When the doorbell rings at the start of Sujoy Ghosh’s 14 minute short film, Ahalya, it rings in your ears as a premonition. It rings to disturb a status quo, a cacophonous silence which has persisted long enough for anybody’s comfort. Indra Sen, the police officer ringing the doorbell, carries an inadvertent doomed look while he peruses the sinister looking dilapidated building.
This moroseness changes when the doorbell is answered, most unexpectedly, by a dangerously beautiful woman. As she leads him through a passage in order to bring him to Gautam Sadhu as per his request, there is a hint in the air about Indra Sen already setting himself up for a trap when he cannot help staring lustfully at the woman’s full bottom all through their walk up to the living room.
And then there are the dolls. Eerily real dolls modelled on various men. One of them falls down as they enter the living room. Ahalya , clad in a short white dress, bends to pick it up, expressing amazement at the regular pattern in which these dolls fall down every time a stranger walks in. Indra Sen finds himself continuously distracted by her casual sensuousness that’s all over the place and its only after she leaves the room to call Sadhu and get them tea, he can concentrate on his task, which is to find a missing man called Arjun. Is it a coincidence that the doll which keeps falling down is modelled after Arjun?
Gautam Sadhu is unexpectedly old. He reveals his age as 78 and laughs candidly when Sen mistakes Ahalya as his daughter. He is affable, open and involves him in an intimate conversation about how “this girl” should move on because he is too old for her. The police officer is so tautly affected by this woman’s unapologetic sexuality , that the slight touch of her hand while she is offering tea or the slight brush of her feet while sitting down, makes him wonder if it is deliberate?
After she leaves them to go to the upstairs bedroom, the discussion focuses back on the missing case of Arjun. It is established that Arjun, a model, visited Gautam, for a sitting, and the last doll was modelled after him. But it is only when Gautam offers a very unusual explanation for Arjun’s disappearance, that the film goes an octave higher by introducing aggression in the otherwise mild policeman. When he wants to arrest Gautama on suspicion of murder, Gautama, benign & hurt, asks him to test his theory, however unbelievable it might seem. It becomes clear that the film has now passed into its third and last leg, where Ghosh starts to brazenly dissect the fragility of a man’s character, so easily passable in the prim and proper forms of policemen, doctors, teachers or executives.
Gautam, being an artist, seems naturally attuned to human psychology. He exploits the frailty of the male ego by throwing Sen an open challenge: If he is not afraid, he should take the stone with the magic powers in his hand, imagine himself as Gautam, and go upstairs to return Ahalya’s phone to her. As Indra climbs the stairs to take Ahalya’s phone to her, the background score takes a sinister tone to prepare for a racy finale.
Ahalya pulls him on the bed addressing him as Gautam and commands him to send the policeman off and then come back to her. A shocked Sen , who has seen Gautama’s image in the mirror instead of his, hurries out of the room to walk away from this magical trap. But he stops short as he realizes what this means in terms of Ahalya’s invitation to come back. This is where Sujoy Ghosh highlights the utterly objectionable attitude of even “moral” men towards sex. A man of law, who righteously refuses a tiny drink because he is on duty, does not think twice about deceiving a woman if given that opportunity. That is where Ahalya makes a statement on the double standards of a patriarchal society: An eyebrow is raised if you drink publicly or do anything that is against the “morality” decided by the society , but a crime as serious as seduction of a woman under false pretense is perfectly passable.
In the regular world, as in the Ramayana story of Ahlaya, it would be established as a woman’s fault, if a man seemingly as “righteous “ as Indra Sen gives in to his temptation. It would most certainly be a woman’s problem if she does not reign in her sensuality, if she carries her sexuality like an asset. The “consent” does not figure in the Indian scenario, specially, if a woman does not apologize for being who she is.
But Ahalya, the movie, attempts to slap this mindset right across the face by blatantly choosing an outright misogynistic element from the Ramayana and then re-inventing it to send across an unexpected message: That it is, unequivocally & exclusively, the man’s fault.
In Ramayana, when Devraj Indra seduced Ahalya in the garb of her husband Rishi Gautama, Gautama turned her into a stone as a punishment for adultery. Sujoy Ghosh’s however, introduces a thrilling twist to the climax in making sure that this time, it would be the man who will be punished.
In a chilling climax, after Indra Sen goes back to Ahalya to make love to her as Gautam, he wakes up trapped in a stone doll adorned on the fireplace along with the other dolls that came before him.He screams and tries to move, only to fall down on the floor as a doll, just as a visitor is ushered in by Gautam and Ahalya into their living room. Ahalya picks up the doll explaining to the stranger how it’s mystery that this one keeps falling on its own. The story comes a full circle, ending right where it started, with Ahalya flashing a warning finger at the doll, telling him not to be naughty.
It might still be too ambitious to think that a male dominated society would turn fair to women overnight, but for now, it is no mean feat, that in Ghosh’s Ahalya, justice finally gets served. We all get to turn back in time and flash a wagging finger at Indradev: You were the problem. You had to be punished. You deserved to be turned into a stone, not Ahalya.