Rukmavati ki Haveli(1991) based on The House of Bernarda Alba pits the authoritarianism of Rukmavati ( excellent Uttara Baokar) against the burgeoning inner worlds of her five daughters who are at a crucial crossroads in their adult lives, having followed their mother’s decrees left, right and center throughout their formative years . A strapping young man, of the same affluent class and bearing, named Nahar Singh has engaged them in an intense case of sibling rivalry. We never see him in person and he’s an enigma, an invisible idea that hangs uncomfortably and irresistibly in the steam of summer. It’s a battle of wills and wits within this same sex congregation. A sense of codependency is intertwined with individual independence. The haveli, fortified by these conventions, has been their only refuge but their limited exposure to the outside sanctuary and so much as the male touch has set forth coiling snakes of desperate desire in all of them. Nahar Singh is the first human symbol of those desires.
**Bhanwari (Shikha Diwan)
But Rukmavati has never allowed her daughters to open up to love or male companionship owing to an overweening pride in her high social class as a Suryavanshi Rajput, individuality and the power her status affords her to reject everyone, even some unviable proposals, as unworthy of her daughters who she protects with an iron will and shields from the complacency of a haughty male bastion. In her sanctuary and to the outside world, she is unwavering in spirit even at sixty and as a widow.
There are flashes of tenderness in her as she asks her daughter Damayanti ( Sohaila Kapoor Limaye) to stop crying and her face is full of concern as a grieving widow attending to other women consoling her. But she refuses to submit herself to tears or self loathing, plunging the household to a traditional five year mourning period yet giving them the financial benefit of embroidering that is the source of their adequate income. In a scenario where marriage is a lop sided concept and almost a taboo, an aversion to the male presence is not without reason owing to their proven sense of rampant superiority over women anywhere – as in when they engage in uncouth conversations in the male quarter on the day of mourning, showing immense insensitivity and when Mumal ( Kitu Gidwani), one of the younger daughters, muses about fearing the physicality of men and its sudden visitation on women and another where the sweet Chandra (Sunita Sengupta), her sister, comments on the insulation of another acquaintance after her marriage. “Men can be forgiven for committing seven murders”, as Padma says. So dual points are presented, each one making sense.
** Sohaila Kapoor
Even as Damayanti wants to escape trappings of her only salient skill of embroidery and encounter employment in the fields perhaps, self censorship is exercised by her and Chandra. The extremes of seeking Nahar fall between the eldest, a 39 year old Savitri (Ila Arun) who he courts and proposes marriage to and the youngest, a 20 year old wallflower Padma ( an excellent, au natural Pallavi Joshi). Nahar probably courts the plain Jane for her money and property as she has been bequeathed a large estate by her biological father who died years ago and the man Rukma married ( the one who passes away in the play) too. All this intrigues these young, industrious women as the night visits by Nahar to Savitri heralds a new chapter and Padma too makes her way in the crossfire of burning passions, vocally defying odds even as Savitri is new to the arena of holding so much as a conversation with a man. This psychology is grounded in reality for the eldest is a callow tied to her shed ( even she ventures out to meet Nahar once but is promptly curtailed by Rukma) while the trickle down effect of this authoritarian set-up makes the most forthright rebel out of the youngest rabble rouser. There’s a third wheel too in the recessive Mumal ( Kitu Gidwani) who pines for Nahar and this sets her on a collision course with Padma. The politics of attraction and liberation are sought by each. All performances are stellar in their pitch and modulations.
**Savitri and Damayanti
Set over few days and nights, it benefits from the commentary of the two housekeepers Dhapabai ( glorious Jyoti Subhash) and Bhanwari ( Shikha Diwan) who do not hold themselves back at delineating inequality of the social structure within this citadel controlled by the cruel and cold Rukma. Dhapabai, who has been by her side for over thirty years, is a motor mouth and fearlessly cleans the slate before putting forward years of experience on a platter, filled with helpings of bitterness and diplomacy. She knows the household inside out and her age gives her the vantage point to be privy to every movement within this secretive family unit. Both are first and third person voices of conscience in the narrative. The eyes and ears operating smoothly around this seat of power. Bhanwari rants during the first ten minutes and ends it with the lines, “go seek refuge in either heaven or hell, whichever suits you for now I will not be there behind these high doors for you to lay hands on and seize”, referring to the departed man of the house. Again, ghosts of a restive patriarchy come into the big picture.
**Padma, Savitri and Mumal
Dhapabai walks with a stoop, has served Rukmavati loyally but has a fervent hatred for her attitude and the manner in which she subjugates everyone at her command, none so much more than her daughters. There is a delectable sense of humour courtesy her and the characterisation of Nanisa, Rukma’s eighty year old mother ( Chandrima Bhaduri) whose age gives her a retrogressive childlike bearing. Watch her amusing presence as she dresses up in all her finery and announces plans of getting married to a rich man from a seaside provenance. Probably suffering from dementia, she exhibits timely lucidity as she taunts her daughter over her ill treatment of the lot and comments on the fact that none of her granddaughters are getting settled down anytime soon so she may as well take the plunge. It’s a double edged sword the aged use judiciously and it is the screenplay’s strength. Mrs. Bhaduri is all smiling, delusional and with a grip on reality in a commendable two scene performance that sticks with us. One step ahead is Dhapabai who talks candidly about sharing her life and secrets with Rukma and vice versa and is filled with a naughty streak. Cue the scene where she tells Rukma that she should have shifted to a big city years ago and then quips, “it’s true your daughters would have been deemed poor there”, a perfect sting in the tail to Rukma’s caustic nature. The prized moment is when she starts coughing while enunciating a mantra before the prayers on the day of mourning and as Bhanwari gets concerned, shares with a twinkle in her eye, “if we lose our breath doing the other thing that’s something. ” This dialogic interplay never peters out. Even as she employs her well oiled verbal weaponry to quell the dissent within all sisters. She’s clever, caustic, the only to meet Rukma’s match but has the welfare and goodwill of the family on her mind at all times.
** Jyoti Subhash, seen recently as Rani Mukherjee’s quirky grandma in Aiyaa
** formidable lionesses : Rukma and Dhapabai
As the interpersonal mutiny towards the last twenty minutes shakes us to the core, the real face of conformity and censure become lessons in holding back the enterprise of self discovery. Padma commits herself to the larger tones of tragedy as the household experiences ultimate doom. RUKMAVATI KI HAVELI is about perspectives, points of view and repressions so cutting, the end result can only be long lasting. The execution here is power packed. Too much control, after all, can only be pointless and culturally toxic, taking our closest kindred in a maelstrom of unresolved ends.
**the unforgettable Nanisa
**the last post on the film will touch upon technical aspects that make it a complete work of profound impact.