This nuanced story works itself out both as a compelling narrative and as a challenging moral question. The subedar commands an army and has a huge oppressive power at his disposal. In the arrogance of his position, he is determined to get what he wants. He wants Sonbai and it seems inevitable that he will get her, either through her "wilful" capitulation or through force. The latter option is likely to extract a heavy price from others in the village. Should Sonbai "sacrifice" herself for the good of the others? Should the other villagers serve Sonbai up to the tyrant and hope that his malevolence would be satisfied? Where then does one draw the line against tyranny? What price is too heavy to pay?
These difficult questions are played out through the positions taken by various characters in the story: the weak-willed village sarpanch, the idealistic school master, the money lender, the sarpanch's wife and the watchman of the beseiged chili factory, Abu Miya. In a compelling scene, the village leaders try to persuade Abu Miya to open the gates to the chili factory and allow them to take Sonbai to the subedar. They insist that if Abu refuses to open the gates, the subedar would unleash terror on the village and the "responsibility" (zimmedari) of the resulting misfortunes would lie on his shoulders. Abu replies, "Zimmedari oopar vala jaane; hum to sirf farz jaante hain" (I leave the burden of allocating responsibility to God; all I know is my duty to what is right).
I liked the way the film carefully portrayed the different villagers and their varying responses when confronted with this moral dilemma. Most of the men capitulate to the subedar's threats. The community of women besieged in the factory, overcome their misgivings to support and protect Sonbai. What's so beautiful about this film is Smita Patil's portrayal of a fierce and uncompromisingly proud women who fights for control over her sexuality against great odds as well as the slow but sure recognition by the women of the village (both within and outside the factory) that they need to take control of their own destiny, that the patriarchal system is failing them once again, even abandoning its traditional and stereotypical role of "protecting" the women folk against others. The film very effectively uses the metaphor of chilies and spices to symbolize this female power. "Mirch Masala" is an unusually thoughtful and visually stunning movie about women's empowerment and is one of the best movies I've ever seen.
-- Maya Yajnik