Half a girl – notes on Jalpari: The Desert Mermaid
Date: 9/3/2012 5:51:00 AM
In the fine new film Jalpari: The Desert Mermaid (directed by Nila Madhab Panda, who also made I am Kalam), a Delhi-based doctor named Devendra takes his two children, the tomboyish Shreya and her little brother Sam, to his ancestral village. At one point Shreya (played by the excellent Lehar Khan) gets into a fight with the local kids – all boys – who don’t even realise at first that she’s a girl. The adults intervene; a village elder disapprovingly remarks that a chori should behave like a chori, and Devendra sharply responds “Maine chora-chori ka pharak nahin sikhaaya apne bachon ko.” (“I haven’t taught my children the difference between a boy and girl.”)
Within the context – and given the film’s themes of sexual discrimination and female foeticide – one completely approves of these words. On the face of it, all Dev means is that he treats his daughter and son as equals. It’s an attitude that explains his alienation from a place where girl-children are viewed as a burden, and by the film’s end we certainly understand why he denounced the village chiefs as regressive and the village itself as banjar (barren). But for me this scene raised another, very subtle question. It’s possible to wonder: is this sensitive, caring father carrying his own demons? Has he become so frustrated by the treatment of women in his village that he has played a small, unconscious part in moulding his daughter’s personality – in keeping her out of touch with her feminine side?
It’s a contentious thought and I feel hesitant bringing it up. After all, there is nothing wrong with Shreya being a tomboy if she is also happy and emotionally secure (which she certainly is; Dev – a widower – is a great dad, and theirs is a well-rounded family life). Perhaps this is just one of those phases that children from not-very-strict families go through at an age where gender distinctions seem irrelevant. Or perhaps she hero-worships George/Georgina from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books, a couple of which we see in her room. But I think this story about gender inequality and its far-reaching effects does draw our attention to situations where a girl can achieve (a superficial form of) respect and parity only by being “one of the guys”, or by practising a particularly male form of aggression.
In one of the film’s first scenes we see Shreya dressed as a mermaid for a school dance performance, and enjoying herself, but there’s something about this scene – filmed like a fantasy sequence – that places it outside the ambit of the film’s “realistic” narrative. Within that main narrative, we gather that Shreya has a strong aversion to girls’ clothes. In the village, she gets the better of the local boys by meeting them on their own turf and beating them at their “boys’ games” – but later, when she is dressed up for the kanjak puja, they smirk at her and we can tell that she feels suddenly vulnerable. The mere fact that she has been seen in a salwar kameez enables them to exercise some hegemony over her, and even leads directly to a scene where her own adoring brother is willing to exclude her from the marble games he is playing with the other boys; it’s as if, in his eyes, she has become a creature from a different species.
Notwithstanding the initial discomfort of the kanjak ritual, Shreya does concede – when shagan money and sweets come her way – that “profit hai ladki banne mein”. But though the local men pray to a goddess, it’s obvious that there is not much “profit” in being a regular human girl here. This is a place where women are mainly anonymous, confined to their houses, performing an ornamental role during festival dances or traipsing down a path behind a water-divining sadhu, faces covered, chanting mystical songs like Homer’s sirens. (Or like mermaids – which, one might remember, are women who are only half-people.)****
Dev, the children and their nani (Suhasini Mulay, still as radiant as ever) have come here for something of a holiday but also for Dev to get work underway on a proper hospital for the village. Taken on literal terms, there is something discomfiting about the idea of an “enlightened” family of city-dwellers brushing away the cobwebs in the collective mind of a “backward” village – it’s a simple-minded polarity. But it’s possible to argue that the film has entered fable mode and this is not so much a “typical village” as a representation of the darker, more oppressive corners of the human mind. The children fantasise about an idyllic setting with “bade bade trees, lush green fields and ducks in ponds”, but they are soon disabused of such ideas: “Pond toh kab ka sookh gaya hai”. There is very little water anywhere (what there is will be shown to be poisoned by prejudice and murder). There is resistance – not least from the local vaid – to the encroachment of modern medicine. And the children hear about the existence of a wicked witch who lives near a mysterious taalaab over the hill.
I suppose a spoiler alert should come here, but I don’t think I’m giving too much away by disclosing that this taalaab is eventually revealed to be a gruesome bog into which unwanted female life is flushed away. And that the fearsome daayin turns out to be a Boo Radley figure: the outcast turned into a bogeyman by the sort of rumour and gossip that is really a cover-up for unpleasant things being done by supposedly “respectable” people.
The reason I don’t think a spoiler alert was needed is that there are enough cues strewn through this well-observed film. The wordless glances during tense scenes involving the sarpanch’s pregnant daughter-in-law, for example. And some of the children’s interactions, which play like dress rehearsals for their grown-up lives. The village kids are led by the cocky Ajith (a super performance by Harsh Mayar, who was the lead in I am Kalam) who says “Inn choriyon mein dimag hee kahan haiga” (“These girls don’t even have a brain”). Though it’s tempting to dismiss this as childish prattle, one immediately senses the sorts of conversations this boy has grown up hearing from the adults around him – and also the sort of adult he is likely to become himself.
A few things didn’t work for me. The Dev character is a first-generation migrant to the city (he slips easily from his urban twang into the village dialect), but he is also relatively young and I thought it implausible that he has, in a very short span of time, built such a prosperous and cosmopolitan life for himself in Delhi. I also felt the ending was poorly paced, with everything being wrapped up a little too quickly and neatly. Given that the final 15 minutes have the feel of a dark fairy tale (complete with a stygian swamp for discarded souls), the horror-film potential might have been realised at greater length.
But perhaps Panda and his team didn’t want to make the film too creepy given that it was intended to draw in younger audiences. In any case, at the very end, it returns to the cosy idea of being a child's adventure story – something out of the Famous Five perhaps – where nothing really bad can happen to the main characters. It was a mazedaar holiday, Shreya writes to a pen-friend in the closing scene. But feel-good though this ending is, one doesn’t forget that she is among the privileged ones, free to choose her clothes and her personal identity. Most other choris – or mermaids – aren’t so lucky.