Mirch Masala (1987) – Rise of Women Against The Patriarchy

I had heard this movie was a classic before I saw it and after seeing it I can see why it’s worth the title. Because it surprised me in how good it was, not just the story or the message it was sending and how strong the characters were. This film is listed as a psychological thriller, but it’s so much more than that and much more real.


Set in rural Gujarat village during in the early 1940s during the British Raj. A group of British tax collectors – and fellow Indians – called Subedar have control of the village, harassing the women and bullying others with their power. The main Subedar takes an interest in one of the village women, Sonbai, who is married. In the village is a schoolmaster who is a follower of Gandhi and who believes in teaching all children how to learn – even girls – in the otherwise illiterate village. Then there is Radha and the Mukhi’s (village chieftain’s) younger brother are in love, but since she is lower-caste they can’t marry. Soon things escalate as Sonabai challenges the Subedar’s authority and it is up to the villagers  – especially the women – to stand up to their authoritarian enemy.



Directed by Ketan Mehta this movie is a show of wonderful direction and characterisation. There is a realness to everything we see, from the lighting to the way these villagers just live their lives with all the un-choreographed ways it is in real life. There is still a small grandness to it with the women’s embroidered lehenga’s and dupatta’s with all the folk imagery imaginable and the editing heightens the emotions, especially during the dance scene and the climax.

Smita Patil as Sonbai is a force to be reckoned with. She is no sweet village girl, but a grown woman who knows her own worth. She won’t submit or give in. She fights with all her might and is smart as well. Her presence is dynamic on screen. Her kohl lined eyes are dark with her determination to survive.

Naseeruddin Shah as Subedar is what bad men who when they have all the power given to them. And is in the end made weak by the forces he himself bullied. The fact that he is made powerful by the British and revelling in their culture – especially the gramophone – is ultimately a sign that without the perks the job gives him he would not be otherwise respected. He is a good villain, not comical, but threatening in the realest sense of the word.



The world is a Patriarchal one, men rule and the women work and are expected to be subservient to their husbands. It’s a land of bullies and bullied, with the weak men unable to stand up to the subedar and his henchmen. In the end its the women, with their spice of choice – chili peppers – who are the powerful ones as they stand up to the Patriarchy. Some women though are so deeply ingrained in the system that they are afraid their husbands will beat them if they come to the other women’s aid or when the others start shaming Sonbai for her situation. There is commentary in showing the women constantly working while the men lounge around doing nothing or just relaxing while talking to other men. Even taking pride in spending time away from home, as their wife is merely their wife, nothing more. Even when enmity strikes it is the women who are there for one another in the end.

This is a good old movie for those who don’t enjoy all the song and dance. It has many accolades as Smita Patil’s performance as Sonbai gained her a place in Forbe’s “25 Greatest Acting Performance in Indian Cinema”. The feminist message is still relevant today as it was then and this movie is very effective no matter where or when you are watching it. It’s a masala movie in the best of sense as its spice is in the raw sunbaked hot chilies not with the powder bought from the shop.



Thank you for reading! 

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