'Dor', a film lyrical in its intensity, brings out powerful feminist themes without laboring the point. There are no women's groups here, nor self-conscious sloganeering; yet, a film such as this signifies in its own way the mushrooming of feminist consciousness: a consciousness that has seeped into the minds of ordinary persons, creating subversion in unlikely spots.
This is a subversive tale in which two women make their own choices, challenging oppressive conditions, successfully battling patriarchies. It is set in rural India: a village in Himachal Pradesh, and another in Rajasthan. Writer-director Nagesh Kukunoor has impressively turned out a film that is authentic in its setting and characterisation. The film was inspired by a real life incident (which also sparked Kamal's Malayalam film Perumazhakalam, 2004). Kukunoor himself is entirely convincing in the role of villainous Mr. Chopra, who negotiates to buy not only the haveli of a down-at-heel Suryavanshi Rajput family, but also the widowed daughter-in-law, Meera.
Meera, played with aplomb by Ayesha Takia, is a fun-loving village girl, very much in love with her husband Shankar and heartbroken at his sudden death. Her parents-in-law blame her for Shankar's tragic death: a circle of women breaks her bangles, removes jewellery and colorful clothing. Wearing navy blue robes, Meera is reduced to an unloved household drudge.
The highlights of the film are the female bonds that emerge in this darkest of moments. Meera retains three links: one with a live and affectionate young schoolgirl whom Shankar had 'found' in a well where she had been thrown away to die, and who now lives with the family. Another woman embraces Meera - Shankar's aged grandmother, who was also widowed young and identifies with Meera's pain and yearning. She becomes Meera's protector, nurturing her in the now-harsh household. The third bond is with Zeenat, a village woman from far-off Himachal Pradesh. Zeenat (played by Gul Panag) is educated, works as a schoolteacher and stands up for her own rights, fighting society when necessary. She married a young man, Aamir (now in Dubai), against his family's wishes.
Shankar too was sent to Dubai to make money, so that the family haveli would not have to be sold. In Dubai, Aamir and Shankar happened to share a room on the tenth floor of an apartment block. Tragedy struck when Shankar fell off the balcony and died. Aamir was accused of murder and would be hanged. The only possibility of saving him arises from a clause in Saudi Arabian law - the widow of a slain man can pardon an alleged murderer. It becomes Zeenat's mission in life to find Shankar's widow and somehow persuade her to sign the relevant document that would save Aamir.
How Zeenat finds Meera is a saga in itself, replete with adventure, drama and suspense...a modern-day Odyssey. Wending her way from lush green mountains to stark, dry Rajasthan, she locates Meera with the aid of just a photograph. En route, in a dusty little town in the middle of nowhere, a 'behrupia' (traditional storyteller, jester and impersonator - played by Shreyas Talpade - steals her bag. He reappears to save her from two hoodlums just about to rape her and becomes her comrade in arms - a Sancho Panza to her Don Quixote. Against all odds, they locate Shankar's family.
Woman-friendly dialogues abound, and for the most part meld into the scene smoothly and effortlessly. There are a few jagged edges soon after Meera and Zeenat meet - Zeenat is too ready to preach, casting herself in the heroic-feminist mould, urging Meera to take life into her own hands. However, the hard experience of personal rebellion strengthens her words. She feels affection and respect for Meera, whose present life is pure hell.
Once a day, the young widow journeys out of her 'jail' to the temple - which becomes their secret meeting-place. Under Zeenat's growing influence, Meera begins to rebel: goes to the market to eat rasgollas; visits the cinema hall to see a film she knows by heart (Shankar and she saw it more than once!) and goes for a camel ride. Away from prying eyes, Meera dances - dances with all the verve and spirit of youth, framed by sky and sand, and Zeenat too is inspired, as is Behrupia (masquerading as a camel-man).
But finally the truth has to be told. Just two days to Aamir's execution, Zeenat is desperate to get Meera's signature. Meera is furious, feeling betrayed by this woman she had grown so fond of. She refuses to sign the document - taking her own decision, as Zeenat taught her to do. Back in the haveli, her father-in-law claims that Meera, by meeting Zeenat, has dishonored the family. Meera, so far mute, eyes downcast, speaks up: "Honor? Which honor? Whose honor?" she asks. She questions leasing the haveli to Mr Chopra - and worse: the agreement to sell her (Meera) to the same buyer.
The infuriated patriarch locks her in a room. At dead of night, his aged mother - Meera's protective grandmother-in-law - stealthily turns the key to open the door and soothe the distraught younger woman. Says Meera, "I have ignored and suppressed my heart for so long that I can no longer hear what it says." The old woman urges her to listen, for the heart never grows silent, and she must follow whatever her heart tells her.
Meera leaves then, to go look for Zeenat, and give her the document that will save Aamir's life. Meera races barefoot over thorny sand, to the railway station, where she finds Zeenat, just about to leave. She hands over the document through the train window. The two women smile with firm understanding, love and a strong, unbreakable bond between them. As the train begins to leave, an outstretched hand invites the girl at the station. Meera clasps Zeenat's hand, and climbs into the train, to go forward into the wide world...into the unknown. A friendship has changed two lives radically.
The portrayal of men is equally nuanced - revealing different standpoints, widely varying masculinities. At one point, when Zeenat and Meera exclaim about the burdens borne by women, Behrupia intervenes, saying, "Have you ever worn apagdi (turban) like mine?" - a heavy burden on his head! He too loves and lives with loss, hiding an aching heart under his jester's robes.
The power of the film, though, lies in its honest celebration of female friendship, a thread so delicate, yet strong. Every woman who survives the indignities of a patriarchal world knows the importance of female friends who save one from slipping down a steep cliff, providing a lifeline, who support because they understand. This should not be glorified, for it too is fragile, vulnerable and imperfect. Female friends too betray, are disloyal. As old grandmother tells Meera, "Women do not always speak for women, so what can we expect of men?"