In Godmother, Shabana Azmi kicks ass and takes names, earning the most recent of her five National Film awards in the process. This film isn't often mentioned in the same breath with Arth or the other masterworks from earlier in Shabana's career, but it's as iconic and masterful a performance as she's ever given, with more emotional range - grief to elation, tenderness to rage - than her famous somber, introspective characters.
Rambhi (Shabana), an illiterate village woman, follows her husband Veeram (Milind Gunaji) to the city when he goes searching for work. Veeram is a good man, but hot-tempered, and he earns a reputation for himself in business by beating the tar out of his rivals. When Veeram is assassinated, Rambhi responds by having his killers executed and winning an electoral position for herself, in defiance of her husband's former cronies. Among her first acts in office is to shut down a scam in which corrupt contractors are paid for installing water pumps that exist only on paper. This earns her the loyalty of her constituents, but also garners a few powerful enemies. As Rambhi rises to considerable regional power, she becomes as ruthless and corrupt as those she had deplored when she first took office. She takes on her enemies one by one, including the crafty Kesubhai (Govind Namdeo). Only when she sees that her ruthlessness has poisoned the mind of her teenage son (Sharman Joshi) does Rambhi begin to relent and attempt to right the damage she has done.
Among the messages of Godmother is definitely the old maxim that "power
corrupts," and while Rambhi does attempt to redeem herself in the end,
that redemption comes at a great price, given all the lives she
wrecked - and ended - in her rise to power. The film might be seen as
feminist in that it shows a woman taking on a tough, merciless political role
of the sort usually reserved for men. And yet it is not idealistic in
its feminism, as Rambhi is not portrayed as any less susceptible to the
seductions of power than any man. In that sense, Godmother is merely a human story, not specifically a woman's story.
And yet, Rambhi is a woman, and that drives some of Godmother's more interesting cinematic moments. There are many scenes in which Rambhi dons trappings of the male world - Rambhi lighting up a cigarette, Rambhi firing a rifle - these are iconic expressions of Rambhi's ventures outside the traditional female domain. In the most powerful of these, a scene that puts in sharp relief just how far Rambhi has stepped outside of traditional role, Rambhi gets drunk while a troupe of village women sing and dance for her pleasure.
Shabana really shines in this powerful film, capturing the development of Rambhi's ruthless confidence with perfect pitch. Rambhi is not a flawless heroine, but she is a riveting character who generates a magnificent strength and heat in response to any kind of challenge. This is evident long before her own political machinations begin. Early in the film, during a traumatic childbirth, the midwife says that either Rambhi or the baby must die; Rambhi grits her teeth and wills both herself and her child to survive. Later, Veeram, recognizing the treasure he has in his wife, humbly seeks her counsel in business decisions. Rambhi is full of love for her son, and a sincere desire to be a champion for her poor and low-caste compatriots; but when Rambhi is underestimated, she becomes an angry cobra, capable of striking at anything within reach.
In addition to its compelling main character and its interesting illumination of aspects of caste conflict and small-town corruption, Godmother is beautiful to look at, shot in rich but somber reds and browns. The scenery isn't the only lovely thing in this film - Shabana is as gorgeous as she has ever been, and the film's director, Vinay Shukla, must have thought so too - he put tight closeups in almost every scene, filling the screen with her beautiful, expressive face. It's hard for me to avoid waxing fangirlishly superlative in reviewing a film like this one, but I think it's fair to say that films like Godmother are the reason I love Shabana Azmi as madly as I do; not the other way round.