Film Review: Maati Maay

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Maati Maay

Rating: 3.5/5

Director: Chitra Palekar

Cast: Nandita Das, Atul Kulkarni and Kshitij Gavande.

If nothing else, this odd film with a curious title, in Marathi no less, is sure to stir up some curiosity. Hopefully, because this folktale-ish film deserves to be seen.

Charming and heartwarming, as only simply-told stories can be, Maati May is the tale of an unfortunate woman called Chandi. And you watch it wide-eyed, like a kid listening to a new bedtime story.

Belonging to a lower cast, Chandi, “who has been raised like a son”, takes over the ancestral duty of burying dead children, after her father passes away. She does her duty dispassionately, and when emotion threatens to get in the way, she philosophizes that everyone who is born must die; it’s God’s will, and she’s only doing God’s work.

She meets Narsu (Atul Kulkarni), a government servant who deals in dead bodies, and they marry. Soon, Chandi has a son of her own (Kshitij Gavande). Her becoming a mother slowly begins to affect her duty of burying children. The working mother can’t come to terms with the dichotomy of burying someone’s child, and then rushing home to feed her own.

She begins to break down. Villagers’ comments about the nature of her work, that she brushed aside earlier, begin to concern her now. Worse, her friend’s daughter whom she loved as her own, dies of an epidemic, shortly after meeting Chandi. She is branded a witch overnight, and in exasperation, Chandi declares that she will no longer bury bodies.

However, she feels that she’s shirking her duty of keeping wild animals from attacking the bodies at night. Sitting at home all day, thinking about this, she begins to lose her mind. She hears imaginary cries at night, and even stars getting nightmares of dead children. Her worried husband, so far supportive, is now confused. The villagers’ sarcastic comments get bolder, and Chandi, incapable of stopping herself, sneaks out at night to protect the graves.

This only adds fuel to fire, and the villagers, blinded by superstition are now sure that she’s a witch and feeds dead children with her own milk. Each rumour is more outrageous than the other, and one night the villagers come to Narsu to prove to him that his wife, “whom her pampers too much” is actually a ghost.

As the villagers gather around Chandi, in a somber dark scene that has you scared, though you won’t admit it, Narsu is shocked to see his wife in the dead of the night near the graves. Her only supporter gives up on her, and she is thrown out of the village.

So the woman, scared of the dark and afraid of living alone, is on her own now. As time passes, her tangled hair and unkempt look make her look what people believe her to be. Surviving on the rations given by the village, interestingly, Chandi too becomes convinced that she’s indeed a ghost. But her now grown-up son, all of twelve, is curious and wants answers…

The cinematography by Debu Deodhar is first rate, and truly does great service to the story. It is evident, that in certain scenes, it is the cinematography that brings out the emotion the scene intends. Bhaskar Chandavarkar’s background music is marvelous, and thoroughly enjoyable, bringing out the folk story flavour.

The performances are first rate, especially by Nandita Das, Atul Kulkarni and Kshitij Gavande. Das is especially remarkable as the woman exiled, branded a witch, who eventually begins to believe she is one.

The dark humour in the film is most unexpected and perhaps, therefore, so appealing. Narsu, often sells skeletons of unclaimed bodies to a doctor on the sly. The agent who collects these skeletons tells him that they need more, but gleefully informs him that there is an epidemic in the next village, so soon, there will be no dearth of unclaimed bodies.

In another scene, Chandi, who is convinced she’s an evil spirit, is trying to lift wood from the railway tracks, to prevent an accident. She innocently wonders aloud in exasperation, `Why aren’t the ghosts and spirits helping me?’

There is a strong statement made against holy men, gender discrimination and the caste system. In a scene, a child dies just a few days from taking a sadhu’s blessings who assures the parents that her life is now protected, and demands money so the woman bears a son the next time.

The film is a strange and unapologetic concoction of sunny optimism and dark brooding. While the shots of dead bodies of kids are indeed grim, it falls short of being overbearing dark.

Maati Maay is truly a director’s labour of love. Chitra Palekar has woven a story that’s delicate and delicious, and the film never goes out of step. You wake up from the reverie only when the end credits roll.

You see Maati Maay and you think: this is how films are supposed to be – about stories, with soul, with brilliant technical support, but devoid of technical razzmatazz. Thankfully.