Stories of women fighting all odds and overcoming obstacles aren’t new on the big screen, but using a dance form to showcase the same is something fresh. Gujarati film Hellaro attempts to do that. Directed by Abhishek Shah, the film uses garba, a Gujarati dance form, to drive the narrative forward, and does so beautifully. The film is an ode to women who dare to break the shackles of patriarchy, casteism and blind faith.
The story is set in 1975, in a village in Kutch where the men perform garba to appease the goddess Amba and pray for rain in the drought-hit region. The women, however, aren’t allowed to dance, or do just about anything to enjoy themselves. Leaving their homes early morning to fetch water from a distant water body is the only source of entertainment and happiness they have. Until, one day they meet a dholi (drummer) in the middle of the desert and hence, begins their routine of doing garba everyday, hiding from their husbands.
The 12 female cast members of the film, led by Shraddha Dangar (who plays the role of Manjhri), surpass every male actor. Only Jayesh More, who plays the dholi Muljhi, comes close to their performance.
It comes as no surprise that all 12 women won the Special Jury Award at the National Film Awards 2019. What could have easily become an over-stretched story, ends up in a strong and moving film that doesn’t leave you even after you exit the theatre.
Hellaro, which also won the National Award for Best Feature Film in 2018, is driven by its poignant soundtrack by Mehul Surti and powerful choreography that is a treat to watch. Each song depicts a different mood at various points in the story and is easily conveyed to the audience even if one doesn’t understand the language. The cinematography by Tribhuvan Babu Sadineni makes the vast barren land look mesmerising and transports you into the setting, making you feel part of the story. The subtitles do complete justice to the moving dialogues of the film, penned by Saumya Joshi, as the emotions come through aptly, aided by the background score.
Watching those 12 women dance barefoot in Kutch at soaring temperatures gives one a glimpse of their outburst (which is what ‘hellaro’ translates to), or catharsis, that comes out in the form of garba.
For them, it’s not just a dance form, but signifies their right to live for themselves. At one point in the film, one of the women says, “I would give away my whole empire for garba, it’s just that I don’t have one.” They’ve become so habituated to their state of that of a caged bird that they joke about it, just like the men in the village who also resort to sexist jokes at the women’s cost, to entertain themselves.
Though he has fewer dialogues, Jayesh More as Muljhi, who suffers from PTSD, is able to capture the audience’s attention with his compelling expressions and body language. As the film ends, you realise why Hellaro became the first Gujarati film to won the National Award for Best Feature Film. The women, bruised and hurt from being beaten by their husbands, dance bravely for they’ve let go of all their fears. The essence of the film lies in what Manjhri tells Muljhi, “We feel alive for the few moments we dance to the tunes of your dhol. Now we won’t stop living for the fear of dying.”