documentary captures the complex lives of these simple people being pulled in different directions. The struggle of the living, who have to shake off their sorrow to carry out a task that looks insurmountable, is captivating. Their motives, often confusing, are fuelled by the need to save face among their neighbours. The urban viewer may not relate to this, but for people living in a small village, cut off from the rest of developing India, this feast is the natural progression after death.

Why you should watch the film

A simple, objective documentary, Mrityubhoj tells a story that explores the multiple dimensions of caste, religion, and power in a traditional society. The director does not seek to condone or pass comment on the protagonists of her tale. She merely states the horrifying facts that underline her film.

For an urban audience, the actions of the characters might seem surprising, but they signify the vast divide between an India that talks of space exploration and an India where ancient customs still define an individual's standing.

Akanksha Sood Singh does a good job of capturing the conflict and the reasoning behind the feast. In an India where 'progress' and 'development' have become political slogans, it is documentaries like Mrityubhoj that tell the tale of another India that lives beyond the glimmer.

Mrityubhoj is set for a world premiere at the Woodpecker International Film Festival on 12 November.

Related topics

Woodpecker International Film Festival