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Indian film exposes violence against tribal women

ROME (Hollywood Reporter) - “Gangor” (also known as “Behind the Bodice”) may be a political film, but director Italo Spinelli manages to rein in the story and decidedly handsome cast from simple pamphleteering.

He creates a moving if technically patchy personal account of the mass rape of India’s poor, tribal women whose voices are rarely, if ever, heard.

Shot on digital, the images are sometimes clean, sometimes crude, but the uneven look of the Italian-Indian co-production shouldn’t hurt its art-house life in the West, where festival play is a given after the thundering audience reaction at the Rome International Film Festival.

“Gangor” is based on the work of renowned Bengali writer and activist Mahasweta Devi, in particular her short story, “Behind the Bodice.” Spinelli smartly takes on a widespread problem through flawed characters that are not just victims or victimizers, without stooping to mystical or exotic visions of the Asian subcontinent.

In the film, seasoned photojournalist Upin (Adil Hussain) is sent to Purulia, West Bengal, to report on the violence against the tribal women in the impoverished region. There he meets Gangor (Priyanka Bose).

Upin’s interest in the beautiful young woman is ambivalent from the start, though definitely not just professional. For her part, Gangor is not above manipulating or stealing to get what she wants. She makes Upin pay to photograph her as she breast-feeds her child, though neither is aware of the consequences this will have when he uses one of the pictures for his front-page article.

Gangor is gang-raped then shunned by her village and resorts to life on the streets. Upin, haunted by his discovery of the often hushed-up violence, travels back to Purulia, against the advice of his colleagues and wife (Seema Rahmani).

Besides theater and cinema, Spinelli has also made documentaries, which is probably why some of the dialogue in “Gangor” sounds like an essay on the film’s theme. But the cast grounds even the most unnatural lines with mostly natural performances.

Hussain is magnetic, both when Upin plays the world-weary hack and as a man grappling with his conscience. The latter is not so much over social atrocities, but over his feelings for Gangor, which is where the story’s forte lies. Violence against women does not simply come from the power and animal urges of the film’s less-educated males, but is shown as far more complex.

Bose says little though has an undeniably strong presence as an uneducated though not naive young woman, who both tragically uses and is used for her beauty. Tillotama Shome (the acclaimed housemaid of “Monsoon Wedding”) plays Devi’s cinematic counterpart Medha with straightforward command, while singer-actor Samrat Chakrabarti gets the somewhat thankless task of representing the country’s dismissive bourgeois class as Upin’s assistant.