Spices, a multi-layered allegory that takes into its broad sweep an array of social, political, and gender confrontations, is a tale at once cogent and potent. Ketan Mehta addresses a complex web of dark themes – colonial oppression, rural exploitation, the ugliness of vulgar virility, and the brutalization of women against a backdrop whose barrenness suggests an almost dehumanized state of existence – with deceptive simplicity.
Coming in the wake of Bhavni Bhavai, Ketan Mehta’s breakthrough film, Spices, strengthened the director’s credentials as a storyteller endowed with the ability to blend the traditional conventions of Gujarati (the regional language of the western Indian state of Gujarat), narrative idioms with a modern, innovative cinematic language. Both in terms of visual appeal and dramatic energy, it is a film that is compelling from beginning to end.
Spices is set in a dust bowl of a village in pre-independence India where red chilies constitute the only agricultural output. Life revolves around a spice factory where the women of the village grind the chilies to powder. But they are sitting ducks. They are illiterate, their men are boors and spineless wastrels, and the landlords call the shots.
A lecherous Subedar (Naseeruddin Shah) rides into the village with his force of tax collectors. The Subedar is a desperado whose persona is informed by markedly comic-strip elements. His hair is parted in the middle, and he sports a handlebar moustache. He would have been a completely risible clown but for the sadistic streak in his character. His inflated sense of authority and the villagers’ singular lack of courage egg him on to ride roughshod over the hamlet.
He sets his eyes on the beautiful Sonbai (Smita Patil in one of the finest performances of her short but eventful acting career), and orders the headman to hand her over to him or else face an all-out attack on the hamlet.
When the men decide to give in to the Subedar’s demand to save the village, Sonbai and the other women take refuge in the spice factory. The final scene makes a statement so powerful, you will never forget it.
Indian cinema has rarely seen a stronger, more pointed celebration of the power of women to strike back when pushed to the wall.