Rape and revenge films are not new in Indian cinema. For several years, the angry young man has avenged the rape of a sister or woman he was acquainted with in dramatic narratives that are centred around his heroism rather than the victim's story.
In recent times, however, this has changed. The avenger has become a woman and terms like 'shame' and 'honour' which were thrown around to justify the hero's rage are being turned on their head.
Ajji joins this line-up of films that are, at the end of the day, a chance for the audience to live out a dark fantasy - one where a brutal rapist receives just desserts.
Directed by Devashish Makhika, the Hindi film is a spin-off of the Red Riding Hood fairytale. A little girl is attacked by a wolf, who will save her from the animal? In the fairytale, the grandmother is of no help. In some versions, the wolf eats her first, in others, she's hiding herself. But in Ajji, it is the grandmother who has the agency to seek revenge for what has befallen the child.
Sushama Deshpande, called just Ajji in the film, is superb as the grandma who can barely walk but has decided the little girl, Manda (a heartbreaking Sharvani Suryavanshi) must get justice. The camera is relentless in piling up the horrors of the situation. Nearly the entire film is shot in darkness, dim or flickering light, and the shifting camera angles add to the sense of discomfort that we already experience because of the grisly theme.
The background score by Mangesh Dhakde never overshadows the powerful performances on screen but it makes its presence felt. In one scene, a police officer is bargaining for his bribe with the rapist Dhavle (Abhishek Banerjee) and in the background is a devotional song. The scene is staged in front of Dhavle's wife, who has just done an arati for her husband. She barely reacts to what's being discussed in front of her - the rape of a 10-year-old by her husband.
The chant in the background and the setting of the home makes it look like any other household and that makes the film harder to watch. However, Dhavle himself is presented as a monster, making it easy for the audience to distance themselves from his violence. He assaults everything in sight, including a mannequin in a highly disturbing sequence.
The problem with such narratives is that gender violence stays as something only 'animals' do and absolves the watching audience of their contribution to sustaining rape culture and enabling such brutality.
Ajji has a predictable resolution which will appeal to our collective bloodthirst, especially when we're never allowed to forget for a moment what this man has done to little Manda. But perhaps that was what it was intended to be - a grim fairytale for our times which takes familiar elements and stitches out of them the only possible "happy" ending in sight.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.