Mumbai, 14 Oct 2017 8:00 IST
Sushma Deshpande is unforgettable as the grandmother who takes the law into her own hands in this finely directed feature by Devashish Makhija.
A cramped, darkened alleyway at night; a voice calling out for someone as a dog barks in the background. This ominous opening sequence itself makes your stomach churn. Ajji (Sushma Deshpande) and Leela (Sadiya Siddiqui) are looking for Ajji’s young granddaughter, Manda Kadam (Sharvani Suryavanshi). They find her bruised and battered in an open drain surrounded by garbage. It is obvious she has been assaulted, brutally.
They bring her back to a cramped one-room flat in the slum that Manda shares with her parents and grandmother. However, the ruthless line of questioning of police officer Dastur (Vikas Kumar) leaves you in no doubt within minutes of the film’s opening sequence that justice will be hard to come by for the child.
Manda’s father Milind (Shreyas Pandit) works long hours in a powerloom factory while her mother Vibha (Smita Tambe) cooks breakfast foods (upma, poha) to sell on a bicycle every morning. Ajji alters clothes for the neighbourhood slum women. On the fateful night, Manda had been to the red-light district with an altered blouse for Leela, a prostitute. The girl chooses to take a shortcut through an abandoned construction site, sealing her fate.
The shell-shocked Manda whispers out the name of the man who attacked her, “Kala chasma wala [The guy with the dark glasses]”, and Leela confirms that it’s Davle (Abhishek Banerjee), son of the local politician. Dastur quashes all hope of questioning the suspect when he counters that the Kadam family is running many illegal activities under the radar. He promises to bring back a doctor soon and asks the family to keep it quiet for the ‘sake of the young girl’.
For Ajji, it is doubly painful to see Manda in this situation. The two share a close bond. She barely speaks to her son and disagrees often with her daughter-in-law. Therefore, she does the only thing she knows; she plots and investigates. The more she finds out about this Davle — aimless, sadistic but powerful goon — the more determined she becomes to do something for Manda, who is confined to bed.
The odious younger Davle lives a hedonistic lifestyle. He is a repeat offender. He has done this before. But this time, the girl is a minor. And he does not expect to come up against a vengeful grandmother.
Ajji bides her time but prepares and transforms herself for her eventual face-off with Manda’s rapist. She goes to the butcher Sharafat (Sudhir Pandey) who has always been sweet on her and learns how to cut up an animal. She leaves home at night to visit the construction site and spy on Davle and learn his routine. You can see where this is going, can’t you?
Co-writer and director Devashish Makhija shows us the ‘who’ and ‘why’ and the film’s final journey narrates the ‘how’. A determined Ajji literally puts on the war paint (in this case, makeup by Leela) to confront a drunk Davle as an older prostitute. Keeping a frail and weakened Manda in mind, Ajji finally takes her revenge and Manda has her justice.
There have been a few films featuring helpless parents trying to avenge their daughters this year, from Maatr to Mom to the recent Bhoomi. But turning the focus on an elderly grandmother, with hobbled knees, is surely a first.
From the claustrophobic setting of the slums, the milieu, to the fine performances of the cast (the helplessness on the faces of Manda’s parents is telling) makes it difficult to ignore their plight. There are many such untold cases across India and this fictionalized version, while satisfying in its conclusion, points to the larger problem of justice in the country for victims of sexual abuse.
Makhija’s first feature Oonga (2013) was never released in theatres. He is known for his short films El’ayichi (2015) and Tandav (2016) with Manoj Bajpayee. The talented, confident director is also a best-selling author of children’s books, a poet and an artist. Ajji, which is also playing at the Busan International Film Festival this week, besides the Mumbai film festival, will make sure more people remember his name.
The film, however, belongs to the bold and brave Ajji, played by the incredible Deshpande, who never wavers in her goal for little Manda. Whenever she thinks she can’t go on, she imagines Manda’s face and soldiers on. There are some intense, crucial scenes in the film that she carries off with aplomb.
Ajji paints a depressing look at the gender balance in the lower strata of society. The men in power, Dastur and Davle (both Kumar and Banerjee are quite effective as louts), try their best to suppress the voices of women and, for the most part, they succeed, until Deshpande’s Ajji decides she has had enough.
Certain scenes stayed on longer than necessary, including a bizarre sequence where Davle and his associate Umya molest a mannequin. But the film must be applauded for its portrayal of the grim realities of life — from the butchering of an animal to Manda’s demeaning questioning by the slimy policeman.
The film has been described as a darker, reversed retelling of the children’s fable, Little Red Riding Hood. Here, the grandmother must wear the red cape, take on the big bad wolf, and seek retribution for her granddaughter. Ajji makes for bleak and gritty viewing, but it is essential.
Ajji was screened at the 19th MAMI Mumbai Film Festival on 13 October 2017.