Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


Weekly Classics: Mirch Masala


Your Name:

Recipient Email:

The shocking gang rape and murder of a young girl in New Delhi recently, made news headlines around the world. Her being raped was horrible enough, but adding to that was the manner in which she was brutally beaten with an iron rod, which made the incident even more despicable. Yet despite the assault, she stubbornly and courageously clung on to life for another two weeks and died just before the year came to a close.

Naturally the incident horrified many people and led to a number of protests in India, which showed that no decent or civilized person would nor should tolerate a crime as grim as rape. Another thing that the Delhi rape case brought to the forefront was the predicament that many women in the subcontinent face when it comes to harassment, and being viewed by some as mere sex objects. Needless the say, if any modern society is to move forward it is important for women to march alongside men rather than hang on to their coattails. Chairman Mao Tse Tung once said that women hold up half the sky, although some would have you believe that women are simply grass meant to be walked over.

The thing that really piqued my interest was that, according to reports, mostly men came out to protest against the rape. The slogans they chanted were for an end to violence and harassment against women and justice not only for the victim, but for other women who face the same predicament. It made me think that it was almost a flip side to what I remembered seeing in Ketan Mehta’s classic 1987 film ‘Mirch Masala’, where the men simply cowered away and decided that handing a woman over to a would-be predator is no big deal. That is not to say in any way that the Delhi rape case is the same as what happens in movies, but the parallel of one strong woman who makes a difference in society is quite striking.

The movie is set in a village in the colonial rule of the 1940’s and revolves around the story of a peasant woman named Sonbai (Samita Patil) who stands out from the other women in her village because she is strong and forceful. Her dusky looks match her feisty nature and reflects the independent character of her nature. She’s not afraid to look at someone back in the eye and give a response word for word. Unfortunately, her personality and looks catches the eye of a vicious subedar (tax collector) who is smitten by her and desperately wants to bed her. The subedar (Naseeruddin Shah) is not a man who will take no for an answer, considering the fact that he imposes back-breaking taxes on the local populace, without any protest, he feels that he will eventually get his way.

Having earlier on spurned the subedar’s advances and refusing to give in, Sonbai runs from her would-be rapist and takes refuge in a local chili grinding factory where only the women in the factory and its watchman Abu Miya (Om Puri) come to her defense. Despite being warned to hand her over to the subedar, the old man refuses to budge and is prepared to guard her with his life. He locks up the gate to the factory and is adamant that he will not be cowed by any threats hurled at him by the subedars thugs.

The village, like much of the subcontinent at the time, is an entirely patriarchal society, where the men call the shots and women are expected to obey. The local chieftain or mukhi (Suresh Oberoi) is second to the subedar in terms of power within the village and in terms of morality. He doesn’t mind openly being unfaithful to his wife and expects her to do whatever he wants. This includes not asking questions as to where he has been all night and his commandment that their young daughter not attend school. In the mukhi’s eyes, the role of the woman is to stay at home and follow orders.

But it turns out that the mukhi has to follow orders of his own given to him by the subedar, and right then the most pressing order, deals with his raging libido which can apparently only be tamed by the feisty Sonbai. The subedar issues an ultimatum to the mukhi, hand over Sonbai to him, or risk being terrorised by his men and crushing taxes.

Unlike Abu Miya, the mukhi is not prepared to take a moral stand on the issue and calls for a meeting, in which all the men in the village, with the exception of one educated teacher, decide that for the good of the all the villagers, they should hand over Sonbai to the subedar. Apparently, they think that feeding a crocodile with some tasty meat will tame him.


When the decision is given to Abu Miya, he lashes out at all the men in the village, calling them cowards and a disgrace. Knowing that Sonbai will be raped by the subedar, he rejects the decision taken by the village and decides to take a stand to the death. All the while through this moral crisis facing the village, tough questions are asked as to when do you say enough is enough. Should people be timid and let things happen as they are meant to be? Or do you fight back as one woman does in this film? Cowards the villagers might be, illiterate they definitely are but that doesn’t mean that one segment of a society should be trampled over for the greater good. Sonbai may be the one who fights back, but she also exposes hypocrisy within her society and forces its people to take a long hard look at themselves.


Samita Patil was a great actress and one of the finest to ever grace a movie screen. The character of Sonbai reflected her own nature in many ways. She never conformed to norms of society and was a strong personality in her own right. Being a feminist she believed that a woman’s role is set first by herself rather than a patriarchal system in which she is born. Sonbai was a tailor-made role for her and was sadly her last great performance. She is completely believable as the proud village woman who fights for control over her sexuality rather than giving in to the demands of her would-be rapist.


Naseeruddin Shah was also very good in his performance as the vile and lecherous subedar. He may not have looked like an evil man in the film, but his arrogant and abrasive manner really did make him someone to despise. Through a twist of his outrageous whiskers and the tone in which he delivers his lines, you really do want to see him get his just desserts. Suresh Oberoi was also very good as the village mukhi, who despite having a position of power, never has any moral authority to exercise that power in a just manner. Though the people in the village obey his commands, they never respect him, exemplified by the fact that even his own wife is sickened by his cowardly nature.

Other than Samita Patil, the one person who really stands out for me is Om Puri as the courageous Abu Miya. Proud and as defiant as the woman he vows to protect, he’s almost like a brick wall refusing to budge before the torrent of pressure imposed upon him by the villagers. He is quite frankly the only real man in the film. A happy coincidence is that in real life, Om Puri was one of the people who came out in support of the Delhi rape victim and was very vocal in his disgust as to what had happened to her.

Mirch Masala’ is a very aesthetically pleasing film, slowly deliberate like art films are meant to be. Nevertheless the slow pace does not stop you from being riveted by the story, the way it unfolds and more specifically the questions that it asks the viewer to ponder over.

View’s weekly classics archive here.


Raza Ali Sayeed is a journalist at and can be reached at

Author Image
Raza Ali Sayeed is a journalist at and can be reached at

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (22) Closed

abbastoronto Jan 04, 2013 03:17pm
Mirch Masala 1987 was a box office bust, so for India it has no socially redeeming value. How about the 1964 blockbuster Sangam of Raj Kapoor where a man will not take a no for a female answer, yet the ending though sad does not condemn this behaviour. That is real India.
Jeev Jan 04, 2013 02:15pm
Smita Patil was one of the fine actress from Indian film industry ( Nutan is another fine actress). I would recommend readers to view other Smita Patil films like Bhumika (based on Hansa Wadkar's life), Umbartha (Marathi film -Threshold), Jait Re Jait, Bhavni Bhavai.
Amar Jan 04, 2013 05:16pm
It's not "Samita". It is "Smita" Patil.
Neer Nayan Jan 04, 2013 06:56pm
This masterpiece belongs to that rare gems of performing arts, in which one transforms into a helpless spectator from a passive viewer seeking to pass time! An unforgettable conscience-stirring classic!
Pradip Jan 06, 2013 10:29am
Really - South India is a haven for women? Which India do you live in? Puducherry??
Dr Khan Jan 04, 2013 08:34pm
Dear Sri1, I don,t know whether you are from Pakistan or India. If you are from Pakistan then you are having some problem of memory. Have you forgotten Mukhtara Mai gang rape case in Muzzafar Garh district of Punjab? In fact the list is very long for such cases and the space here very limited to mention them.
ukrn Jan 04, 2013 01:36pm
The actress' name is Smita Patil. Not Samita Patil
Sri1 Jan 04, 2013 05:46pm
"truly reflects state of affairs in subcontinent?" - Maybe Delhi, but not the entire Indian sub-continent. I tend to believe that the rapes and molestations in India are in an average similar or less than the West, Mid-east, Africa etc. Of course, justice is one thing that is unfair in our neighborhood, unless it is high-profile like the recent one.
A.H. Sheikh (@ahsheikh) Jan 04, 2013 01:20pm
Proudly saying, I have watched this movie and loved!
Dr Khan Jan 04, 2013 12:25pm
I have seen Mirch Masala, excellent movie and truly reflects state of affairs in subcontinent.
Shilpa Jan 04, 2013 01:24pm
A must-watch film, especially relevant with the recent events as pointed out. There is no way other than to band together for a society facing such threats. Strength in numbers works and it shows. An active society can bring about changes for the better. Glad we saw such protests in Delhi and hopefully the laws would be reformed and changed for the better and so would the justice delivery mechanism. Hoping civil society keeps up the activism in the future too.
Kausik Jan 04, 2013 11:20pm
A timely reminder for the real horrors of barbaric crimes against innocent women in capitol city of India reminds all of us how criminalized politics are.The improvement lies in fundamental changes like1)end dynastic inherited political crowning2)Reforms in electoral fund raising avoiding black money3)decentralize power and greater power for law enforcement4)Ban all politicians with criminal records.greater transparency of system.
Pradip Jan 05, 2013 12:28am
Timely reference to an excellent and relevant movie. It just so happened that I saw it on youtube during the Christmas vacation. Smita Patil is of course unforgettable as is Deepti Naval and Naseeurddin Shah with his classy delivery is utterly despicable. If what you say is true, that it was mostly males who are/have been protesting against the Delhi violence, Indian women have a long way to go to wrest the power they in the movie, men have very little vested interest in liberating women.
abbastoronto Jan 05, 2013 03:24am
Not Sub-continent, but India only. Exploitation and oppression of women in Pakistan has a different tone. It is mostly by fathers, brothers, sons, and legally wedded husbands. Women being lifted by the powerful is practically non-existent in Pakistan. It is commonplace in India. I presume that situation in Bangladesh is somewhat like in Pakistan, not India.
Civic Jan 05, 2013 03:25am
It's more a problem in north India. This is the foreign Mughalai culture that was imported into north India when the invaders came from the north. They brought rape as an instrument of terror. The south with the indigenous culture is more civilized. However it can improve too.
chakraborty Jan 05, 2013 04:34am
Very Good article, But please expand your horizon Raza ali saeed - Do you Know Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Tapan sinha If you havnt watched there movies you know nothing about Indian Cinema
manish Jan 05, 2013 01:16pm
MumbaiGuy Jan 05, 2013 02:54pm
Smita Patil was most talented actress I have ever seen. Kindly watch her movies.
Jwala Jan 05, 2013 06:41pm
Typical Bengali statement - only Bengalis know how to make movies ....
Jwala Jan 05, 2013 06:43pm
Dont be naive. The feudal lords of Pakistan treat the women working under them as their property.
abbastoronto Jan 05, 2013 11:17pm
It is interesting to compare the fate of an un-accompanied female in Pakistan. Exploitation and oppression of women in Pakistan has a different tone. It is mostly by someone familiar - fathers, brothers, sons, legally wedded husbands, and the Mullah. The last are notorious to rape girls who are sent to them to learn to read the Quran (and for the equal opportunity minded, the boys are not spared either). I remember a male college mate describe matter of factly how he climbed the wall of the bathroom and raped his cousin in the shower. But women being kidnapped by the powerful is practically non-existent in Pakistan. In the 1960s this was a popular theme in imported Bollywood films. We wondered if the Indians were from a different planet.
Rohit Jan 07, 2013 07:47am
Ketan Mehta has remained an enigma. It is surprising that the creator of movies like Mirch masala and Bhavni Bhavai has achieved so little in his career. Mangal Pandey, Maya Memsaab and perhaps even Sardaar can be considered as big on concept and small on execution. And its hard to believe that someone of his calibre has made a film like Hero Hiralal. His strength lies in working on folksy themes, which he demonstarted in his debut film Bhavni Bhavai, still considered a classic.