2018 Film Essays

The Striking Punch of Subversion: Devashish Makhija’s ‘Ajji’

Since ancient times, fables have served as a simple teaching tool for life lessons about the “world of childhood.” But at the same time, they have also served as a means by which government criticisms could be expressed without fear of punishment. In effect, these stories represent a code by which the weak and powerless can speak out against the strong and powerful. Similarly, Devashish Makhijas’ debut feature film Ajji (Grandmother) — a dark take on the classic fairytale “Little Red Riding Hood” — presents an allegorical tale about pedophilia and the assault on female sexuality. The narrative progresses as an unsettling revenge drama, which unfolds like a thriller. After 10-year-old Manda (Sharvani Suryavanshi) is brutally raped by a serial sex offender, her grandmother Ajji (Sushama Deshpande) seeks revenge. The film suggests that the underprivileged are not expected to have a voice or the courage to defend themselves — they are, in fact, punished for doing so. Ajji successfully imparts the notion that it’s compulsory for victims to retaliate against extreme injustice by transforming into wolves.

Ajji’s narrative derives tactility by weaving its charm through grotesque crimes and resilient characters. The realism of poverty and deprivation graphically highlights its brutality — of both the criminal and the revenge that gets heaped on him. During the investigation, a corrupt police officer intimidates and belittles the victim’s family, deterring them from pursuing any legal action against the perpetrator. The officer further asks the parents to examine the child, whose wounds are later stitched by a quack doctor, under the strict supervision of another male. The mother witnesses the entire act as a helpless observant, and the scene demonstrates the psychological effect on Manda. Viewers, too, must process the stains on a blood-soaked bed.

As the arthritic Ajji begins spying and chasing down the criminal despite her age-related ailments, she also learns how to chop meat from a butcher friend. The film’s antagonist is portrayed as a psychotic brute with traits of sexual hysteria; he’s both reprehensible and repugnant. But despite all the gore, there are lighter moments as well, specifically when Manda’s father plays a folk song for her, much to the surprise of the petrified family members. The scene speaks to the characters’ helplessness, as they occupy a tiny space in a dingy slum, within a corrupt societal machine.

Ajji’s 103-minute runtime viscerally compels viewers to confront Manda’s horrific experience. Within the unrelenting tone of a rape-revenge film, the director manages to pack sufficient tension in the silences, a terrain that previously no director from Bollywood has handled so effectively.

Dipankar Sarkar (@dipankarftii) is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.