What a fascinating movie! First, it was released in theaters and online almost simultaneously, which I always find fascinating. And second, it was really really good!
One of the most frustrating things for people who identify as “progressive” or “liberal” or whatever is the current phrase meaning “people who want the world to move forward instead of back” is this lag time on the people who identify as “conservative” or “traditional” or whatever is the current term for “people who want the world to move backwards instead of forward” realizing that the world HAS moved forward! They are just living in a fantasy that it hasn’t.
This comes up in ways big and small, for instance inflation. The minimum wage in America is terribly low, and any time there is a discussion about raising it, the argument always comes back to “when I was young, I lived on only half that”. Well, yeah! When you were young, money had more value. The world has moved forward, money is different now, it isn’t what your imagination is telling you. This was also the entire point of my “box office through the years” series, that the box office for Indian film, when adjusted for inflation, has been on a steady decline not a rise.
And that is what this movie is confronting. That all of our debate and discussion and everything else over how the world “should” be, is ignoring that the world is already different, while we have been talking about it, it has changed. And you need to deal with the new reality, not the old one.
It’s not a coincidence that the same people who could come up with this script were also smart enough to go for a theatrical and online release. That is the world today, if people want to see a movie in theaters, they will. If they don’t, they will wait a few weeks (or days if they get it illegally) and watch it streaming. The legal availability of streaming has no effect on audience willingness to go to a movie theater, and that is the reality of the present, rather than the past in which most film producers are still living.
This is a film about people struggling with out dated conflicts and concerns, while our titular heroine lives in the real world, the present, in which all those conflicts and concerns have been long since resolved. And everything in how it is presented supports that the film itself also lives in the real world, a digital release, a flexible narrative structure, a mixture of experienced and newcomer actors, and every part of the mise-en-scene, the sets and the costumes and just everything. It felt like a film that embraced the messy reality of the present day instead of running from it.
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We start with a seemingly traditional opening. The police are dragging out a “terrorist”, the media is crowding around, it is all very exciting. We are ready for a police heroics kind of movie, the evil terrorist and the good policeman. And then we see a small female hand reaching out and a voice saying “Emily”. A woman? A woman calling for another woman? This is very strange!
And suddenly we are in flashback. Similar to the usual hero’s origin kind of flashback, babyhood with loving parents, the arrival of a younger brother, a happy spoiled childhood in the country, a move to the city, then moments of high school, and college. Only, it’s a woman! That is, a little girl who becomes a teenage girl who becomes a woman. And in addition that change, there is a slight change to the manner in which these flashes are shown. As, truly, flashes. Not significant moments necessarily, but just moments of childhood, the random memory fragments that for some reason stick with you. There is also a change in the details of the content. Our heroine is a sweet little girl who makes her father quit smoking. And a doting big sister. But then she hits high school and another girl asks for a spare sanitary napkin in the bathroom and, she laughs at her, and then tells are her friends and they all laugh. She goes to college and sometimes does poorly on tests. She makes a new friend who is a little wild, drinks and giggles about boys. She is a regular young woman, in other words, with all the weaknesses and strengths of a regular young woman. Not the saintly perfect woman, or the spicy bad girl type. Or a female version of the male hero, perfect and brave and moral. This is something different.
And then things start moving very rapidly with plot points missing. She gets sick, throws up in school, and then her family is angry with her, her little brother won’t even wish her happy birthday, she goes to her friends house, the cool friend with the single father. And then suddenly she is in a new place and “Emily”, Anjali Varadhan, is coming in to introduce herself, clearly a Hijra of a slightly lower class than our spoiled college educated middle-class, and yet now they are living in the same place. And then we see our heroine (played by Aditi Balan) learn her father is sick, and go to her supervisor to ask for money, get the money, be refused by her little brother, and then take the money and go traveling with her friend Anjali. They visit a beautiful waterfall, and then there are flashes of Aditi doing yoga with a guru while Anjali waits outside, and finally Aditi joining her in a rickshaw outside and crying. And after all of this, we hit the brakes and see a TV producer watching footage and being told that Anjali is waiting outside and wants to see him and won’t leave.
This structure of the film is very traditional and untraditional at the same time. The flashback establishing context, the meat of the film very slow and straightforward, and then epilogue. But the content of these sections is untraditional, and the particular way they play out is as well. The flashback section is really truly “flashes”, we can barely follow what is happening. And the meat of the film is almost in real time, so slow it is agonizing. And then, finally, the epilogue feels like a dream. Slow and fast at the same time, real and unreal.
The meat of the film is Aditi being invited on this confrontation TV show. The show is hosted by Lakshmi Gopalswami, which is brilliant casting, one of the few established stars in the film. While the cast of new actors feels modern and real and everything, the few older experienced familiar actors feel like they are living in a different world. Which is the point, because they are. Lakshmi and her show is about confrontation, about picking a side, about debating the changing face of India. Which is fake and out of date, because India has changed, and there are no more “sides” any more, that’s not how things are solved.
The plan by these out of date TV producers is to have Aditi on the show, then bring in the 3 men she says attacked her, confront them with what they have done wrong, then switch and confront Aditi for being promiscuous and inviting it, get the two sides to fight, end the fight, and then give a little lesson to the TV audience. So the standard sort of conflict for the sake of conflict which doesn’t actually help or improve anything.
But in the middle of this, Aditi changes it all by pulling out files and telling the men that she wanted to talk to them and they wouldn’t take her calls, so she had to use the TV show. She has AIDs and they all need to get tested.
This is a brilliant twist! In so many ways. Oh, but first I have to explain the men. The first was her friend’s father, after her family threw her out she went to stay with her friend and her father attacked her. Second was the politician who ran the NGO where she and her friend Anjali met. He forced her to have sex in order to get the money she needed. And third was the religious Guru she went to seeking peace who hypnotized her and soothed her and then had sex with her. So Aditi was attacked by a father figure, a politician, and a religious figure. All of the forces that have power over women. All the people she was supposed to be able to trust.
And the AIDs reveal suddenly gives her back the power. This has always been the truth of sexually transmitted diseases, before AIDs there was syphilis, and before that I am sure there was something else. Sex with someone who isn’t your wife, or the sweet young woman down the road, gives you the risk of illness. And yet, men are so fooled by their own power and privilege that they forget they are just human and can be hurt.
It also gives her power in this strange time warp of a place. Everyone around is talking about female honor and how she should have somehow protected herself from being raped and so on, and she cuts through all of that garbage with some highly concentrated reality. Reality that they immediately try to turn back into garbage.
The producer decides to change the show, now they will build tension about whether any of the men will test positive. And turn it to blame Aditi again for exposing them. This time, Aditi doesn’t have a way to cut through all this nonsense, not a real way, so she has to invent one. She pulls a gun.
That was the “terrorism” from the beginning, one sick young woman with a gun. And just like the “scary” terror turns out to be nothing, so does the “hostage situation”. Half the people there, the crew and the host and the producers, don’t even seem to be scared. More slightly irritated at this distraction. And Aditi doesn’t seem angry most of the time either. She just wants to play. Like the young woman she is. She wants to play charades and have food and drink and laugh, for just a little while. And then she lets them go.
(A young woman who never really got a chance to rebel, to finish the growing up that is begun in this earlier song)
The police outside, they think they are in control too. Because, again, they are stuck in the past. Just being police with their guns and radios and all doesn’t mean they are in charge. Aditi knows the truth, knows that she is so sick nothing else matters. She is arrested, and almost immediately released. The police interrogation scenes that frame the middle section are in the end pointless. There is nothing to investigate, nothing to punish. She is sick and that is it.
And now we enter the epilogue. It is all fast and slow at the same time. Long days of coughing and getting weaker and weaker. Punctuated by clear moments of memory, everything slowing down a moment before speeding up again.
Before it all comes together at the end. In the middle of the hostage situation, Aditi asked the TV show assistant producer to tell the plot of the film he wants to make. His film is about a village headman who is shamed and banished. He goes to live in the forest. And then, as he is dying, he writes a letter about what everyone meant to him and sends it to the village. A young man of the village reads the letter, remembers every good thing that the village headman did in his life, and gets everyone else together. They all remember the good things. He hires a bus and they go out to the forest and surprise the headman and spend the night laughing and talking together and it is all happy.
And Aditi laughs and laughs at him. This is a ridiculous story. Who lives in a village any more? Who cares about a headman? And she is right. It is in the middle of many other moments like this in the hostage situation and I thought it wouldn’t come back again, but it does. It is in fact the heart of the film.
In old Tamil society, and old Tamil films, there were villages and noble but flawed old men and that was what it was about. But that was a long time ago. Today most people live in the cities and they are flawed in the cities, and a young woman dying of AIDs is just as important as an old village headman.
And so the end of this film is Aditi going to live out the end of her life in the country. And making a video, not a perfect poetic video but a wandering confused sad lost little girl video, and sending it to all the people in her life as a good-bye. And in response our TV producer decides to hire a bus and take everyone to find her. Everyone in her family, her friends, everyone from the TV show, everyone. Good or bad, they were a part of her life, and at the end of it, that’s all she wants, to live a little longer, to feel remembered, to feel like her life had meaning and purpose and effect on people.
The title of the film is “Aruvi”, but the perspective is that young TV producer. He is learning to let go of the village headman, of the angry conversations for the TV cameras, to accept that the story he should tell is of this young woman, that her story is as worth telling as anyone else’s, even if she was a spoiled brat in high school, and slept with a man for money, and her best friend is a Hijra. Because she is real and she is alive and therefore she matters.
One more final note that I didn’t find a place to put anywhere else. Aditi’s AIDs was not sexually transmitted. There are reasons for that, to make it clear that her story really is average, didn’t even have a romantic sexual moment in it, just a random accident. And to make it frustrating when her family doesn’t believe her and throws her out. She never had control over any of it.
But I am a little concerned because the idea that you can get AIDs from a traffic accident, or drinking blood in a drink is a bit dangerous. Not for the people who might be more cautious about these safety concerns, that’s fine. But for people who are currently HIV positive and need to find jobs. Heck, need to find a place to live, to be able to walk down the street, to do anything! I know you can get AIDs in those ways, but my understanding is that it is very very unlikely and some basic precautions on the part of HIV positive people are enough to prevent such occurrences. But I think I will let it go because the whole rest of the film is a defense to that idea, we see Aditi and Anjali (both positive) going through the world and not infecting anyone. Including the 3 men who slept with Aditi. Which is absolutely possible, and also satisfying narratively, that it keeps the disease about our heroine instead of these three random men stealing it.