Hellaro – An Ode to Freedom – by Esther David

Can music empower women, heal them and awaken them?


These were my first thoughts, as I watched the Gujarati film ‘Hellaro’ by Abhishek Shah and his team. Truthfully, the poster attracted me and I went to see the garba sequences. As, I watched the film, I got trapped into the waft and weave of womens empowerment; with the resounding rhythm of the dhol, which awaken an entire community of suppressed women. The beats of the dhol also tell us the untold story of the agonized drummer. The film, based on folklore, begins with the symbolic use of a sword-dance is performed only by men; as the women stay indoors. The sword becomes a metaphor of a patriarchal society, which is a way of life in a far away village of Kutch. Late at night, the men perform the vigorous sword-dance to evoke the Mother Goddess, as rains have eluded this region for the past three years. The women stay indoors, suffocating under rules and regulations; laid down by men. These men worship the Mother Goddess-who also happens to be a woman, but they treat their own women as objects of lust and violence in a decadent society. The situation changes with the arrival of the new bride Manjhrii. Slowly, the women are empowered, as the wave of change comes in the most unexpected manner. The only respite these women have from their dark world is when every morning, they carry headloads of brass pots to fill water from a lake; farway from their village. At the lake, they breathe; the air of freedom, even if it is for a short time. On one such day, they see a man, sprawled in the desert, dying of thirst. Manjhri breaks all rules, offers him water and revives him. He is carrying a dhol, as he is a drummer and as a gesture of gratitude, respectfully; stands with his back to them; playing the dhol for them and the women cannot control their desire to dance. Suddenly with beats of the dhol; they feel unshackled and their garba becomes a spontaneous act of freedom. Walking long distances in the desert to get water is no longer an ardous task. As, every day, when the women leave the village to fill watter, they look forward to the moment, when they can smile, laugh, chat, sing and dance with gay abandon, enjoying a short but precious moment of happiness. These are some metaphors, which become symbolic of freedom. This is also the beginning of protest against a male dominated society. The reverberating beats of the dhol inspires the women. It also inspires young women viewers like my niece Dhara, who said, ‘Actually, the real protagonist of this film is the garba.’ With the mere act of dancing, the women cross swords with a male dominated society, which has so far suppressed their voice, their expression and their very existence. It infuses in them; a desire to break all barriers under Manjhri’s leadership. Her eyes speak volumes about womens lives and their need to express themselves through garba. If the men perform an aggressive sword-dance; late at night, in contrast the women dance under the scorching sun, in the stark desert-land of Kutch. Dressed in colourful clothes and swirling gracefully, they remain untouched by the blistering hot sands of the desert. They bond into a chain, which eventually leads them into a direct confrontation with the men. The only man, who wordlessly supports them, according to Manjhri, is a man with the soul of a woman, which is the Mukhi’s son. I was mesmerized, as there was nothing artificial in the film, be it the set, the bhunga, the village, costumes, embroidery, interiors, jewelry and the women themselves. I felt, I was in a real village of Kutch with real people and I was part of their lives….

Come, what may; when they dance; the earth, trembles with their united power and strength, as they are determined to break all shackles. They are no longer birds with clipped wings, as their colourful saris grow wings and they are about to fly away… 

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