A ripe rural meller with a feminist message, “Death Sentence” is a Bollywood picture with brains. Strongly cast and acted on the distaff side, this good-looking widescreen drama is, however, flawed by an overextended storyline and too much mugging among the male players to make it a palatable item among Western auds, though Indian communities offshore may respond to its semi-arty, semi-commercial blend.
Set in a conservative village in the north Indian state of Bihar, story centers on the deadly combination of business and religious interests that are challenged by a bunch of plucky women. Catalyst to the drama is Ketki (the excellent Madhuri Dixit), who marries Vinay (Ayub Khan), the weak son of a crumbling landlord family. After Vinay is exploited in a business deal by local big shot Tirpat (Mohan Joshi), Ketki decides enough is enough.
She finally rallies the local women to stand up against Tirpat & Co., and even stirs into action her sister-in-law, Chandravati (the fine Shabana Azmi), who has been humiliated by Vinay’s loony elder brother, the murderous priest Abhay (Mohan Agashe). The women’s only male supporter is low-caste laborer Rambaran (veteran Om Puri), who has meanwhile fallen for Chandravati. Climax comes when the men get Abhay to pass a religious “death sentence” on the sisters.
The film sometimes has the feel of a cut-down version, with most of the songs eliminated: In the early stages, relationships are sometimes unclear, with apparent gaps in the storytelling. But in its latter half, as the battle lines between good and evil are drawn, pic does generate some real dramatic clout, and Dixit in particular shines as a quietly purposeful heroine. Main weakness is the portrayal of the male characters, who are either handsome and spineless (Vinay) or glowering and villainous (Tirpat, Abhay). Technically, it’s always fine, with especially well-composed lensing by co-scripter Rajan Kothari.