We have often heard of, read about or seen women in mythology, cinema and historical texts of women like Amba, Ambalika, Madhavi who were not able to beget their children from their husband’s seed. In this custom, which came to be known as Niyog Pratha, it is someone else who would take the responsibility of fathering the child since the husband would not be able to offer his seed due to various reasons. Amol Palekar’s movie Anaahat (2003), a Marathi film (Anaahat means Eternity), poses several questions in relation to this custom of Niyog Pratha. Palekar re-examines and deconstructs the custom, seen so far as a matter of convenience of producing a male heir, as now a woman’s choice to explore her sexual desires.
Niyog Pratha worked as a safeguard to those who were not able to reproduce a child and therefore it is the third party who had to initiate the procreation by offering his seed to the woman who is not his wife. Amol Palekar’s movie examines the relation between the King of the Malla dynasty and his wife Sheelavati. The king, who was much older than his wife, was impotent, and therefore not able to procreate. After seven years of their marriage when it became clear that the king was unable to become a father, the senate decided to adopt Niyog Pratha. According to this custom, the queen had to select one sexual partner for three nights so that the person would become the biological father of the queen’s child but the world will know him/her as the king’s child. It was expected that the child would be a boy and naturally, the heir and the future king. An outsider was “appointed” to complete the process of procreation.
Anaahat marks a transition from conventional plots. In a male-dominated world, a woman’s libidinal impulses are mostly overlooked. But in this movie, Palekar de-mythifies one of the conventions: it is not always the man who announces his victory in the bed, a woman can also do the same thing. To me, this is probably what the woman protagonist Sheelavati was doing in the movie.
Historical representations have shown how the identity of a man as a king is greater than his identity of a being of flesh and blood. In Anaahat, the King of Malla had to compromise and allow Sheelavati to opt for Niyog Pratha for the sake of the kingdom to present an heir and for that, the king must ignore his personal interests. In Anaahat, the king is shown as personally not ready to allow Sheelavati but the senate’s decision bound him to do so.
Initially Sheelavati asked Amatya (who was supposed to escort her to the man on one particular night) if it was the question of his daughter then what would he have done. Amatya’s answer reflects his chauvinism: the objective of a woman’s life is to procreate; therefore, he would have asked his daughter to do the same. The next question asked by Sheelavati is more crucial: if the child would be a girl then would she be the heir ascending to the king’s throne? To this, he had no answer. Sheelavati had to obey the senate’s rules. Her return from her partner of Niyog after the first night challenged the chauvinistic attitudes of the senate and the King. Although it was, simply put, a one-night stand with a stranger, it was more than that at the same time. Rather than the pains of love-making that Sheelavati had expected to encounter, she enjoyed the pleasures of physical union with a stranger.
Her reaction is the turning point in Anaahat and for the representation of female sexual desire in regional cinema.
Sheelavati’s body experiences pleasure with the Niyog partner and she goes on to share her erotic satisfaction with the King, thus dissatisfying him. Sheelavati violated a queen’s grandeur- such was everyone’s opinion. She openly talks about sexuality, body and sexual gratification. She shared the detailed description of her physical union with her husband and Mahattarika (one of her constant companions, portrayed by Deepti Naval) to which she received two types of reactions. Mahattarika shared her views on, how in a male-dominated society, it is the man who considers a woman as nothing but a child producing machine. Sheelavati derived the pleasure of Niyog and she wanted this more not only to beget a child but for her own gratification: an aspect of feminine affection that neither aligned with maternal love nor the sublime love of a woman for her husband and in Anaahat, it is portrayed with such finesse.
A custom which could only highlight the interest of men for generations, took a different dimension in Anaahat. In a society a woman still cannot talk explicitly about her sexual needs and sexuality. Sheelavati’s portrayal works as a protest against the hypocrisy of the society. She has questioned the traditional norm in Anaahat: she asserts that procreation cannot be the only objective of a woman’s life. She has the right to decide whom to offer her womb. She asserts that if a married woman offers her body to a stranger only for procreation and if that is not considered a sin then her union with that stranger for pleasure must not be prohibited either. Anaahat offers an exceptional conclusion as Sheelavati convinces her impotent, however loving king-husband that she would again go to her Niyog partner not only to produce a child but to derive carnal pleasure.
Sheelavati’s verbal deliveries in Anaahat arouse a sense of rejuvenation in the female psyche. One could feel the pangs of anxiety she was going through while leaving the palace to go to her Niyog partner for the first time, not knowing that she will come to enjoy it. Thus, Anaahat works as a mouthpiece to women of all generations to express their desires beyond the necessity of producing an offspring.
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