“Your destiny is set.”
Draupadi Unleashed, written and directed by Tony Stopperan, based on a book by Nisha Sabharwal, is the story of a young woman who struggles with her place in the very structured patriarchal society of aristocratic Indian society in the early 20th century.
The film focuses on 16 year old Indira (Selena Qureshi) who has been raised by her widowed mother Sita (Melanie Chandra) and her paternal grandmother Amma (Anna George). Indira is reaching the age to marry. When her cousin Gautam (Taaha Shah Badusha) comes to visit, the two fall in love. But there is another suitor, Amar (Dominic Rains), who is handsome, rich, and sophisticated (noted by his western fashion). We can tell early on that Amar is very full of himself and expects to get what he wants. In this case that is Indira as a kind of trophy wife. All this leaves Indira torn between her duty to her family through the arranged marriage and following her love with Gautam.
Yes, there is a great deal of melodrama involved. There is also a touch of magical realism with visions of a young boy, a book with magical writing and intermittent small earthquakes. And it is tied to a respected Swami (Cas Anvar) who comes to bless the wedding, but also takes Indira under his wing for special attention. The interplay of reality and the surreal never quite bears fruit. The magical realism seems more of an intrusion to the story than an integral part.
The film has some beautiful art direction. It provides a lush visual experience that reflects the upper class Indian society. But set within that beauty is the darkness of male domination of women. The women of the story are expected to know their places and (Amar tells Indira) “Behave yourself.”
The women in the story are all bound to the roles they inherit. We see it most in Indira, but the other women characters all share in this. Indira yearn for happiness, but that isn’t really the goal for a woman in this setting. The Swami advises her (in very Hindu thinking) to find freedom in detachment—to let go of her own desires. Yet we will see that such desires are not easy to control, even for the men in the story. The freedom that Indira desires is never fully defined, and as such never fully realized within the confines of the story.
Draupadi Unleased is showing in select theaters.