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'Sthal' Premiers at TIFF: A Lesson on Patriarchy, Minus the Preachiness

Premiering at TIFF, Sthal is the only Indian film to have been selected in the Discovery Programme this year.

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Video/Podcast Editor: Prateek Lidhoo

Writer-director Jayant Digambar Somalkar’s debut Marathi feature film Sthal (A Match) opens with a dream sequence. Savita, a young girl in her early 20s, sits along with 10 other women in a small room and interviews a potential suitor. She is assertive, the women around her are giggling, and they are free. 

Simple, yet far-fetching, the dream remains just that. And it sets the tone for the film ahead. 

Sthal premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, won the NETPAC Award at the festival, and was the only Indian film to have been selected in the festival’s Discovery Programme this year. 

With a story that tugs at your heartstrings, a pace that keeps reminding you just how layered our lives are and a cast that gives its all to the film (you won’t believe that most of them were facing a camera for the first time), Sthal stays with you. 

It might haunt you, but the film stays.

Premiering at TIFF, Sthal is the only Indian film to have been selected in the Discovery Programme this year.

A still from the film.

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Without Preaching, A Lesson on Patriarchy

The film follows the life of Savita (played by a brilliant Nandini Chikte), who is determined to become an officer and pave ahead a brighter future for herself.

But in a society where the “relentless pursuit of a girl’s marriage overshadows the very sustenance of life,” as the film’s official synopsis reads, do her dreams even matter?

With her family finding suitors for her, Savita’s dream to become something takes a backseat.

But the beauty of Somalkar’s gaze is such that even when you know Savita’s aspirations are being sacrificed at the altar by her own folks, there’s not a moment where you can think of them as villains.
Premiering at TIFF, Sthal is the only Indian film to have been selected in the Discovery Programme this year.

A still from the film.

Savita’s father, Daulatrao (played by Taranath Khiratkar), who is a cotton farmer, gives it all to secure a future for her. But Savita is dark-complexioned, she’s short and she’s a farmer’s daughter. That is more than enough for suitors to reject her.

Somalkar depicts deep-rooted issues like colourism and class-bias without making a hue and cry about it, or going on delivering monologues about it, for that matter.

The film doesn’t exaggerate. In a very literal sense, it shows a mirror to society. And it’s best depicted on screen by Khiratkar, who portrays a father’s vulnerability so subtly yet so strongly that it breaks your heart.

Premiering at TIFF, Sthal is the only Indian film to have been selected in the Discovery Programme this year.

A still from the film.

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'Sthal' Does Justice To All Its Plot Lines

But it's not just patriarchy that the film takes a stand against, in a very head-on manner.

Sthal does justice to every plot line that the director has so intricately weaved into the film – be it the demand for dowry, the many struggles of farmers, unemployment or the performative liberalism that could very well have been a predatory trap (ugh, men).

Somalkar, whose main aim was to show the patriarchal reality of rural India through satire, repeats a certain sequence in the film – the whole dance of entertaining suitors, answering the same questions again and again and waiting as the men make the decisions while the women serve them from behind the curtains of the kitchen.

The comedic effect of this comes out brilliantly in the film.

Premiering at TIFF, Sthal is the only Indian film to have been selected in the Discovery Programme this year.

A still from the film.

One thing that stands out in Sthal is how Somalkar has also given space for romance and love to blossom in this small village in Maharashtra. It could be unrequited, it could be unacceptable to society, but it’s there… promising hope to others.

When it happens and you exchange glances with your partner, the world slows down and a background score takes over your life (in true Hindi cinema fashion, might I add).

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A Climax For The Ages

The thing with Sthal is that you think you can anticipate what’s going to happen next. And for the most part, you can.

The feature doesn’t just use the documentary style of filming but a lot of the story is so stemmed in society’s ugly truths that it could have well been stories you watch on the news.

You see a frustration boiling in Savita and you realise just how done she is with society’s inherent status quo. It reminds you that her empowerment will have to overstep her family’s wishes.
Premiering at TIFF, Sthal is the only Indian film to have been selected in the Discovery Programme this year.

A still from the film.

But the director’s genius is such that even when you foreshadow the next plot point and you wait for a rebellion, you’re taken aback by the suddenness of the climax.

There’s a moment of awe, of wonder, of fear for Savita… and in just a moment’s time, it’s all turns to dust. What remains is cinema’s glory.

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