Rihaee opens with the return of NRI Mansukh (Naseeruddin Shah) to his rural village home. But Swades this isn't. Mansukh is a self-serving hedonist and quickly embroils himself in dalliances with several local women (including Neena Gupta, Reema Lagoo, and Hema Malini), whose husbands (notably Mohan Agashe and Vinod Khanna) are all away in the big city for work (and sleeping with prostitutes, apparently).
The two sides of the village are eventually reunited and forced to sort out what has happened during their time apart. The personal and communal fallout from these actions in the newly recombined situation makes up the rest of the film.
Rihaee is one of those movies that I wanted to be a little bit better than I can finally admit that it is. Like Amu, it depicts a difficult and important topic - here, the double standards for gender in contemporary Indian society (the film was made in 1988) - in a sad and moving way, but its dialogue and plotting are sometimes clumsy enough that some of its potential impact is dulled. I feel bad saying all this because I totally support what I think it was trying to do, and I can easily imagine that it took a lot of guts to make this movie. On one hand, its first half or so is filled with women behaving badly with one another as they compete for scarce resources, in this case the affections of the new guy in town.
It appears to let weasely, snakey bastard Mansukh off the hook and leaves his actions unexamined and uncriticized by the other characters.
Note the boom box. Hubba hubba!
At times it is very inelegant, its social critique clunking along like a dreary list (at least in the language of the subtitles) rather than creating an engaging narrative. "All rules are for women, none for men," Amarji (Vinod Khanna) tells a young bride-to-be who has her sights set on him instead of on her fiancé. "Society will punish you but forgive me."
"Society" being a male construction, of course, wise elder Motiben (who is this actor? She was fantastic!) reminds us -
and, at that, males who are hypocrites, criticizing their wives for infidelity while they've been at brothels, flaunting the marriage vows they now preach.
Reema Lagoo (yay!)'s character calls slutty Mansukh out for the classic "men who sleep around are heroes; women who do it are whores."
I wanted the writers to do something more creative with these relevant, meaningful ideas than just list them, no matter how happy I was to hear them expressed at all.
But on the other hand: my god, women are voicing these things, these very important things that have weight well beyond the world of the film! If saying them pedantically and unimaginatively is what it takes, then so be it! The male characters sit and listen to what the women say, and although many of them don't seem to really accept the arguments are valid or to recognize their own hypocrisy, they are at least rightly silenced in the moment. Women are allowed - gasp! - a sex drive, and the basic human need for companionship of many kinds is depicted with charity and a very refreshing sense of being normal. There are also good points about the relationships between individual problems and community values and stability. Though it's not perfect, I think Rihaee asks a lot of difficult questions, and I was so glad to see female characters voicing so many of them. My personal definition of feminism places a lot of importance on women being able to make choices - true, unfettered choices that are well-informed and about which they have space and room to engage in whatever thought they want/need - and the movie does not disappoint on this front (even though I disagree with some of their decisions). It's probably worth wondering what options are really open to these illiterate village women, most of them mothers also responsible for farming, but they do work to control what they can, with fascinating consequences.
I'm also a little sad that somehow the most engaging performance in such a women-sympathetic movie was Vinod Khanna's. His Amarji is a really complicated character, and he constantly changes which motivations and emotions are at Amarji's surface. At times he shows some real empathy for the plight of women, as in the images above or in a conversation with his friend Roopji (Mohan Agashe) about the moral issues of prostitution. The easy-to-loathe Roopji grumbles about the morals of a world in which women become whores, but Amarji reminds him that it's men like Roopji who buy their services who are really to blame.
The climax of the story begins when Amarji returns to the village and is unable to process his wife's behavior with the same gentle reason that he displays with women and women-related issues in the city. Vinod plays Amarji with nuanced complexity and a sad tinge in his eyes (Khanna family magic brown eyes activate!), and I didn't know which part of him would end up as his essence, the bit who missed his family and was eager to go home or the bit that went to brothels but then criticized his wife for sleeping with another man. I can't believe I felt sympathy for this man, but so it was. This is definitely a don't-miss for Vinod fans. I liked Reema Lagoo's sparky, not-Salman's-maa performance a lot, but her character all but disappears as the film goes on. Neena Gupta, Ila Arun, and the woman who plays Motiben (must find name!) were all wonderful too, though their characters were not as intricate as Amarji. Hema Malini was really interesting as the woman at the center of the storm - the character's words and her performance are restrained, which was emotionally unsatisfying to me. Perhaps her calm was pragmatic and let people less invested in what is, the movie says, at its core a personal issue, do the public finger-pointing and debate.
Overall, "interesting" is my strongest praise for Rihaee, and that's no small thing. I wonder what impact it and its director had, I wonder how the actors felt about doing it, and I wonder how it was received. Even with some clunky parts and a scot-free slimebucket, it put a lot of important ideas out there. I hope some of you have seen it and will comment - this is the kind of film that is much better when discussed, and I want to know what context and interpretation I've missed or not fully understood. If you want more reading, there's a writeup at the Alternate Movies blog too.
Vinod says "Hey Memsaab! Thanks for telling Beth about this movie! And Veracious, I'm comin' for you next!"