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From India, a vital saga on social injustice

August 08, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

"Sandstorm" is an epic-scale depiction of a rural Indian woman's long struggle for justice in a society that to an alarming extent remains in the grip of brutal male chauvinism and an equally unjust caste system enforced by political corruption. The film's co-producer Jag Mundhra, who directs under the name Jagmohan, has mixed a potent blend of melodrama, comedy, satire and blistering social protest with passion and drive that sustains involvement in the heroine's protracted ordeal over a two-hour running time.

This deceptively beautiful-looking film is a notable accomplishment on the part of Mundhra, a veteran filmmaker based in Los Angeles and Bombay who has made more than 20 movies over the past 20 years, several in Hindi, the rest in English, and was a Culver City exhibitor of important Indian films. His broad experience shows in his adroitness in handling a very large cast and in his film's wealth of telling nuances and details.

The film opens in the present with Amy (Laila Rouass), a London journalist of Indian descent, arriving in Jaipur and becoming captivated by the story of Sanwari (Nandita Das). Seven years earlier, Sanwari, a potter, and her husband, Sohan (Raghuvir Yadav), a Jaipur rickshaw cyclist, had been an exceptionally happy and devoted couple, living in their modest earthen home in a picture-postcard village, which looks unchanged since antiquity; unfortunately, appearances are not deceiving.

From the start, bolstered by their steadfast mutual love, Sanwari and Sohan are ahead of the curve in their tradition-bound community. Perhaps it is because Sohan must spend so much time in Jaipur that he understands that the world outside his village is changing even if it seems to be standing still at home.

He insists that his daughter be literate even if she is to marry as an adolescent. As demure as she is, Sanwari, who has been working on a landfill project with other women, demands from the paymaster her full government-regulated nine-rupee pay instead of the seven he tries to foist off on her.

Standing up for herself is such a bold, unheard-of action for a woman of low caste that the incident comes to the attention of Shobha Devi (Deepti Naval), a recruiter and organizer of a government women's program aimed at abolishing female illiteracy and child marriages. Shobha sees in Sanwari the perfect candidate for recruitment as an organizer.

Sanwari quickly takes to her new job, leading her neighbor women in rallies and demanding an apology from a Brahman male who nearly succeeded in raping a low-caste woman. Sanwari is soon sending shock waves through her community to the extent that five of the village's highest-ranking males, including the local priest and chief of the village council, who are buffoons steeped in an ingrained and obtuse sense of entitlement, club Sohan and gang-rape Sanwari. Since she dares to seek justice, the rape is but the beginning of her ordeal, which will lay bare the ignorance, hypocrisy and corruption in Indian bureaucracy, with Sanwari caught between the interests of the ruling party's central government and the opposition party's state government. She first becomes a pawn in a high-profile New Delhi women's organization, for which Jagmohan reserves some of his sharpest social satire.

Jagmohan ranges freely and effectively from the extremely broad to the deftly subtle. His film is occasionally awkward and inescapably grueling, yet the essential vitality of "Sandstorm," with its lush camera work and vibrant score, never flags. It is also consistently stirring as a remarkably comprehensive view of contemporary Indian society and government.



MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Sexual violence, language

Nandita Das...Sanwari

Raghuvir Yadav...Sohan

Deepti Naval...Shobha Devi

Laila Rouass...Amy

Rahul Khanna...Ravi

An RS Entertainment release of a Smriti Pictures Pvt. Ltd. Production. Director-editor Jagmohan. Producers Jag Mundhra, Gaurang Doshi. Executive producer Vinod Doshi. Screenplay Ashok Mishra, Sudha Arora. Cinematographer Ashok Kumar. Music Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. Costumes Mala Dey. Art director Jayant Deshmukh. In Hindi and English, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours.

Exclusively at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.

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