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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Ajji, Review: Gran finalé

Ajji, Review: Gran finalé

Enough of laurels for acclaimed shorts like Taandav, Aglee Baar, Absent, and the largely unknown feature, Oonga. It was time for Devashish Makhija to push the limits hard, and make a shocker that would provoke the critics into hot debate, and leave the masses, if and as and when they get to see it, cringing and stunned.

In Ajji (Granny/Marathi title, though the film is in Hindi), as in most films that emanate from and belong to a genre, content dictates form. Only here, the envelope is pushed farther than you would expect. It’s a tale of rape and revenge, described as ‘a dark take on Red Riding Hood’. Makhija identifies Red with generous levels of blood-letting, Riding is the metaphor for sex and libido, and Hood is the unlikely, avenging reincarnation of Robin, who descends into a gentle soul, to settle the score.

All of nine going on ten, Manda is brutally raped by the local politico’s sex maniac son as she crosses his construction site late at night, and dumped on a garbage heap. The police-officer who comes to investigate, instead of lodging a complaint and arresting the accused, threatens Manda’s slum-dwelling family, and a well-wisher prostitute, with dire consequences, if they do not hush up the matter. They have little choice. He brings a hack doctor to sew up the wound that still keeps bleeding for days.

On his part, the officer, already on their payroll, extracts his pound of flesh from the Dhavles, the rapist and his father. But Ajji, the girl’s grandmother, who walks with a limp and makes a living by altering ladies’ clothes, is unable live with this brutal attack on her hapless family. On one hand, she treats Manda’s wounds with indigenous medicine, while on the other, she takes lessons in butchering, from the local chicken and mutton shop owner, who nurses a soft corner for her, ever since she was widowed.

None of the three writers credited with the script are very familiar names as pen-pushers, though Makhija co-wrote his own feature debut, Oonga. Mirat Trivedi has shorts to his credit while Maya Tideman is an actress making her writing debut. Reading the plot above, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a routine crime-revenge story. It is anything but routine. Unlikely locales, minimalistic lighting, barely functional dialogue and setting props, unknown actors, and a completely straight, linear narrative that goes right over the top when the core issue of psychopathic and crazed avenging take centre-stage—these elements distinguish the film from umpteen pot-boilers of yore. Also, the almost total absence of back stories keeps you on your mental toes, absorbed in the images that unfold at a deliberately uneven, languorous pace.

Director Makhija must hold Quentin Tarantino in high esteem—the influence is for all to see. Driven by his self-declared credo of making “unsafe films”, he translates his belief both in terms of obscene language and harsh visuals. There are shots of actors peering up the legs of the rape victim, mutton being cleaved and chopped in mid-close, a chicken having its neck cut and then writhing in death throes, the villain indulging in a long-drawn, perverted seduction of a mannequin (footage drastically reduced by the Indian Central Board of Film Certification), him violently raping a young woman in a prostitute’s home, and a climax that marks delivery of justice in a manner that was seen in another film recently, but nowhere in the way Makhija executes it. Although it is all about excision, the CBFC has cut very little here, leaving sensitive viewers revolted and the desensitised ones awe-struck. Either way, you will not remain unmoved. Soldier Blue, and several films of Sam Peckinpah, had similar effects in the 70s and 80s. One Sylvester Stallone movie had him as a cop in drag, to nab a rapist/serial killer 'in the act', but saying anything more will give you a spoiler. And then there came along Tarantino, reinterpreting this legacy.

Language spoken shifts from Hindi to Marathi several times, without any obvious justification. A delicate, sublime equation is built between the butcher and Ajji, only to turn contrived and convenient. In all her sorties and recces, Ajji encounters no obstacle whatsoever. To turn from a humble seamstress to a street-smart hooker, the 65-ish Gran needs just one tutorial from her young prostitute friend. A rich politician’s wayward son sleeps outdoors on his plot of land and has only one yes man around, who, incredibly, is demented. Already suffering from high testosterone, he gets terribly high on his daily fixes of beer, yet keeps no stock of it handy, staggering around, kicking shop-doors and abusing the owners just because they have their shutters down at midnight. One corrupt cop writing notes in his diary is all that the law in suburban Mumbai is reduced to in the film, though I must mention that I am no fan of the local law machinery.

Along with Jishnu Bhattacharjee (cinematographer) and his art direction team, Makhija keeps his illumination to a minimum, often straining your eyes, and the components in his images really stark, except for the outdoor shots. Even here, most of them are at night. You might find it hard to remember a single shot that had more than available light. Add to that his penchant for blocking 80% of the frame and confining the action to just 1/5th of the screen on half a dozen occasions. Yet, you must applaud his frames within frames, striking use of mirrors and the way he teases you for several minutes before showing you the face of the visiting policeman, that too at an obtuse angle.

A Marathi theatre veteran who has been performing the landmark solo play Whaay Mee Savitribai (Yes, I am Savitri) for over 26 years, Sushama Deshpande is 56, just right for the part. After seeing her as Ajji, the obvious question that comes to mind is, ‘Why wasn’t she picked up by the mainstream Hindi film industry two decades ago?’ The actor is a journalist-tuned theatre-person who also supports the rights of sex workers. ‘Ajji’ owes it to her hypnotic, carefully nuanced portrayal, and I can see an award or two coming her way. Baby-faced, long-timer Sadiya Siddiqui as Leela, the sex-worker, impresses. As the Junior Dhavle, Abhishek Banerjee does hideous things with flair. (The film’s casting director is also named Abhishek Banerjee, and, in all likelihood, is the same person).

While casting for Absent, Devashish and Vikas Kumar just could not find the right person, till it was decided to audition Vikas, the Casting Director, himself. He did a great job. Vikas is present here too, as the cop. We learn from the listing on the net that he is named Dastur. Odd name for a Mumbai cop, one that I do not recall having heard even once in the film. Late in the film, it is symbolically revealed that he is a Muslim. (Makhija also uses background recorded Hindu chanting to effectively expose the duplicity of his ‘god-fearing’ villain). Vikas is smooth, though Dastur is nowhere near his enactment of the death-row criminal in Absent. An excellent piece of casting is Sudhir Pandey as the butcher, who, we learn, had a name, Sharafat. A couple of affected lines apart, he is natural and a delight to watch. Sharvani Suryavanshi, as the raped, bleeding, traumatised child Manda, is the perfect counter-point to Ajji. Smita Tambe plays Manda’s mother, Mrugank Indurkar is the ‘mad’man and Trimala Adhikari is seen as the other rape victim.

Ujjwal Chandra’s editing goes with the wavering velocity of the film’s design (the 104 minute film will have a slightly shorter runtime after the CBFC applied their scissors, the tool being a literal irony in view of the film’s climax) while Ajaz Zahir Khan must be complimented for some fine make-up.

Yoodlee Films is the not-easy-to-forget name of the new banner formed by music company SaReGaMa to target the 18-30 age group with a spate of films releasing back to back. SaReGaMa is synonymous with old Hindi film music, while the kind of films it has lined up are not even remotely comparable to the bulk of its repertoire, so giving their no holds barred productions a new label is a practical move.

If he is going to stick to the milieu of ‘haves-have nots, politicians-slum dwellers, prostitutes-cops, fanatics-victims’, Devashish Makhija will have to discover a new matrix at every outing. Otherwise, he could be making the same films with minor variations. But then there is no compulsion for him to stick to the realm that he has been treading for the last few years. A breakthrough could be on the way. He has shown us with his shorts that he has it in him.

Ajji is not the best extrapolation of his slick short-film screenplays—we expected more. And yet, with its aberrations, it is an important film. If you are made of the stuff that takes gore and hardcore in its stride, you must stay on till the gran finalé. But don’t say I did not warn you.

Rating: ***




About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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