I can’t remember the last time I have felt this distressed and disturbed on watching a film. I am talking about the Marathi film, Zogwa, which is a scathing indictment of the devdasi system that has victimised an untold number of youngsters in past decades. The film makes a mention of the superstition that perpetuates this heinous practice and debases thousands of innocent lives.
The film centres on the lives of Suli, a young girl, barely out of her teens, and Tayappa, a young man, who are forced into this inhuman system by others who are older and supposedly wiser.
For Suli, the ordeal starts with the discovery of matted hair. For Tayappa, it is the passing of blood in his urine. Conditions that could have been rectified by medical aid, if not common sense and home remedies, cause them to become entrapped in the web of fear and exploitation that the larger community, which benefits from it, and other zogtyas, who have made their peace with it, encourage.
And so Suli and Tayappa are both married off to goddess Yellamma. The families, buying into the belief that letting their children be married to goddess Yellama will guarantee happiness to the rest of them, become willing participants in the farce. They also fear that the goddess will curse their family if they fail to dedicate their child to her.
Caught up in a world in which superstition is everything, the families go back to their lives, while Suli and Tayappa begin to accept their doomed existence. Their days are now spent earning a living by performing song and dance routines in praise of Yellamma.
But that is not all there is to it. The vermillion on their foreheads, the mark of a zogtya or zogtin, is their undoing. From now on, zogtins like Suli must be prepared to be propositioned by the males in the village. Not for them the sanctity of marriage. Should they ever find a man willing to take them away from the stranglehold of their lives, they must expect to be kept.
Sexual exploitation is the hell they live in day after day. Dedicated to goddess Yellamma, they are exploited as devachya randa (Marathi for god’s prostitutes), available to any man.
For the zogtya, the male victim, it means living a life of humiliation and gradual and inevitable neutering. They live their lives not as men anymore, but not as women either. They gradually lose all pride in their manhood until they reach a stage when the touch of an attractive and sexually vibrant woman arouses as much feeling in them as it would in a stone.
Zogtyas are expected to be sexless, to have no desires of their own, but to willingly offer themselves for the service of the community, read – lecherous males.
Tayappa, like other zogtyas before him, initially refuses to accept his new reality. Later, however, when he is humiliated and rejected by his own family and the village, of which he once formed a favoured part, he willingly walks into the welcoming embrace of the zogtya community, the only place where he can hope to find acceptance and understanding.
The sense of abandonment that you get from the two protagonists is dismal. Assimilated in the ways of the zogtyas, Suli and Tayappa allow themselves to feel at ease in the companionship of others whose fates they share. But the sense of comfort does not last. They are still a trifle rebellious, not yet completely overawed by the zogta culture. The voice of reason, in the shape of the village teacher, More Master, who tries his best to educate the zogtyas about the evils they give in to, also helps to strengthen their resolve.
As their journeys wind down the same path, Suli and Tayappa reject the debasement of their zogtya reality and seek to escape its smothering and inhuman confines. And so they turn for comfort to each other as man and woman.
Tayappa, in particular, makes a brave yet hopeless attempt to assert his masculinity, even to cling to it, in spite of the saree and other accessories of a Hindu married woman that are the only garb he must wear. This causes him to be further ridiculed by the villagers and belittled by his own family.
Interestingly, the first time we see Tayappa, he is dressed up as the bride of Yellamma, his face a mask of resignation. Over the course of the film, he gives way to his new reality, knowing well that nothing can undo his circumstances. So well does his body language reflect his reality as a reluctant female that when he wears male clothing towards the close of the film to signify his breaking away from life as a zogtya, it startles and delights the viewer.
In the final sequence, Suli and Tayappa are defiantly standing off against the belligerent and angry zogtya community that is determined to quash the rebellion and the romance by castrating Tayappa. The atmosphere is taut with tension. Sitting on the edge of my seat, I found myself wanting to cry out physically, calling on Suli to pick up the bamboo sticks lying on the ground and hit Akka, the head of the community, who sought to restrain her.
The makers of this film have done a fantastic job of bringing the devadasi system into focus for mainstream audiences. The film is a visual treat, as delightful to the eyes as a Konkan village in the monsoons. The riot of colour that assails the screen is enticingly rich and leads you right into the lives of Suli and Tayappa, making you feel for them and resenting every slight against them.
Zogwa is indeed an awakening, not just for Suli and Tayappa but also for those of us who go through life thinking that we’ve got the rawest deal.