Ketan Mehta’s 1987 Hindi film “Mirch Masala” was adapted for the screen from writer Chunilal Madia’s short story Abhu Makrani. The film offers a scathing social commentary on various aspects of Indian society, most of which are still prevalent today. It holds up a mirror to the systemic oppression widespread in our society in the domains of caste, religion, gender and sexuality. These topics which are still being hotly debated in the present day scenario, are galvanized through the narrative of the film.
As we are introduced to the opening credits, there is a visual prominence of the colour red in the film, in the form of large fields of red chillies. Red, which is symbolic of passion, lust, rage and most importantly, revolution, is clearly foregrounded at the beginning of the film. The story starts with vehement sounds of racing hooves of horses depicting many armed men rushing onward and disrupting the peace of a quaint riverside village. This troop is led by the new tax collector subedar (Naseeruddin Shah) of the village who becomes an embodiment of colonial authority and tyranny. The subedar and his men go on a rampage in the village, looting people and spreading fear in their minds. On the opposite spectrum, there is the headstrong and feisty Sonbai (Smita Patil), whose altercation with the subedar catalyses the crux of the story. In an early scene, she boldly chastises the subedar by comparing him to a wild animal.
“Mirch Masala” depicts the cruelty and injustice meted out by bureaucratic power towards common people, who are marginalized and disenfranchised and have to bear severe hardships. This scenario mirrors today’s society starkly. Women are subjugated to deep-rooted patriarchal oppression. Girls are forbidden to attain a proper education. The characters in the film are naive and illiterate, unaware of current events gripping the country. The village schoolmaster (played by Benjamin Gilani) is an idealist who tries to teach them the meaning of ‘Swaraj’, but they show little to no interest in revolution or challenging the status quo. He encourages the mukhiya’s (village head) wife to enroll her daughter in the school. When she does that, her husband severely reprimands her and threatens her with violence if she dares to ever again send their daughter to school. In a parallel story, a young woman is mercilessly beaten up by her father for being intimate with her lover, who happens to be the mukhiya’s younger brother. The mukhiya opposes their marriage because the girl belongs to a lower caste. He is shown to be a hypocrite who behaves like a sycophant in front of the subedar by giving in to his pressures and demands and inflicting misery on the people of the village. The subedar extracts heavy taxes from the villagers and treats them with extreme brutality, abusing his power and authority.
The subedar is shown to be a lecherous sexual predator who becomes fascinated and obsessed with Sonbai. He makes increasingly brutish attempts at her by following her closely everywhere she goes. He chases her and stops her on her way. When he tries to apprehend her, by gripping her arm, she retaliates by slapping him and walking away. Humiliated and enraged, subedar commands his soldiers to go after her and capture her. In a dramatic chase sequence, Sonbai is shown to be fleeing for her life while armed men on horses chase her. Sonbai is able to escape and find refuge in a masala karkhana(chilli factory), guarded by Abu Mian (Om Puri), where several women work for their livelihood. Abu Mian helps her by shutting the gates of the compound. He becomes her archetypal male saviour.
While Sonbai finds safety and solace in the company of other women, the subedar is hell bent on seizing her. Unable to leave the karkhana, the women are literally caged within its walls surrounded by men. Sonbai is held hostage there, as the subedar negotiates with the villagers to give Sonbai away to him. But Abu Mian’s resilient will doesn’t let him succumb to their whims. He fiercely guards the gates of the doors to protect the women inside. Subedar and his men at last arrive to break the doors down. In a stirring sequence, Abu Mian is shot dead by subedar’s men while fighting them. As the coast suddenly seems clear, subedar marches forward with the smugness of victory on his face, slowly approaching Sonbai, who is standing there with a sickle in her hand, still not willing to give up. Then, in an epiphanic moment, two women charge towards the subedar, holding bagfuls of grounded chilli powder and hurl it at him. The subedar crumbles down in extreme pain, engulfed in red powder and the film ends with the resilient look on Sonbai’s face, leaving the fate of the women undecided.
“Mirch Masala” is a searing critique of the patriarchal society and men who abuse power. Poetic justice is achieved by the end of the film as the subedar is punished for invading feminine territory. Sonbai asserts her sexual autonomy and agency by refusing to succumb to a powerful male figure’s demands. Finally, it is the strength of unity shown by the women in fighting their oppressor that forms the pivotal moment in the film and establishes revolutionary sentiments among the women.