Once in a decade or maybe twice , if we are lucky, an Indian film makes us proud to be who we are. Hellaro is one such rarity. It is much more than a film. The sum-total of its parts is so profoundly moving that the work defies a microcosmic assessment. And yet to not probe into its layers to gauge how deep its undercurrents of emotions run, would be doing this great film a disservice.
Outwardly Hellaro is about a bunch of rural Gujarati women seeking emotional and physical empowerment circa 1975 during the days of the draconian Emergency, by defying the patriarchal embargo and doing the Garba. This description is most inapt in summing what Hellaro does. This is akin to saying the Garba is about two sticks and one pair of feet.
There is such a sense of exhilaration and liberation in this dance form. Each time the women-folk of the film gather together to swing to the dhol beats, something happens. A magic, an alchemy, a sense of unshackling that can only be experienced, not explained.
Hellaro is a film that we can’t really describe. And we shouldn’t even try. The spoken words are in Gujarati. But to slot it as “regional” is as insulting as slotting Lata Mangeshkar as Maharashtrian. The film sweeps us away from all definition , lingual and emotional, transporting us into a world of exquisite pain and a primeval brutal beauty where for all we see is endless stretches of blistering sand.But Tribhuvan Babu Sadineni’s cinematography takes us beyond what our eyes can see.
I am so glad the National award was given to all the female protagonists. To single out any one of these luminous ladies is to pluck a flower out of bouquet. When these ladies dance together their pain dissolves literally in front of our eyes. The last time I saw this happen was when I watched Waheeda Rehman throw away her chains and caution to the winds ,as she sang and danced to Aaj phir jeene ki tammanah hai in Guide.
Along with the sense of infinite freedom and exhilaration (and full credit to the music composer Mehul Surti and the choreographers Sameer and Arsh Tanna) there is also the sense of dread and foreboding. What if the women are caught doing the forbidden? “We are dead anyway. We come alive only when we dance,” one of the Garba-fixated women mutters in a trance-like transformation that happens to these women when the mysterious dhol player (Jayesh More) comes into their lives and beats the drum until the feet ache in ecstasy.
Slicing through the fancy hollow tones of pseudo-feminism Hellaro cuts a deep wound into the prison of patriarchy where men, out of a sense of unquestionable entitlement, decide what women should and shouldn’t do.And dancing a definite no-no in this Kutch village. The superbly-meshed screenplay (Abhishek Shah, Prateek Gupta, Saumya Joshi) takes these stifled women out into the open to breathe live and dance.
Hellaro is much more than a celebration of the healing powers the Garba. It is a transformative life-changing treatise on what makes the Indian heartland such a fertile breeding-ground for empowering women who don’t want to teach their insensitive husbands a lesson. They just want to dance.
Bollywood’s song-and-dance formula is dead. Long live the Garba.