Utopian Motherhood in ‘Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women’
By Athira Unni
The rural setting of the Hindi movie Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women (2005), directed by Manish Jha, makes the demodystopian plot of an Indian village with no women all the more plausible. Following the violence of female infanticide which has resulted in the ensuing predicament of a lack of women, the movie however fails to capitalize on this promising narrative by reinforcing the imagined connection between moral rectitude and womanhood. In this essay, I will explore the ways in which this movie, while presenting womanhood as elusive and utopian, centers patriarchal violence with little to no reactionary elements and thus, fails to explore the revolutionary potential of the only remaining woman. The movie, I argue, ultimately follows a non-linear, cyclical rhythm that is more didactic than feminist. Motherhood, by its conspicuous absence and redeeming role in the climax, becomes a functional trope to tie together the loose ends. Nevertheless, the movie is one of the very few artistic attempts at imagining a society without women set in India.
The appalling violence of female infanticide is introduced in the first few scenes of the movie with a father drowning a female infant in a pitcher of milk. The symbolism of the milk would tie back with the thematic connections with cows that the movie later explores. This scene of casual murder, drowning in milk, reverses the idea of milk as nourishing for an infant. It is made known to the viewers that these acts of female infanticides have resulted in a crisis where there remain no women in the village. Following this, the plot revolves around the household of Ramcharan, an upper caste father of five sons, who with the aid of a local priest finally finds Kalki, the daughter of a poor farmer whom he had kept hidden. Ramcharan pays an exorbitant amount of money to Kalki’s father as bride money and marries her to all his five sons in an aberrated version of the Hindu marriage ceremony. In his household, Kalki suffers from repeated marital rape from all the five brothers and by Ramcharan himself. When she falls in love with one of the gentler younger brothers, the elder brothers kill him out of jealousy and deprive her of any chance of happiness. When she tries to escape with the help of the servant boy, the brothers kill the boy and shackles her next to the cows in their cowshed. The boy’s murder triggers a caste riot. Kalki is left to give birth to a child while all the men of the household end up getting killed. The movie ends with the birth of a girl child.
It is surprising that the limited number of reviews of this movie has not exposed the failed feminist message within it. In a review of all the movies shown at the Venice Film Festival for the Sight and Sound magazine in 2003, the British film critic Nick James writes that Jha’s movie is “unfazed” by the events shown in it without stooping to “the sentimental”. This interpretation is perhaps inspired by the lack of reactionary impulse from Kalki, who portrays the earth-like patience and endurance of suffering rather than the fiery anger of a woman wronged. Her suffering is evident in her quiet tears and her pleas of wanting to escape the household, but she is also portrayed as the epitome of tolerance. A victim of repeated rape, Kalki does not utter a word against the brothers, whose story invokes the Mahabharata myth of Panchali, the wife of the Pandavas. The act of rape itself, although hinted at is not shown in the movie, just as every post-apocalyptic story hides away the extinction event itself. In a discussion of Freud’s differentiation of the terms “fright”, “fear” and “anxiety”, Elissa Marder in her book The Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (2012) notes that when the psyche is overwhelmed by fright, “it misses the very experience that provoked the fright” (Marder, 78). Marder goes on to say that the repetition of the experience – in this case, marital rape – is paradoxically an attempt to prevent from it having occurred in order to prepare for it happening in the future. The exclusion of the rape scenes in itself is an instance of this repressive memory of the protagonist whose fright is conveyed, but the provocation itself is not exposed. Extending this argument, the dystopian crisis of a woman-less society is complete with no action taken by the men for preventing such a situation from repeating. This, in my opinion, is the scariest lacunae in this disturbing movie.
Kalki’s treatment as a sexual object by the men indicates not just disrespect and misogyny, but a genuine moral decay following the disappearance of women. Before it is found that a girl has survived in secret, the movie gives us a glimpse of a village with only men. They indulge in bestiality and public pornography screenings. A man cross-dresses as a dancer to lustful cheering from villagers. There is disarray in classrooms and little boys are fondled. The priest is hinted to have homosexual tendencies and shrewdly pulls down the “bride’s” skirt during a wedding to reveal that it is not a woman. It is to this morally degenerate society that Kalki is introduced from her long isolation. If this were civilization, Kalki is first seen humming to herself on top of a tree, at peace with the lush natural setting around her. The connection between the woman, nature and land is hinted by the title “mathru-bhoomi” translating to “motherland”, but is affirmed by this scene.
It is this connection between the chaste, innocent and hardly reactive woman and the moral rectitude of the society that undermines the didactic message of the movie. While it certainly sends the message that female infanticide can have unforeseen consequences, the movie does nothing to question the role of patriarchy through the woman. By representing Kalki, the only surviving woman as a receptive and non-reactive figure, it squanders the possibility of exploring the revolutionary potential of being the only woman in a violently patriarchal society. At no point does the violence inflicted on her provoke Kalki. She does not raise her voice or resort to defensive measures of violence, but quietly bears with the inhuman treatment with silent tears and a failed escape plan. Her character leaves much for the viewer to sympathize with, but not to stand behind. In other words, she does not exercise her agency to engineer any effective outcome and there is hardly any character development.
The men of the village seem more concerned about satisfying their sexual desires than about depopulation. When the eldest brother is shown to indulge in bestiality and later, Kalki is shackled with the cows, it is clear that the men are not acclimated to a society where women are treated as humans, let alone equals. This is evident in the way they treat Kalki, only meeting her behind closed doors to fulfil sexual desires. The young brother, Sooraj, who treats her like a human being, helping her with household chores and reading to her, is an exception. His gentleness is mocked by the father and the brothers, questioning his masculinity. In her essay on the enslavement of women in her book Democracy Begins Between Two (2001), Luce Irigaray notes that a new healthy love between a man and a woman occurs with respect, a recognition of differences and the discovery of spiritual, cultural and political fecundity, rather than just natural. For Irigaray, a civil relationship between a man and a woman occurs only when both recognise their differences extend to more than natural/biological differences. This is what happens when Sooraj interacts with Kalki – with the other brothers, Kalki only serves her natural/biological purpose, that of a sexual and reproductive nature.
The lack of a mother-figure in the household is indicated by the photo of the dead mother hanging on the wall. Later, when the riot breaks out and the brothers rush out carrying the gun, the framed photo of the mother symbolically cracks. This happens right before Ramcharan himself is murdered by the new servant boy. The mother is never the living, breathing woman but always an ideal “likeness”, a picture on the wall. As the only surviving woman, Kalki is seen as a comforting proxy-mother in the scene where she comforts Sooraj after he fails his exams. The movie gives us a glimpse of tenderness before the violence of Sooraj’s murder that disrupts Kalki’s life again. The repeated scenes of men entering her room while she lies passively, either with her eyes closed or with a pained expression on her face, engenders a traumatic experience for the viewer.
It is evident that when Kalki is shackled in the cowshed after she tries to escape that she has effectively been ousted from the household. She is raped by even those who come to take revenge for the servant boy Raghu’s murder by the brothers. Her body has been violated by those inside the household as well as the so-called lower-caste villagers. The continuity of the ideal spectre of the mother, a symbol of moral uprightness, is evident when Kalki is called back into the house from the cowshed once she becomes pregnant. The fatherhood is contested by the brothers and the rapists from the village leading to riots. Taken allegorically, the upper caste family of Ramcharan with access to money and weapons furthers the patriarchal violence of rape which is repeated by the villagers. The motherland and its future, symbolized by the daughter, is not safe at the mercy of either the upper caste men or the villagers and hence they have to die. This feminist logic operates well in the climax, but does not negate the neglectful furthering of the ‘virtuous woman’ trope throughout the narrative.
In her very existence, Kalki stands for the utopian potential of womanhood. But as Alice E. Adams notes in Reproducing the Womb (1994), while talking about the novel The Girl, the revolutionary subject’s survival characterised and constituted by the crisis situation is threatened with annihilation by the same crisis. In other words, her constitution as a revolutionary subject is dependent on the crisis of patriarchal violence. Adams describes the moment of the mother giving birth as a “gesture that takes her simultaneously out of history and out of herself” (Adams, 74). Adams goes on to say that the birth of her child removes the mother from the ontological situation that produced the crisis. This is true for Kalki as well. Similar to the protagonist in the novel, Kalki gives birth in the end bridging the contradiction of her threatened existence and mitigating the uniqueness of her survival. When Kalki gives birth to her girl child, she is ending her subjective existence as the only woman and becomes the only mother. As her daughter’s fatherhood is not revealed and all the men in the household are dead, the movie ends with a subtle hint at a utopian matriarchal beginning for the household and the village. One could even form a connection between this narrative and the separatist feminist utopian classics of Herland and Sultana’s Dream originally published in 1915 and 1905 respectively.
In spite of this reading that overemphasizes the utopian potential of the climax, the argument that the very survival of Kalki has revolutionary agency is crucial. In many ways, her embodied resistance to the violence inflicted on her connects her to other Indian female protagonists such as Dopdi in Mahasweta Devi’s short story “Draupadi” (1978). The immediate implication of violence being the deterioration of the physical body, embodied resistance of women, such as Kalki and Dopdi represents an immediate revolutionary agency. While the movie does teeter on the verge of emphasizing this, the possibility of such an emphasis is derailed when Kalki becomes pregnant. Kalki’s pregnancy is another embodied act of resistance that signals a utopian return of women into the village. The rioting that begins due to angry contestations of fatherhood is indicative of the subjectivity of the role of the father as opposed to the mother. The movie de-emphasizes fatherhood associating it with moral corruption and violence, but at the same time idealizes female suffering and motherhood. In spite of this, it forms a fitting dystopian take on the extreme consequences of patriarchy.
Due to the lack of Indian dystopian narratives, Kalki’s narrative stands unique. The novel Escape (2008) by Manjula Padmanabhan follows a similar storyline of a post-apocalyptic India with a single surviving woman, Meiji who is given hormone suppressants by her uncles to keep her from maturing. But in Padmanabhan’s narrative, the male members of her family are her protectors, not her oppressors. Unlike Kalki, Meiji questions her uncles and voices her opinions, her character marking her out with revolutionary potential rather than just her existence. Interestingly, these distinctions make the novel a far less disturbing narrative than Jha’s movie. The recent example of Leila (2017) by Prayag Akbar, which was also adapted into a Netflix series, provides an exploration of defiant motherhood searching for her lost daughter in a dystopian Indian setting. The rare literary presence of the sole female survivor/adventurer in a post-apocalyptic narrative is a brave undertaking in Indian fiction and on screen. Jha’s movie had furthered an idealized starting point and tentatively sown the seeds for more of such narratives.
Adams, Alice E. Reproducing the Womb : Images of Childbirth in Science, Feminist Theory and Literature. Cornell University Press, 1994.
Akbar, Prayaag. Leila. Faber & Faber, 2019.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Herland. The Women’s Press, 2001.
Debī, Mahāśvetā and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Breast Stories. Seagull Books, 2014.
Hossein, Rokeya Shekhawat and Durga Bai. Sultana’s Dream. Tara ; London, 2005.
Irigaray, Luce. Democracy Begins between Two. Routledge, 2001.
James, Nick, et al. “A Bigger Splash.” Sight & Sound, vol. 13, no. 11, 2003, pp. 8–9.
Marder, Elissa. The Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction : Psychoanalysis, Photography, Deconstruction. Fordham University Press, 2012.
Matrubhoomi: A Nation without Women. Directed by Manish Jha, 2003.
Padmanabhan, Manjula. Escape. Picador India, 2008.
Athira Unni is a PhD research scholar at Leeds Beckett University. She completed her MA in English Literature from University of Hyderabad and her first poetry collection Gaea and Other Poems (2020) was published by Writer’s Workshop, Kolkata.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.