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‘Ajji’ film review: Child rape drama takes the easy way out

Devashish Makhija’s vigilante drama centres on a grandmother who seeks to avenge her granddaughter’s rape.

Filth and its extermination – the average vigilante drama often resembles a pest control operation. Devashish Makhija’s Ajji, set in one of Mumbai’s many slums, gives figurative garbage literal shape in the opening sequence. Manda (Sharvani Suryavanshi) is missing, and when her grandmother (Sushma Deshpande) and prostitute Leela (Sadiya Siddiqui) find the school-going girl, she is nearly inseparable from the pile of trash into which she has been thrown.

Manda has been raped, and since the culprit (Abhishek Banerjee) is the son of a local politician, he has not bothered to flee. Her parents want to forget the crime and move on, but the grandmother feels otherwise. The girl’s recovery is too painful and slow for the elderly woman, who has no faith in the corrupt local policeman (Vikas Kumar) or the medical system. Instead, the unnamed character (Ajji means grandmother in Marathi) relies on coloured powders given to her by a traditional healer.

The grandmother clearly lives not only on the margins of the economy, but also reality. Her knees have been hobbled by age and too many years at the sewing machine, and yet, she decides to avenge her granddaughter’s violation with Leela’s help. Does she succeed, especially when her target is hiding in plain sight and the slum they both inhabit seems strangely depopulated?

Ajji is a not a suspense thriller.

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Ajji (2017).

A sequence in which a friendly butcher (Sudhir Pandey) teaches the grandmother to eviscerate a chicken in painful detail is telling. There is plenty of meat displayed in the movie but not enough on the story. Makhija, who has previously directed shorts and the feature Oonga (2013), effectively creates a phantasmagoria, but relies too heavily on stylised cinematography and grungy locations rather than well sketched characters to convey the idea of hell on earth. The grandmother’s journey is typically bathed in shadows, and the tone is unrelentingly grim. The rapist’s perversity is thickly underlined to remove any traces of humanity, especially in a sequence involving a mannequin that is less shocking than sordid. There are just about enough ideas here for an extended short film.

There are two exceptions to the one-note performances. Sushma Deshpande is impressive as the watchful and volcanic grandmother who doesn’t let her advanced age and poor health interrupt her crusade. She cuts a poignant figure as she hobbles about the slum, and is particularly powerful in the climax. Sadiya Siddiqui, the talented television actress who has rarely been given a good movie role (Kali Salwar is an exception) embodies warmth and empathy as the prostitute.

Outrage over the rape of children is easily provoked, but it takes hard work to make a movie about the justice that is due to them. Ajji takes the easy way out.

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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.

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During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.