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Vees Mhanje Vees: Back to school, but no lessons learnt

Unconvincing:The film is more a Brahminical tale of education and self-importance than a truthful commentary on the dismal state of education in rural Maharashtra—Photo: Special arrangement  

Marathi cinema seems to have a special attraction for schools. Evoking the romance of childhood and buddy moments in movies such as Shala and Killa , this week’s release Vees Mhanje Vees (2016) uses the pet subject to seemingly underscore a social message, that of importance of education.

The archetype of the kind-hearted teacher who strives to bring about a transformation through education is not new. Movies of different cultures have flirted with this idea, giving us the delightful Maria von Trapp of The Sound of Music and her sober male version in Parichay played by Jeetendra.

Vees Mhanje Vees falls firmly in this tradition. It is a simple story of a young girl Shailaja Vaidya (Mrinmayee Godbole), who puts her own education on hold, and returns to her village Shibarga to revive a school, a dream of her ailing father Annaji Vaidya (Rajan Bhise), a retired school teacher.

The story progresses on familiar lines, where the intrepid heroine battles odds, such as convincing illiterate and superstitious villagers to send their children to school. But Shailaja encounters a bigger hurdle. The authorities mandate a minimum enrolment of 20 students, failing which the school will be shut down. Shailaja now takes up the daunting task of going door-to-door, navigating the tricky slopes of child marriage, superstition and regressive attitudes to education, to convince people to send their children to school, in a bid to reach the magic figure of 20.

Despite its good intentions and public-interest aspirations, the film is problematic in many aspects, making you wonder about its purpose. It is more a Brahminical tale of education and self-importance than a truthful commentary on the dismal state of education in rural Maharashtra. At its heart, you have a Brahmin heroine — conveyed in parts by her surname ‘Vaidya’, the type of house, and her comparatively privileged and respected status in the village — who becomes a teacher like her father, thus naturalising inherited caste occupations. A stray remark praising a father-son duo from the potter community, that they are the “best potters”, again deepens the concept of occupational roles in a caste hierarchy.

Considerable attention is directed, directly and indirectly, to Hindu religious practices. A Hindu prayer recited in the classroom by students, Shailaja visiting a temple, references to holy books, all these are markers of a Hinduised world. At one point, Shailaja is showing her students a model of mountain ranges and passes, when one student asks her who made the topographical features. “God made this,” she replies.

The movie is disturbingly silent about child marriage and superstition, even as it introduces these malpractices as props for the sole purpose of taking the plot forward, but not open for challenge.

A 14-year-old Muslim girl student Anjum is engaged to be married in a year’s time. Shailaja argues with her parents to let Anjum study till she is married. In fact, Anjum’s would-be in-laws are shown to advocate girls’ education, reasoning that today boys want to marry educated girls, but in all this nothing is said about child marriage.

In another instance, Shailaja convinces the village to admit the son of a woman, who has been ostracised for practicing witchcraft. Her argument before the village panchayat is, “If the woman practices black magic, how can her son be faulted?” This position dangerously endorses the malpractice of branding women as witches, a serious problem in parts of rural Maharashtra.

The problem of child labour or trafficking of children is introduced in a cursory manner, through disjointed incidents with no effort to resolve them. In fact the overall portrayal of poverty-stricken villagers as illiterates who shun education, whose mindset can be changed only by the upper caste intervention, not only demonises them, but also grossly distorts the history of caste oppression through educational exclusion. It also whitewashes administrative failure in delivering basic education infrastructure by making token noises about arbitrary rules.

Shailaja’s endeavours become more important than the plight of the villagers, much like Mohan Bhargava (played by Shah Rukh Khan) of Swades . The film attempts to build a reasonable climax in the way the protagonist chases the figure of 20, but overall it remains a prosaic affair. Godbole as Shailaja appears sincere, but her matter-of-fact performance does not make an impression. Bhise, a well-known face in Marathi soaps, satisfactorily plays the ailing father.

Vees Mhanje Vees has been produced by the National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC) and has a well-meaning social message at its heart. However, mere good intentions are not enough to redeem the inadequacies of a facile plotline, staid dialogues, and some poorly executed scenes.

The reviewer is a freelance writer

The movie is silent about child marriage and superstition, and introduces them as mere props

The problem of child labour or trafficking of children is introduced in a cursory manner

Vees Mhanje Vees (Marathi)

Director: Uday Bhandarkar

Starring: Shivaji Barve, Rajan Bhise, Aditi Devlankar, Mrinmayee Godbole

Runtime: 105 mins

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Printable version | Sep 25, 2021 5:22:31 AM |

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