Ajji (2017) [Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles 2018]

A young girl goes missing while on an errand for her grandmother. When she is found, it’s clear that she has been raped and left for dead. As the police is no help, her grandmother decides to take matters into her own hands.

This slower paced than usual rape-revenge film from director Devashish Makhija, co-written by Makhika, Maya Tideman, and Mirat Trivedi, based on a story by Trivedi, hits a cord in how it shows how traditions, beliefs, and corruption can create a serious inequality when it comes to justice. The way things are handled and how the victim is pre-judged is something many societies see regularly and doesn’t just apply to the poor in India. However, here the victim is a poor Indian girl unfortunately subjected to the caste system and various beliefs when it comes to dealing with her rape and her care after the fact. Also very telling is how the grandmother is treated when she wants to help and to learn how to deal with this. A clash of older traditions and beliefs with a modern society causes many issues here. All of this leads to a poignant drama about the failings of a broken system in the face of a horrendous crime. The film is written in a way that brings forth the emotions and the struggles of the family.

The title role of Ajji, translated as granny in the film’s sub-titles, is played by actress Sushama Deshpande who plays her as a faded woman at first, a woman who stays in the shadows and supports her family. After the tragedy, she slowly finds her courage and her power out of frustration and despair. Deshpande plays her character as a quiet observer at first and as a force to recon with as she grows into a new woman. She shows worry, despair, care, and determination with nuances and a natural ability showing her powerhouse acting talent. She is the lead of the film and does absolutely amazing work with a complex emotional part. Playing the young victim and passing strong emotions almost without a word is Sharvani Suryavanshi who is the center of the story and a strong performer here. On the other side of this story is the accused rapist Dhavle played by Abnishek Banerjeeas who oozes creep and douchebag, creating a character that is easy to hate and want to see hurt. His character shows no growth and all the signs of a bad person. He plays him with aplomb and confidence, creating a truly despicable character.

Ajji is a film that is not only dark in subject matter, but also in how it’s shot. The images here are not happy or uplifting, but sober and somber in tone. The cinematography by Jishnu Bhattacharjee sets this tone and gives the film its style. The work done in the darker scenes, particularly closer to the end, makes good use of the light available in contrast with the shadows surrounding everything. This creates an atmosphere for what Ajji is doing that adds to its importance to her and lets the viewer feel the moment while also see what is going on in the darkness without losing style or atmosphere. All of this also connects with the dark place Ajji must go to inside herself to fulfill her goal.

Ajji is an interesting take on the rape-revenge sub-genre as the victim is much younger than usual and the person seeking revenge is older, much older, than usual. Also, the film takes a long while to establish its world with the imbalances that the caste system brings, along with political and financial powers, to dealing with just about any situations. Lead actress Sushama Despande does amazingly nuanced and subtle at times work here giving the titular grandmother a growing strength that allows her to do what she must while staying emotionally connected to her family and the viewer. Ajji as a film relies heavily on that connection, the way it is created is important and it, in turn, creates a powerful film filled with subtly nuanced emotions.