The year is 1975. In a small village in Kutch, a man gets ready for the nightly garba dance and impatiently asks his wife to hand him his sword. When his daughter asks to accompany him, he glares at his wife and states that girls are not allowed to dance or ask questions. He steps out of the house, adjusts the turban of his young son and leads him to centre stage to worship the Goddess Amba. There are no women outside. This opening scene does wonders in setting the tone of the 2019 Gujarati period drama film Hellaro.
Awarded the National Film Award for Best Feature Film, Hellaro is a visually stunning and conceptually powerful debut by writer-director Abhishek Shah. The film is beautiful at every level; flawless in its writing, casting, direction, cinematography and choreography. The film has the rare quality of being a convincing period film while also being deeply in touch with the stark reality of female oppression. One cannot say enough to emphasise that this is an obvious recommendation to anyone who appreciates film. Set during the Emergency, the film revolves around thirteen married women living in the fictional village of Samarpura whose lives are restricted to the four walls of their homes and the demands of their husbands. In the drought-hit region, the only time they step out of the house is to fill water from a faraway pond. As Manjhri, an educated bride newly married into the village, puts it, "Isn't it strange then when it does not rain, the men dance garba and we keep fasts?" One such day, they run into a semi-conscious drummer, Mulji, dying of thirst. After much debate, Manjhri gives him water and in return he plays the dhol for them. He respectfully faces away from them while the women gradually and hesitantly dance to the beat for the first time. Hence, begins the tale of our protagonists who gradually learn to let go of their inhibitions and superstition through garba under the guise of fetching water every day. The path to unhindered self-expression is not straightforward. The women are initially guilt-stricken and waiting for the Goddess to punish them for breaking the rules. When one of them gives birth to a stillborn child, the older women are quick to assume that it is the result of their dancing and blame Manjhri. This confrontation makes way for a poignant and gut-wrenching scene where the bereaved mother sets their assumptions straight and blames her violent husband for the loss of her child. She frankly says "Not all sinners get punished. If so, the world wouldn't have so many men in it." This scene is a turning point for the sceptics amongst the group and all of them now fully commit to dancing every day.
Even when they are spotted by the village trader, they continue. As Manjhri tells Mujli, "We feel alive for the few moments we dance to the tunes of your dhol. Now we won't stop living for the fear of dying." Abhishek Shah, who is also the writer and co-producer, developed this story after he heard a local folktale about a group of women who are forbidden from doing garba. They meet with a drummer and start dancing in secret. Once discovered, the drummer is killed by the men and the women commit suicide in protest and grief. Even without knowing this story, one feels the sense of inevitable danger whenever the women go out to dance. The viewer knows that it is only a matter of time before they are found out and the film becomes fraught with tension. In an interview with Kartavya Sadhna, Shah spoke about the meaning of the title: "Hellaro is an archaic word, seldom heard in spoken Gujarati today. It means a rising tide or wave of water. The sort of wave that rocks the world around you…" Literally translating to 'Outburst', Hellaro then becomes a suitably named film which makes the audience hold their breath while the women in the film finally let out theirs.
The film is made even better because of its inconclusive ending. We do not know what happens to the women but they get their last dance, and that is the point of Hellaro. It celebrates their defiance, dissent and courage without needing to attempt the impossible task of uprooting the status quo. The film opens with a dedication to "the struggles of countless women who thrive in the face of patriarchal mandate". It lives up to this promise and all the creators involved in this film are sympathetic, honest and considerate in their portrayal of both gender-based and caste-based oppression. The first question posed to Mujli by both the men and women of the village is about his caste and the film does not hesitate to depict the dominance of upper-caste men over everyone else. Saumya Joshi (lyrics and dialogue) and Abhishek Shah are both playwrights and perhaps responsible for each scene being so thoughtfully detailed. Every character has been painstakingly sketched and the screenplay demands emotional investment within the first ten minutes. The cinematography by Tribhuvan Babu Sadineni is mesmerising, colourful and earthy. This film could be held frame by frame to a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film, without the huge budget, pretend empowerment and larger-than-life machismo. It would have been extremely easy to caricaturise the men in the film as one-dimensional and evil. Or have the benevolent male character, Mujli, save the day like SRK in Chak De! India or Amitabh Bachchan in Pink. The filmmakers trust the audience to see for themselves the hypocrisy of the men, nothing is dumbed down for us. They pray to a Goddess and beat up their wives, laze around smoking hukkahs while the women gather water, listen to titillating retellings of Bollywood films while the women do not make eye contact with them. The film also abandons the 'newcomer leads the way' trope as quickly as it takes it up. It is true that Manjhri's character encourages the other women and starts the process of asking questions but the film does not single her story out and chooses to give importance to the solidarity of the women as a whole. The National Film Award jury recognised this and conferred the thirteen actresses of the film with a special Jury Award for acting as a unit "to bring about social transformation while taking the audience through an emotional catharsis."
Even after being screened at various national and international festivals and winning awards, I am extremely surprised at the lack of conversation around this film. While writing the film, the makers were very clear that they wanted to make an "accessible" film. Prateek Gupta says, "We wanted to maintain a balance of mainstream treatment and art-house flavour. The idea was that the movie should communicate with a larger audience." They are extremely successful in this endeavour specially with the soulful soundtrack and vibrant choreography. The result is a universally digestible film that transcends language and cultural barriers. It would be a serious reduction to call Hellaro a regional film. I believe it to be one of the finest films India has to offer and would recommend it not just because of its story but to learn about the art of filmmaking itself.