Note: this post is part of a series of posts. Previous post: Ghayal
This review contains plot and other spoilers.
The storytelling in Damini follows a similar structure to that in Ghayal. It begins in the present, looks back at the past and then continues forward. The plot revolves around Damini (Meenakshi Sheshadri in the role of a lifetime), a daughter-in-law of a rich and prestigious household attesting to rape charges against her brother-in-law and his friends, against the wishes of her in-laws and her husband, Rakesh (Rishi Kapoor). The rape victim is a maid servant that works in the household.
This is heavy subject matter and Santoshi deals with it by taking everything to the extreme. The movie begins with Damini in a mental hospital and then proceeds to the flashback (Ghayal began with its protagonist Ajay in prison). The rape scene is always going to be the turning point in the film. When it does arrive it is both unsettling and horrific, cruelly jerking the audience out of their comfort zone. The movie until that point seems fairly trivial. Santoshi has the rape occur during the festival of colors which works on both the visual and the psychological level in creating an unsettling experience. The scene cuts quickly between the rape, the festivities and Damini who tries to intervene. In another movie a hero would save the day, but not here. Just as the scene comes to an end, notice the quick cut of a beer bottle tipping over and spewing froth. The shot is at once perverse and appalling and yet, its a daring and inventive visual with symbolism ripe displaying the director’s creativity. By the end of the scene Damini faints. The audience is left to recover from the shock. Later, notice how Santoshi awakens the conscience of Damini. The nightmare she has is just as unsettling as the rape scene. As the movie progresses to the courts, we are introduced to the crooked Barrister Indrajit Chaddha (Amrish Puri). Puri plays the character as over the top childish and comical, full with hair flips and suspenders. The ensuing court scenes are also overtly dramatized. The scenes aren’t fully believable, but I think Santoshi makes these choices to dramatize the fact that in his universe, justice is a farce. It is such a farce that they prove Damini as mentally unstable and get her admitted to a mental institution. Everything is taken to the extreme.
The movie does have its flaws as it tries to tackle too many (women and class related) issues and gets a bit muddled. One senses that the editing must have been rushed as some scenes lack continuity. This could be due to Santoshi working on multiple films at the same time (there is an in joke when Aamir Khan, making a guest appearance says Andaz Apna Apna, Santoshi’s next film will be released soon).
The movie springs back to life for the third act, when the flashback ends and continues in the present. We meet Govind (Sunny Deol), a drunken ex-lawyer who has given up his profession and the ideals he once held dear. He tells Damini to do the same and to stop pursuing justice, but has a change of heart and decides to fight her case. We get two of the movie’s most oft repeated and parodied dialogues. If you have seen the movie, you know them.
In Damini, we are offered hope absent in Ghayal where justice was attained through revenge. Out here, Santoshi the God of his universe, decides to listen to Govind’s rant (the tareekh pe tareekh dialogue) on delivering justice. One must wonder, if Santoshi had decided not to yield to Govind, he may well have turned into the revenge seeking Ajay from Ghayal. But hope is provided, as Govind triumphs over injustice using his wits and through the same system which at one point seemed farcical. However, Santoshi doesn’t spare the press or the police portraying them as vicious opportunists.
Although there are quick cuts to the scene, Santoshi includes only one long shot of the rape scene and it is filmed through a hole in the door. The door acts like a metaphorical barrier to the issue of rape which I think only Damini crosses successfully. But what about us, the audience? Are we still stuck peering from the other side of the door? Rape continues to be treated as a trivial issue in the modern world. Mind you, not just in India but the world over, in terms of overall attitude, treatment of victims, convictions, etc. Notice how nobody in the movie is actually horrified by the rape or cares for the victim besides Damini. The final courtroom scene has people applaud Damini for her triumph, a scene that I absolutely abhor for being indulgent and naive but it seems to be the truth about people. Take the Nirbhaya case for example, a gang rape victim who succumbed to her injuries. There was huge hue and cry that followed even though such cases have been prevalent before and continue to do so even now but people seem to respond only when there is horror involved. Even then their reactions are one of shock, confusion and anger similar to that of Rakesh, but they seem to lack the empathy Damini shows for the victim and her resolve for justice.
Its a strange decision to make a movie that is not about the rape victim but about a witness and her quest for justice. Santoshi it seems is talking to the majority of us here and asking us what kind of witnesses will we be.
Next we review: Ghatak