How do you take your cinema? If you like a film to do what a really strong shot of tequila does – basically scorch your insides – then Ajji is right for you. It’s the fifth rape and revenge saga that we’ve seen this year – after Kaabil, Mom, Maatr and Bhoomi. But unlike many of those films, it’s punishing and hideously uncomfortable for the right reasons. Director Devashish Makhija won’t let us look away from the horror. Neither will he make it sexy and palatable. I felt scarred by this film.
This is the story of a grandmother, Ajji, who is forced to turn vigilante when her 10 year-old grand-daughter, Manda, is brutally raped. This is not a spoiler – the trailer lays out the plot including who the rapist is so please don’t accuse me of running your movie experience.
Ajji is old, limping, exhausted. The rapist is a powerful politician’s son. Early in the film, we are told that he could rape anyone he wanted and there would be no repercussions. The cop who shows up is more interested in making money and perversely examining Manda’s wounds than helping the family. Ajji watches silently as the lacerated, bewildered Manda bleeds into her bed. Ajji quietly gathers her strength and gets to work, plotting a horrific retribution.
Devashish is a master of atmosphere. He skillfully sets up a deep dread. He overuses mirrors and reflections but the frames are designed with care. Many of the scenes play out at night but the real darkness here resides in the characters. Abhishek Banerjee plays Dhavle, a repulsive sexual predator, who brutalizes women with impunity. There is a lengthy scene in which he is simulating rape on a mannequin – a first for Hindi cinema, I think. As he pulls her body parts apart you understand that he is perfectly capable of doing this to a real woman. It’s a masterful performance.
But the power in Ajji comes from Sushama Deshpande. There is such strength and resolve in her eyes that you believe that she can do what she eventually does. Sharvani Suryavanshi playing Manda is also terrific. Watch her expressions in a scene in which asks Ajji if she is finally a woman, now that she’s bleeding.
But ultimately the film falters because it descends into an unending hall of horrors. In some scenes, it feels like the director is almost reveling in your discomfort. The bleakness snuffs out the humanity of these characters. The ugliness is so unrelenting that you begin to ask, why am I subjecting myself to this.
So brace yourself before stepping in.