'BAIPAN BHAARI DEVA', OR, THE INCREDIBLE HEAVINESS OF BEING
Baipan Bhaari Deva (2023, Marathi. Director: Kedar Shinde)
It’s all in the title, really.
No, think about it.
‘Baipan Bhaari Deva’ translates, if one were to be literal, to ‘Womanhood is heavy, O God’. But the nuance is in the non-literal translation—‘Womanhood is difficult’, if one were to interpret ‘heavy’ as a burden. ‘Womanhood is powerful’, if one were to interpret ‘bhaari’ in the colloquial Marathi sense it is often used.
Director Kedar Shinde and the writer, Vaishali Naik craft this narrative with love and understanding, creating a film that is easy to watch, entertaining, and yes, also says a lot about the sisterhood, and the travails of (admittedly, middle-upper-middle class) Indian women.
The story ostensibly revolves around a Mangalagaur competition. ‘Mangalagaur’, for those of you not steeped in Mahrashtrian culture (and if not, you should be; there's more to it than koli geet and right-wing lunacy), is a traditional gathering of women that takes place in the Hindu month of ‘Shravan’. Any Tuesday night in the month can be scheduled, and the host invites her friends and acquaintances depending on how much of a public event she wants to make it. A function that, no doubt, began as a way to assimilate a new bride into her marital home by bringing her into contact with a community of women from the locality, survives to the present day. The centrepiece of the function is the ‘frolic’; a series of performances of traditional dances and games accompanied by singing songs ranging from the religious to the borderline bawdy. Before women going to watch movies in large groups wearing pink became acceptable as a form of community-building, it was functions like this that served the purpose of providing a safe space for female bonding.
In Baipan, the competition excites the interest of Shashi Kakade, a just-retired corporate executive, when she finds that her daughter’s mother-in-law is planning to take part. Determined to show her daughter than anything her husband’s mother can do, Shashi can do better, she tries to enlist her sisters into joining her to form a group and enter. Convincing the six Kakade sisters to come together turns out to be a task. Keeping them together, training to get good enough to compete, and what eventually happens when they get on stage forms the movie’s story.
And yet, as I said, the film is only ostensibly about the competition. What we are seeing, in reality, is some really well-done character-work and commentary. Each Kakade sister has drifted apart over the years, and each are struggling with their own demons. From Jaya, affectionately called ‘Mai’ (mother), who has remained childless, and struggles with depression, to Charu, whose seemingly fulfilled marital life is punctuated by financial strain and a feckless husband, from Sadhana, the crooner silenced by a conservative father-in-law, to the twins Ketaki and Pallavi, the former using her husband’s wealth as a façade to hide her sense of worthlessness and the latter going through a painful divorce, to Shashi herself, whose ambition and narcissism has alienated so many, the Kakade sisters have more to struggle with than aching joints and brittle bones as they try to re-learn the steps of the dances and games that punctuated their idyllic childhood.
The film is brave, in a sense. Marathi cinema has not been in good health, artistically or financially. The younger demographic is more drawn to mainstream Bollywood or even English films. This has led to the industry stuck in doldrums; Marathi films are either highly-esoteric festivalcore art that no one watches, or poor attempts at crowd-pleasers pandering to folk-heroes that may turn profits, but are critically negligible. Baipan, then, taking on a contemporary theme, casting middle-aged female actors and not pandering to the 'Marathi pride' gang, at least in an overt way, must have known it was taking a risk.
And yet, Marathi cinema has been at its best when it has focussed on emotional bonds, and Baipan plays to this strength. It would have been easy to fall into a trap of trite sentimentality or twee answers to the struggles the women in the film face. But—and credit to the writers and director—it does not. Baipan might shy away from getting too ugly, from really plumbing the depths of what the patriarchy has done to Marathi women, but in the arena it plays in, it is honest.
That is more, probably, than anyone could say for the films mainstream Bollywood makes.
This honesty rides on performances of true calibre. A film about six middle-aged sisters has no box-office stars (not that Marathi cinema has anyone that fits this description), and that is a good thing. Whether it is legends of the stage and cinema like Rohini Hattangadi as Jaya and Vandana Gupte as Shashi, or veteran TV soap actors like Sukanya Kulkarni as Sadhana and Suchitra Bandekar as Pallavi, each brings a distinctiveness to their roles, never letting their personalities become bigger than the writing, or falling short of where they need to be.
In this day and age, Mangalagaurs are hardly common. New brides often celebrate one in the first Shravan after their weddings, but that is about it. The games and dances are rarer still; for few remain who remember those things that should not have been forgotten.
But still, even in this day and age, nearly a month after its release, I walked into the theatre in Mumbai that was packed to the gills to see a film about six-middle-aged women. Despite being up against Oppenheimer, playing at theatres a stone’s throw away, Plaza in Dadar had a full house for Baipan, The theatre started by the legendary V Shantaram, the theatre that had lived through terrorist blasts and the dark, empty days of Marathi cinema, was overflowing with patrons, a majority of them women, many dressed in fancy nine-yard sarees, adorned with ornaments, who had made seeing this film their own Barbie moment.
As the credits rolled, I wondered whether those droves had come for the feminism, the characterisations, the subtext, or merely for the window-dressing, to see a film about ‘a Mangalagaur competition’.
The answer is that it was an irrelevant point. It did not matter. To them, and to millions like them who have made this film the year’s biggest Marathi film by a considerable distance, this was their Barbie moment, their Wonder Woman, their Black Panther. A moment Bollywood would never have given them, a moment the language barrier to English would have tragically kept away. From Mumbai to Nagpur, from Nasik to Kolhapure, Baipan was having its day, bonding its viewers into an experience celebrating womanhood.
And it deserved it.