Rukmavati Ki Haveli is a stunning adaptation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Spanish play, “The House of Bernarda Alba,” highlighting the suffocating effects of patriarchy and societal norms on women’s desires and passions. Govind Nihalani’s clever adaptation transplants the play’s themes to the arid landscapes of Rajasthan, India, where the haveli becomes a microcosm of the patriarchal society surrounding it.
The talented ensemble cast delivers powerhouse performances, with Uttara Baokar, Ila Arun, Kitu Gidwani, Pallavi Joshi, Jyoti Subhash and Sohaila Kapur bringing depth and complexity to their roles. The absence of men in the story underscores the powerful grip that patriarchy holds over women’s lives, leaving them struggling to break free.
At the film’s heart are the five unmarried daughters of Rukmavati, the ageing matriarch who rules over the depleting haveli with an iron fist. The daughters are trapped within the confines of their mother’s strict rules, unable to express their desires or seek out their own destinies. As the chances of their marriage prospects dwindle with each passing year, tensions rise within the haveli, and envy simmers beneath the surface.
Despite these challenges, Rukmavati was determined not to marry her daughters to men of lower castes. The older daughters had given up on the dream of marriage, as the dark circles under their eyes and fading skin constantly reminded them of the difficulties of finding suitable partners. However, the youngest daughter had witnessed the fate of her older sisters and was determined not to let her youth go to waste. She understood that in her immediate socio-cultural environment, her only way to break free from the constraints of her mother was to use her youth to her advantage.
The heat of the desert becomes a potent metaphor for the unfulfilled desires and sexual intimacy that the women long for but cannot express. The use of locked spaces, such as the cellar where the elderly grandmother is imprisoned, adds to the sense of repression and the suffocating atmosphere of the haveli.
The women in the haveli wore black clothes not just as a sign of mourning but also as a symbol of their social status and as a means to shield themselves from the outside world. In conservative societies, black clothes are considered a barrier to protecting women from the male gaze, preventing men from looking at them with lustful or predatory intentions. The black clothes are also a physical manifestation of their restricted lives, a constant reminder of the societal constraints that women must abide by.
The two house helps in the story function as a Greek chorus, serving as the eyes and ears of the audience within the haveli. Their presence is constant, watching and observing everything inside and outside the house. They not only bring the outside gaze to the inside of the haveli, but they also bring an active voice to the story, shaping its outcome.
Overall, Rukmavati Ki Haveli is a powerful portrayal of the struggles faced by women within a patriarchal society, told with sensitivity, nuance, and a rustic visual style.