Writer-director Jagmohan, veteran (under moniker Jag Mundhra) of minor U.S. direct-to-cable/vid erotic thrillers over the past 15 years, returns to his native India for the more serious-minded “Sandstorm.” Pic — which split the Audience Choice Award at Cinequest with “The Anarchists” — dramatizes the true story of an activist villager’s rape by upper-caste men, and the national storm their subsequent trial ignited. Well-mounted effort, which sports substantial English-language segs, clearly seeks to retrace “The Bandit Queen’s” ripped-from-headlines, feminism-in-the-Third-World path from home terrain to foreign arthouse play. But earnest, fairly engrossing feature’s social justice plea comes off a bit heavy-handed and obvious by Western standards. Beyond the fest circuit, offshore prospects are mixed.
Real-life case drew considerable attention in 1992. Somewhat fictionalized account finds Sanwari (Nandita Das from Deepa Mehta’s “Fire” and “Earth”) a feisty Rajasthani “untouchable” devoted to her two children and husband Sohan (Raghuvir Yadav). Having protested the manhandling of a poor woman by a member of the rural hamlet Dabri’s ruling class, she’s recruited by social worker Shobha (Deepti Naval) to implement a government-funded program promoting “respect, dignity and love” in the treatment of femmes from all castes.
She takes the job out of economic necessity but soon becomes a fearless advocate. But such public dissent rankles local Brahmin leaders. When Sanwari goes “too far,” she and Sohan are first ostracized, then attacked: She’s raped by several men while he’s beaten by others (including the village priest).
Trying to report the crime, duo is ridiculed and misled by authorities. Nonetheless, they continue to press for justice, aided by the horrified Shobha. Her efforts bring media attention, as well as the muscle of New Delhi feminists.
The high-caste, old-boy network ultimately prevails: All five defendants are acquitted. Epilogue scroll says the real-life heroine remains an activist in her native village and is still appealing the court decision.
Handsome widescreen production boasts solid lead perfs and a steady, weighted pace that resists excess melodramatics. Nonetheless, nearly all figures save Sanwari, Sohan and Shobha are one-dimensional, with primary villains striking various mustache-twirling, Simon Legree-type postures. Characterization of corrupt village cop as a panties-sniffing perv is a bit much, while big-city feminists are viewed as privileged grand dames.
Catering to offshore auds, pic adds a somewhat gratuitous framing device in which a glib, glam English journalist (Laila Rouass) and her New Delhi contact/squeeze (Rahul Khanna) “research” this story some years later, explaining social customs, etc., en route.
Usual song score is deployed as soundtrack-only commentary until final credit crawl, when Sanwari sings an appropriately defiant theme (“Sisters, we have to wake up at last!”) on-camera amid dancers.
Tech aspects are accomplished.