My first Marathi film, Maati Maay was for me a return to my first love in Indian cinema, Nandita Das. This fine actress has made a career of making a lie of her name, and this film is no exception – laughter is in very short supply.
The film tells the story of Chandi, a Dalit woman born into a family whose traditional role was to bury infant children and keep predators away from the graves. When her father dies she assumes the job, but when she becomes a mother herself, she wants to stop working around death. The film examines the results of her husband’s failure to understand her stresses, and the community’s reaction to her role as well as to her desire to change it.
I used to despair of Nandita’s predilection for grim, heartbreaking stories, but this simple film is an example of why she chose the roles she did. It’s an unflinching depiction of the consequences of profound communal ignorance and superstition and the way such fears and unquestioned faith can be exploited to excuse venality and misogyny. But it also has a message of hope, hope in the possibility of change.
Chandi’s whole world was a Dalit world, yet there was no sense of fellowship and sympathy, no noble “Harijan” brotherhood. Even at the bottom of the social heap, people still try to make themselves feel better by abusing others, and at every rung of the ladder, people resort to desperate measures to raise themselves up. It was to the film’s credit that in telling a simple story of a man, his ex-wife and their son, it made its point without any need for sermonising dialogue. The father’s narration of the story proved to be the closest he came to redemption, but it did at least set the scene for the boy to make his own choice in regard to his mother.
The film made very effective use of haunting, piercingly sad songs, without any picturised song numbers, and as always, Nandita was the heart of the film. Her gradual transformation, driven by forces both without and within, was truly heartrending to watch and was portrayed with perfect finesse. Her role in the climax was satisfying, a vindication of her character that made it easier to watch. The scene that followed next, with a prolonged “will he, won’t he?” dilemma for her son, was masterfully done. I felt certain he would, but the scene hung on long enough and built enough pressure to generate real doubt about the outcome. As much as I’m a hopelessly biased Nandita fan, the other two leads were also both very good. Atul Kulkarni shone as the conflicted and guilt-ridden yet still craven father. Not a brute, just an ignorant, weak-willed man, and Kulkarni did a great job of showing that.
This was not a fun film, but despite the tears I shed, I enjoyed it very much. I am indebted once more to Katherine from Totally Filmi for giving me the link to the subtitled film on youtube, thank you! If moving personal dramas that convey important social messages through good storytelling are your cup of tea, then grab a box of tissues and watch Maati Maay.