The story of Ahalya in Ramayana makes for a cautionary tale. Seduced by Indra, the king of Gods, Ahalya is guilt-ridden and requests her seducer to not reveal what transpired between them to her husband, the sage Gautam. Indra ignores her request and whispers details of their intimacy to Gautam, who promptly turns Ahalya into stone. Indra, meanwhile, saunters off.
The misogyny of the tale does not end there. Ahalya remains a stone until Lord Ram visits her ashram and puts his feet on the stone, releasing her from the curse. (In other tellings, she is invisible to everyone but Ram, who undoes the curse after he is impressed by her hospitality.) At any rate, the story makes for grim reading, not merely because of what happens to Ahalya but for how she is merely a tool in the hands of the men in the story. She is flung between her seducer, her curser and her rescuer with no agency of her own. The fact that she is released when the Lord puts his feet on what looks like a stone but is in essence her, leaves a further bad taste.
Sujoy Ghosh, the director who made the faultless 2012 thriller Kahaani, has updated the story of Ahalya for our age. In his retelling Ahalya is a young woman in Kolkata married to an elderly dollmaker, also called Gautam Sadhu. But unlike the Ramayana story, it is she who is the seducer here, and the object of her charms is police inspector Indra Sen.
Radhika Apte, Soumitra Chatterjee and Tota Roy Chowdhury play the parts in a film that runs for barely 16 minutes but casts its storytelling net wide. Released on YouTube this week, Ahalya is a morality tale wrapped in a horror story. In the first scene, inspector Indra Sen is shown visiting an old house as part of the investigation into a missing person case. The person was last seen visiting the house, which belongs to Gautam Sadhu and his lustful wife Ahalya.
Right from the moment Ahalya opens the door, Sen is besotted with her. They spend several moments alone - Gautam Sadhu is on the upper floor and will appear only later. As Ahalya invites Sen into the living room and offers him tea, Sen discreetly checks her out. Apte plays a mix of the sensuous and innocuous to perfection, and we know that something will develop between these two subsequently.
Sen notices a set of tiny figurines in the living room which uncannily keep falling down. The husband-wife duo, equally mysteriously, blame in on the presence of a guest - Sen - in the house. "Whenever there is a new person in the house," they tell him, "these dolls fall down." Sen pushes this fact aside in order that the urgent task of locating the missing person be conducted.
From here, Ahalya takes a sinister turn involving a magic stone that apparently lets the person holding it take the form of any other human. It is not hard to connect the dots from here and see that this will not end well for Sen. The surprise for the viewer lies not there, but in the consummate web that Sen finds himself trapped in. The film, meanwhile, hurtles towards a satisfyingly chilling finale.
Ahalya is a bravura attempt on several levels. Ghosh, whose story of espionage revenge involving a pregnant mother also had a shocking twist in the end, is perhaps the best person to make this film. But the film goes beyond its quintessential thrills to craft a story that is deeply rooted in mythology, yet is also a stark reinterpretation of our myths' covert biases.
Several side storylines in our epics blatantly reinforce patriarchy. Why just side, even main characters such as Sita and Draupadi are often victims of circumstances engineered by men. This becomes especially worrisome when erring men in these myths get the chance to live out the full consequences of their misdeeds without being pre-empted. Duryodhana ultimately paid for his malice towards Draupadi, but not before he got a chance to wage war. No one turned him into a stone.
Furthermore, while we readily accept that the Ramayana - along with the Mahabharata - is one of the world's great epics, we tend to overlook the many tiny tales that run as tributaries underpinning the main storyline. Ghosh pokes fun at this too, when Gautam Sadhu asks Indra Sen if he has read the Ramayana. (This kind of built-in allusion makes the film nonpareil among our current crop.) "Basic storyline pata hai," Sen replies and Sadhu laughs. It is only later when the full import of this lack of knowledge strikes Sen that he, and the viewer, wonder if that earlier laughter was as immaterial as it had seemed.
By turning the gaze in Ahalya - by making not the woman but the man pay for a transgression - Ghosh has given us a remarkably perceptive and contemporary film.
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