Revisiting Tarpan: 1994 Film On Caste & Gender Oppression Remains Relevant As 'Kaali Khuhi' Releases

Pragyan Mohanty
·4-min read
Revathi in K Bikram Singh's Tarpan (1994)
Revathi in Tarpan (1994) | Photo credit: NFDC/CinemasOfIndia

Much like in the new Netflix release Kaali Khuhi, an ominous well is central to the plot of this underwatched NFDC film by K Bikram Singh.

Netflix's new horror drama, Kaali Khuhi raises the issue of female infanticide through the story of a 10-year-old girl who is faced with her family's dark past. The project is toplined by Shabana Azmi – she plays the protagonist's grim grandmother – and is set in rural Punjab where the eponymous black well stands as a reminder to the village's ugly secrets lying in its depths.

Made nearly three decades before Kaali Khuhi, bureaucrat-turned-filmmaker K Bikram Singh's 1994 directorial debut Tarpan (The Absolution) employed similar elements – an ominous well in a village with a disgraceful history and the reverberations it bears on its present – to address the horrors of caste and gender injustices. This NFDC-Doordashan production stars Revathi along with some of Indian arthouse cinema's finest talents like Om Puri, Manohar Singh, Mita Vashisht, Ravi Jhankal, Rajendra Gupta among others.

Singh’s dystopian telling, too, opens in a rural milieu – this time Rajasthan – where a couple, Laxmi (Vashisht) and Zorawar (Jhankal), is struggling to keep their ailing seven-year-old daughter alive. Hoping to get her treated, they approach an ascetic living in the desert, Sukku Baba who advises them to seek water from an old, dried up well in their ancestral village. Upon reaching, the couple discovers other similarly-aged girls being sick and the village suffering an inexplicable curse: every girl child perishes by the age of seven. Moreover, any query about the said well is met with either feigned ignorance or uncomfortable silence.

Zorawar is certain the well is the answer to his and the village's problem; once used only by Thakurs, the upper caste members of the society, it now lies forgotten. He volunteers to clean and restore it but is discouraged by influential village elders who fear the pursuit will force them to face the remnants of their ugly past replete with caste and gender oppression that they have long tried to hide and forget. His lone supporter is a wise old woman who is aware of the Thakurs' exploitative history and asserts there's no way forward for the community without admitting to the atrocities they committed against the marginalised castes and seeking forgiveness from the victims.

As the seniors finally rally together, Zorawar descends into the decrepit well only to find it haunted. Shocked and terrified, he wants to abandon the quest when Sukku Baba arrives at the spot and counsels him. The well has stood witness to many injustices in the village's shamefully segregative past and now ghosts of the victims dwell in it. The wronged spirits shall rest only when amends have been made, he tells the group. It isn't so much the physical task of cleaning the well, but the spiritual cleansing from hate and prejudice that will lift the curse from the village and provide absolution to the guilt-ridden transgressors.

Using four inter-connected accounts, Tarpan illustrates the insular and abusive nature of caste supremacy and how deeply pervasive it is in our society. It's a world of staggering disparity where people from dominant castes – driven by entitlement and intolerance – not only exploit members of lower castes but also obstruct every possible path of social and economic progress for them. For the latter's women, oppressed doubly through caste and gender, the cycle of humiliation and abuse is unending.

The film blends supernatural and fable-like elements into the narrative and depicts a stark outcome of these discriminatory practices. So each time Zorawar descends into the well and extracts an ill-fated item, it is connected to a violent act by the Thakurs. As these powerful men commit crimes with impunity and trample upon the rights of disadvantaged women repeatedly, ruin befalls them eventually. The message is clear: those who didn't respect other women, will never be honoured with the presence of a girl in their homes.

Tarpan also underscores the importance of those in the position of power to act dispassionately – without favouritism or bias. The village sarpanch not only favoured his community but also denied compensation to those wronged by the Thakurs. It also rankles at the cruel hypocrisy of upper caste households that gladly employ members of lower castes for their domestic chores, extract hard labour from them for a pittance, and then go on about their segregative ways so much so that the Thakur well is off-limits even when there's a raging famine and all other wells have run dry.

Singh's treatment of the subject matter is both hard-hitting and unrelenting. What the debutant filmmaker lacks in technique, he makes up for in purposeful storytelling. The talented ensemble rises to the occasion and each character – minor or major – delivers an authentic and suitably competent performance. Despite its merits and social relevance, Tarpan remains among those well-intentioned films that seem to have slipped through the cracks.