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July 8, 1997


Do art films suck? Prakash Jha says no

Prakash Jha
Prakash Jha started with art films and then switched to commercial. From Damul to Mrityudand, he has made quite a few films, not all successful. But he has always been regarded as a director in the league of Govind Nihalani, Shyam Benegal, Kundan Shah, Sai Paranjpye.

His latest film Mrityudand has been in the news because it has a powerful woman-oriented subject and because of its unusual casting. The film has Madhuri Dixit and Shabana Azmi in the main roles and Ayub Khan, Shilpa Shirodkar, Mohan Joshi and Mohan Agashe in the supporting cast.

Jha's first film, Damul, received much critical appreciation and his second, Pariniti, won a national award. He strayed from the arty path to reach a larger audience, but faltered with Bandish, starring Jackie Shroff and Juhi Chawla.

Mrityudand: What will be its fate?
Sitting in his modest office, Sharmila Taliculam spoke to Jha about Mrityudand and about where alternate cinema is headed.

Your last film (Bandish) was an out-and-out commercial film. Is Mrityudand on the same lines?

Jackie Shroff and Juhi Chawla in Bandish
Do you mean to say that the formula of a commercial cinema does not exist in Mrityudand as it did in Bandish? That's not true. It does. It has all the drama a commercial film has. Even my earlier film, Damul, had drama. But it was between the zamindar and the bonded labourer. Only it didn't have the other elements to make it a commercial film.

Mrityudand has the undercurrent that would eventually make the film commercial. It is about women, their status quo in society. That the man is very comfortable with women within the homes, but not outside it.

Why a woman-oriented subject this time?

Prakash Jha shooting for Mrityudand: Madhuri Dixit looks on
I was amazed when a revelation was made to me that a village panchayat had ordered a few young men to rape a woman who didn't want to marry in the same community. Have you heard a more gory thing? Even today the man continues to have a upper hand. A man-woman relationship is feudal. Being feudal means having control over a property. Like land, like a house. Men treat women as their property.

A woman can't have a totally independent existence. If a man going out says he will come back at a particular time and doesn't, he will not be questioned at all. But if a woman tries that, she will be questioned. 'Woh akeli rehti hai' (she lives alone) is such a remark which creates a whole lot of connotations. Imagine a woman in this society trying to be like a man. She won't be allowed to live. It is a man who makes the decision, a man who will go out, a man will do anything. A woman can't do these things.

So what is the purpose of making this film?

If you go to my home in Bihar, you will know what a particular person's status is by looking at the way they seat themselves. A labourer will sit on the floor, a manager might sit on the bench and the landlord will sit on a bed. The whole composition is so strange. Likewise with the women. I am not saying there are no strong and vocal women.

Ayub Khan and Madhuri Dixit in Mrityudand
But the fact is that they don't have the power to do anything about it. There can be harassment in any form. Physical, mental or sexual. It is there. I want to use this medium to project this feeling, to share it. It is not only for women. It is for anybody who are weak. Somewhere to remind the audience of what is happening. To encourage them to question our society.


By making them aware that women are human beings too. They have the right to exist the way they want to. You can't sentence a woman to death just because she has questioned your authority or asked for an explanation.

Do women do that in your film?

Yes, they do. Madhuri is a educated girl and she rebels. So she, along with Shabana and Shilpa, are sentenced to death. But when the people come to carry out the punishment, the women fight for justice.