Director: Devashish Makhija
Cast: Sushama Deshpande, Sharvani Suryavandhi, Abhishek Banerjee, Sudhir Pandey, Vikas Kumar
This film begins very eerily. Late into the night, old Ajji (Sushama Deshpande), a small-time tailor, is searching for her missing 10-year-old granddaughter, Manda (Sharvani Suryavanshi). She has now started combing through their slum area's exposed sewage system. Giving her company is Leela, an attractive commercial sex worker and one of Ajji's dearest clients. Manda was, as per routine, on her way to Leela's brothel to deliver her newly altered "special" outfit; Manda did not return.
This detail is probably unintentional, but Leela's face is strangely familiar and unsettling. The actress is Sadiya Siddiqui, who I recognize as floppy-haired Sunil's (Shah Rukh Khan) sprightly sister in Kundan Shah's Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa. My imagination connects young Nikki from Goa to a bleak adult future consumed by this dark, debauched and heavily patriarchal world created by director Devashish Makhija. If there ever had to be a casual prelude to Ajji's uncompromising "innocence lost" climate, this is it.
When they find the little girl, unconscious and brutalized in a ditch, their reaction is alarming. It isn't loud, panicky and full of chest-beating wails. It is muted and wary, almost as if they know exactly who is responsible – like villagers discovering dog carcasses in a jungle occupied by a prowling tiger. This isn't the first time. And it won't be the last. We don't see the vile serial rapist – the villain – until much later, but we sense him here. We sense his stomach-churning "legacy"; we sense the night that hides him.
And Ajji senses every subsequent scene of the film right here. She is too busy feeling tense about what this hopeless situation might lead her to do, instead of being shell-shocked by the moment. She knows how it will pan out. She knows how she wants it to end. And therefore, she spends much of this film desensitizing her own mind in order to achieve this goal. The film, too, does the same to us.
It isn't so much about the morality of vengeance here as much as it is about an unlikely character who must force herself to feel sick enough to execute it
While most rape-and-revenge dramas automatically equip their underdog protagonists with the intelligence and skills to pull off an unlikely real-world act of vigilantism, Makhija's Ajji concentrates – in grave, difficult and graphic detail – on the unglamorous human process of earning this possibility. As strange as it sounds, this makes for perhaps a most pragmatic revenge saga – stripped of its cinematic-ness, and disorienting for how ugly and "probable" it is.
It isn't so much about the morality of vengeance here as much as it is about an unlikely character who must force herself to feel sick enough to execute it. This is the mental equivalent of a training montage in sports biopics (Ajji even befriends a butcher who lets her chop meat and slaughter a live chicken, as "practice"). As a result, we see many scenes in which Ajji is simply a mute observer – she secretly watches the rapist at his "hideout" every night, she watches him masturbate to porn, she watches him drunkenly fuck a mannequin, she watches a cop blackmail her family into submission, she watches her clients bully her, she watches as Manda bleeds and suffers, she watches as her son loses his livelihood, she watches the apathy all around. She watches everything, determined to convert herself into a ticking time bomb. She wants to lose control. Makhija makes hers a relentless exercise in endurance – a methodical effort to emotionally push herself to the point of no return.
And she knows this point exists, perhaps because of the movies she has watched over the years.
I've always had an issue with the sensationalized morality of mainstream rape-revenge thrillers – there have been four this year alone (Kaabil, Maatr, Mom, Bhoomi) – and the kind of hungry mass nods such films elicit. People cheer, people hoot and chant, blinded by the solution rather than the message. These films cater to the beast in us, and carelessly end up validating this madness. In the end, they propagate a brand of dangerous tit-for-tat lawlessness that is self-defeating within the confines of civilized "realism". Ajji, in a way, is a flesh-and-blood product of these films.
She is what happens when the idea is put out there to emulate. She is the result of a corrupt culture that breeds irresponsibly wishful cinema. And what's most remarkable is that she, too, is a film – a desolate tonal counterpart to those masked-vigilante black comedies about ordinary everymen who try to mimic mythical superheroes. But unlike those, at no point does this film make us feel like hers will be a victory. In fact, it's nearly impossible to "root" for her, despite her bumpy against-all-odds existence.
Ajji is grueling to watch for the most part. And Makhija partly succeeds in making it an uncomfortable experience, by confronting us, often aggressively, with the repulsiveness of this fictitious locality
And rightly so – because she is merely a naïve (and impressionable, and disagreeable, and unhandy) victim of her own surroundings. She isn't supposed to be "right" just because she is fighting evil. Challenging a villain doesn't automatically make her a hero – a grey fact often lost upon filmmakers passionately enabling this genre.
Makhija doesn't shy away from making his film as uncompromising – and as less of a "movie" – as possible. Ajji is grueling to watch for the most part. And he partly succeeds in making it an uncomfortable experience, by confronting us, often aggressively, with the repulsiveness of this fictitious locality. But there are moments when he is a little too obvious about what he is trying to achieve. Occasionally, his filmmaking becomes visible – and not just in the overused mirror-reflection shots populating the girl's space.
There are two such instances, both involving long single-room "mood" conversations. In the first, the local cop (Vikas Kumar) sardonically examines the grave aftermath in the family's tiny room. It is designed to be a menacing tone-setter, but Makhija gets too ambitious with his framing – hoping to make the cop's voice, and not his face, the center of this early scene. There are a lot of emotions in this room – tension, fear, anger, sadness, slyness, shame – but none of them hit home completely because it's clear that the filmmaker wants us to recognize the way he is communicating them.
In the second, again, it's the cop – this time at the receiving end of verbal intimidation tactics – in the swanky living room of the offender (Abhishek Banerjee as Dhavle, the perverse son of a leading politician). Makhija tries to design this like the opening interrogation scene between Nazi Colonel Hans Landa and a frightened French farmer in Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds. Dhavle circles him like a shark, muttering and threatening and scowling – yet this goes on interminably, and looks more like a low-budget 1990s villainous-den sequence. This film doesn't quite afford any of these characters the inbuilt charisma or indulgence to pull off such a scene. Dhavle is already detestable through his actions thus far; his words only diminish his barbaric nature and remind us that he, too, can be a "character".
Yet, the one time the filminess works – at the correct juncture in Ajji's core-building quest – is when Manda softly asks her grandmother if all the bleeding means she has finally become a woman. The implications of this question are profound and profoundly sad, which is why the "dialogue-ness" of this moment serves as a perfect trigger for what follows.
I don't think I'm going to watch Ajji ever again. Because I'll remember it. I'll remember that I flinched more at the sight of a man being attacked than at the suggestion of a minor being assaulted. And this is a complicated, deep-rooted feeling – one that perhaps Devashish Makhija and his team seek to address. Not through the prism of gender or entertainment or justice, but through a harmless old lady with nothing (left) to lose.
Watch the trailer of Ajji here: