Jag Mundhra’s SANDSTORM succeeds on several levels. First, it’s a fine piece of filmmaking that tells this story of cultural discrimination with a directness that never panders to either its audience or its characters. Second, it succeeds in outlining in stark and uncompromisingly personal terms exactly what this sort of injustice means for one woman and thereby depriving us of the comfort of abstractions and statistics. Based on a true story and banned for a time in India, this film depicts events that you will never forget as its heroine, Sanwaari, finds within herself the unwavering courage to fight for justice in a society that defines that term very loosely.
Nandita Das plays Sanwaari, a low-caste village woman with that most remarkable of accomplishments, she’s literate. Thanks to an unconventional father-in-law, she was educated against the advice of the men in her village and it was her father-in-law who decided this because she was married off at the age of four, a not uncommon practice in rural India, though one that is, technically illegal. Such niceties rarely intrude on village life, though, and it is only a trick of fate that Sanwaari has found herself in a loving marriage. It’s not like she has any recourse if she didn’t in this land of bride burnings. In fact, she might have gone through her life thinking herself exceptionally lucky and seeing little if anything wrong with the status quo until one day she was cheated by her foreman. When she demanded equal pay for equal work, 10 rupees, she was summarily dismissed with two and told not to come back. Word spreads about this outspoken woman and she soon is recruited as a women’s rights advocate by the NGO Saathin, leading to a raising of her consciousness, as we used to say in the 70s, and a world of trouble. She speaks out against child marriage and, as punishment, is gang-raped by the high-caste men of the village as her husband is forced to watch while being beaten. Sanwaari decides to seek justice, and by doing so, exposes the deeply entrenched sexism and elitism in her culture, as well as the casual corruption that allows it to continue.
Das’ performance is stunning. There is a quiet, but unshakeable dignity and determination that makes you believe this woman not only knows the odds against her, but doesn’t care, even as one indignity after another is heaped on her by the very authorities that are supposed to be helping her. As her husband, who stands by her despite the so-called stain on her honor, Rhaguvir Yadav matches Das’ dignity, yet in the depths of his eyes and in the tender way he treats his wife, draping her veil over her head, or reaching for her hand after yet another insult has been delivered, there is the aching quality of a man bitterly reproving himself for not being able to protect her when she needed it most.
SANDSTORM’s script makes salient points that sear like the heat of Rajasthan, where the story is set, or the blinding yellows and pinks of the people’s clothing. The women’s committee from New Delhi, the ones promoting Sanwaari’s case and making it a cause celebre, obviously see her as much of an object as the men who raped her. She is not a human being so much as a means to an end. Mundhra uses that committee to make another point, too, one about the deep entrenchment of societal attitudes by showing at even the husband of Sanwaari’s most passionate and compassionate advocate, a highly educated man who thinks of himself as very liberal, can’t quite free himself of the deeply ingrained expectations that he has of what a woman’s role, particularly his wife’s, should be. SANDSTORM is a deeply compelling film that does more than tell a story. It will make your blood boil for all the right reasons.