When the sadistic subedar (Naseeruddin Shah) accosts Sonbai (Smita Patil), a poor woman of the unnamed village in Ketan Mehta-directed Mirch Masala (1987), and demands that she surrender to his desires, she slaps him and escapes. The subedar, a minor colonial official who is fond of caressing his impressive moustache, finds his masculinity challenged by this affront and sends his men on horses to chase down Sonbai. A hunt ensues — somewhat reminiscent of a similar scene in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles — and Sonbai somehow manages to evade the soldiers and escape into the spice-making factory where she works.
On hearing Sonbai’s plight, the factory’s elderly guard Abu Mian — the only Muslim character in the film — shuts the gates before the soldiers can catch up. He lets them know that he will not desist from firing his gun if they try to force their way in. Barring Abu Mian, the factory is a wholly feminine space. The women are preparing heaps of red chilli that they will dry, crush and powder. They sing as they work, and the place has a playful atmosphere. Just before Sonbai arrives, one of the elderly women warns her colleagues: “These chillies are very strong.”
Thus, begins a lengthy siege of the factory. The status quo appeals to the sadistic nature of the subedar. (He is earlier shown to viciously beat up a servant for merely breaking a gramophone record and order a poor farmer to be tied to a pole in the midday sun for being unable to pay a moneylender’s interests). He sends emissary after emissary to the factory to persuade Abu Mian and the women to give up Sonbai. First comes the factory’s owner, but Abu Mian refuses to open the gate. Then the village headman (Suresh Oberoi) and his entourage is also turned back.
A similar status quo has been established by the women of Shaheen Bagh, a densely populated area in South Delhi that has become synonymous with countrywide protests against the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or the CAA. They have blocked GD Marg, a road that leads to Noida, demanding that the Act be withdrawn. At Shaheen Bagh — or similar protests across the country, such as the one at Park Circus in south Kolkata — women have emerged as the face of the protests. According to some news reports, this has prompted Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath to demand: “Why only women, where are the men?”
But, he seems to be missing the point entirely. In an article for The Wire, reporting on the Republic Day celebration at Park Circus, Jadavpur University professor Kavita Panjabi writes: “A republic truly comes of age when its women too claim it… When millions of women begin to insist that the state is a matter of res publica, a public affair, and not the private estate of rulers to decree… then it marks the turning point in the history of the nation.” Since then, however, the situation on the ground has turned macabre, both at Shaheen Bagh and a few kilometres away at the Jamia Millia Islamia university, where students and local residents have set up another protest site.
On January 30 — the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s martyrdom — an armed young man (now said to be a minor) opened fire on protesting students at the Jamia university. Photographs and videos of the incident showed the policemen posted at the site literally standing with folded hands. On February 1, one Kapil Gujjar opened fire at the protestors at Shaheen Bagh. While he was being led away by the police, he managed to shout into microphones of gathered journalists that this nation belonged to Hindus. Another firing incident was reported from the Jamia university campus on February 3.
As several commentators have pointed out, the incidents are not disconnected to the hate speech that many prominent leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been spewing at their election rallies in the run-up to the Delhi polls this Saturday (February 8). Junior Finance Minister Anurag Thakur was banned by the Election Commission from campaigning for a few days after he chanted, at an election campaign on January 27, a slogan demanding that those betraying the nation be shot. The same slogan was heard at a rally of Union Home Minister Amit Shah, whose campaign has focused several times on the peaceful protest at Shaheen Bagh.
In Mirch Masala, when his emissaries fail to bring about the desired result, the subedar turns up at the gates of the factory with his platoon. He orders those cooped up inside to open the gates as he counts up to 10. When they don’t, he orders his men to break it open. The men attack the gates with a log (an obvious phallic symbol), as they rush towards it, raising a war cry. The gate collapses. Abu Mian, standing with his rifle, opens fire, dislodging the subedar from his horse. The soldiers return fire, killing the guard. For the women inside — particularly Sonbai, waiting for the inevitable with a sickle in her hand — all seems lost as the subedar enters the factory. But, the retribution the women have planned is beyond his imagination.
Late last month, a friend who is a student at Jamia and a few of his classmates — all of whom have participated in the protests — took me around the university, showing me different places on campus that bore the brunt of police action on the night of December 15. Later, as we sat on the verdant lawns drinking coffee, one of them — they all told me not to publish their names — told me: “We have become more politically aware over the past month. The government seems in no mood to withdraw the CAA. The protests will also continue.” As the harshest winter in the history of Delhi reluctantly withdraws, the siege is set to continue. “It will not end soon,” said the student, sipping his coffee.
The writer’s novel, Ritual, will be out in February