This sensitive film by Shyam Benegal, a key figure in the Indian art cinema movement (Ankur, Junoon, etc.), explores the reverberations of fertility - or the lack of it - on the lives of five Muslim women in a rural joint family.
Ghazala (Shabana Azmi), is married to an abusive philanderer who kicks her out of the house when she suggests on her doctor's advice that he - and not she - may be the reason they do not have any sons. She flees with her daughter Salma (Rajeshwari Sachdev) to her mother's home, where the story shifts to the troubles of other members of Ghazala's family, each in her turn. Part of the film follows Ghazala's sisters-in-law; Najma (Alka Tridevi) appears to be suffering post-partem depression, while the pious and arrogant Afsana (Nandita Das) learns that her husband does not want any more children. Another vignette recounts Ghazala's mother's woeful past. Ghazala's daughter is troubled as well; she faces the prospect of being forced to give up her beloved studies in order to marry.
One of the sweetest things about the film is that (except for Ghazala's husband, who is a cartoon villain beyond redemption), there is a great deal of love in this family. Tensions arise not from people hating one another, but rather from the unavoidable interactions people trying frankly to negotiate their needs in a very cramped joint family situation. This lends the film a very authentic feel. There are no contrived, soap-opera-esque rivalries, no bitter feuds dating back generations, or any of the other plot devices that one commonly sees in the movies. Instead, there is only a typically Benegal-esque close study of the quotidian interactions of a relatively few people.
The characterizations are pleasing and genuine as well. Ghazala is wounded but sheds powerful sparks when challenged. Her mother, the family's matriarch, presides tenderly and earnestly; Instead of being a stick-in-the-mud, strict traditionalist as the elderly matriarch archetype often is, she is frequently a voice of moderation and even, to some degree, modernity. And Afsana is a real treat - unlike Nandita's characters in Fire and Earth, who were sweet and loveable and sympathetic, Afsana is judgmental, bitchy, and nosy.
One of the things I admire most about Shyam Benegal is his ability to tell stories about women that are honest and sensitive without being patronizing. Hari-bhari is a fine showcase for this skill. The only off note is the ending, which is artificially upbeat - the story is left ambiguous, but the final scene is abruptly and incongruously joyous. Still, it is very good film, with a languid pace colored by a handful of very lovely songs.
Below, the obligatory extra screen-shots of Shabana Azmi.