By Stella James
Let me start with a confession: I adore gory, violent movies. I agree with the critique surrounding violence on screen and vigilante justice, but there’s something so deeply satisfying about watching a sordid murder mystery or a revenge drama that’s high on violence and blood.
This is what I had expected from Maatr. And after watching movies featuring avenging men, a woman as the ‘Great Avenger’ sounded promising.
However, the camera in Maatr played hide-and-seek with me the way Vidya Chauhan (Raveena Tandon) was accused of playing with the police. I got the clichés and violence I wanted, but just not the way I had expected.
The movie starts with the stereotype of the ‘villain’. In this case, seven of them, led by Apurva Malik (Madhur Mittal). Predictably, he indulges in bikes, drugs, alcohol and women. The camera doesn’t bother much with the three women present, though. To the camera, these three women are as relevant as the cocaine packets and alcohol bottles, only meant to establish the depravity of the men. After an overview of this, it cuts, suddenly and inexplicably, to an animation of the Ramayana. Why the audience is suddenly being given a two-minute recap of our mythology, we don’t know yet. Perhaps a message lies in Rama and Sita’s relationship, a hackneyed link between how horribly Rama treated Sita and how women are treated today.
Rama’s animated story unfolds on screen, reaches the part where Rama kills Ravana and returns in glory, and suddenly the camera zooms out on to a school auditorium. We learn that it was a performance by girls in school and Tia (Alisha Khan), who is Vidya’s daughter, is saying something about kindling Rama in our hearts.
Moving on, three of the villains from the first scene are in the audience staring up lecherously at the girls on stage. The camera has chosen the infamous male gaze — the girls are seen through the men’s eyes. Through the camera, I’m forced to look at three young girls, zoomed in for my benefit, with men leering in the background. Cringe. Thankfully, the moment ends soon, and we are back safely on the neutral third-party gaze. But the camera is not done.
Before long, Vidya and Tia are rammed by a car, and taken to a house. Now, the camera hounds with closeups of Vidya being raped. It unabashedly pans all over her body as she is being violated — it zooms into her injured face, shows her pain and trauma up close. This time, the camera doesn’t hurry; it doesn’t suddenly shift focus but takes its time, changing angles and positions as it savours every cringe-inducing moment. The younger girl is mercifully spared some of this perverted voyeurism. Unbidden, my thoughts turn to Raveena Tandon, the actor playing Vidya. What was she feeling when they filmed this? Did she know and agree to such humiliating shots of her body? And why was I not warned that I would be forced into being a part of this perverted pleasure that the camera was deriving out of violence?
I told myself, my patience would be rewarded. I would get to see these men tortured like the hero, Vidya, is. Wasn’t that the whole point? Sweet sweet revenge. But the camera deceives me yet again.
After some shots of Vidya in a hospital and Vidya at home crying, where somehow the camera fails the relatively easy task of showing time lapsing, the story finally reaches the point where Vidya starts preparing for revenge. But unlike shots in most revenge movies that linger over the hero as he meticulously prepares his revenge, with the camera slowly zooming into his angry, determined face as he pumps weights, here, the camera decides to revert to its earlier flitting style.
We see Vidya in physical training in quick short bursts. The camera quickly jumps from frame to frame as Vidya plans her first murder, and it hurries through its execution. We watch as the first of the perpetrators flies off his bike. Murder from afar. I’m a little unhappy (what was the point of the physical training if there is no fight), but hope is re-kindled as we see Vidya get off the car and approach him. We see the man’s bloodied face, but the camera maintains a respectful distance. The camera is clearly not shy of going in close to its subjects, so why this distance now? Where was the perverse zooming into the perpetrator’s terrified face and cowering body, the slow and victorious long shot of the cold glint in the avenger’s eyes as she walks away — where, in essence, was the sweet taste of righteous vengeance that every revenge movie ensures?
Halfway through the movie, and there are still six murders left; a part of me is still hopeful. But that part is silenced quickly. The camera now tells the story of another girl, Meenal, who is being raped, and although it can’t be bothered to spend more than a few seconds on Meenal’s tears, it does slow down enough to show her being raped. But the avenging angel, Vidya has been at work, and after more than one shot of the man molesting Meenal, we see blood spurt from the man’s mouth. But only for a second. The camera seems repulsed by this level of violence, and quickly zooms out of the man’s blood-covered face and on to Meenal’s traumatised one. Somewhere along the way, the camera also finds time to show Vidya’s only friend, Ritu (Divya Jagdale) being beaten up in her house. Clearly, the camera is not uncomfortable with violence against women.
Crassness, cliché, even insensitivity, I had expected. Violence too. So, I sat through the camera’s bold shots of rape, albeit uncomfortably, in the hope of similar bold shots of reverse violence. And yet, when that moment came, the camera suddenly turned shy, and became ethical about how it portrays violence.
After this, the deaths happen in quick succession. In one, I get some satisfaction from watching Vidya repeatedly stab perpetrator number 3 with a knife, but I’m still denied the close-up. In murder number 4, I see the man’s face as he rages against Vidya, but when she shoots him with his gun, I see only her and the gun. Death numbers 5 and 6 give me some satisfaction when I see fear writ large on the men’s faces when they see Vidya, but their deaths — one suicide and one accident — are quickly glossed over. Death number 7, technically 8 (because she shoots the father of the perpetrator as collateral) finally gives some satisfaction as we see a fight between the heroine and the leader of the villains, Apurva. It’s not very long, but we do have the gratification of watching Vidya ram his face against glass frames and staircase railings. We also see the villain lying on the floor covered in blood, still a respectful distance away, but at least it’s a full frontal shot. Somehow, he still hasn’t lost his fight, managing to wiggle his way, rather actively for someone so badly beaten up, to light a cigarette. It ends, finally, with the villain’s house blasting into flames (Vidya had turned on the gas), and Vidya’s victorious walk-away, but by now it feels like too little too late to give me any real sense of fulfilment.
By the Bechdel test, this movie might just pass. Although Vidya is the quiet avenger, saying precious little for the protagonist, she does have one conversation with her daughter about selfies, and with her friend, Ritu, about the latter’s upcoming exhibition. But after watching this movie, I feel like there should be a new test — that there is at least one woman who is not raped, beaten, humiliated or otherwise denigrated while the camera brazenly watches in high definition close-up.