I’ve been informed that this movie is getting crazy buzz, like “best film of the decade” buzz. Huh. I just don’t see it. It’s good, but it also has major flaws. If you saw it and want some help following the plots, or if you aren’t able to see it but want to know what happens, you can read this review. If you want to go in without knowing what will happen, you can read my other review. Or I guess if you didn’t like this movie, you should also read this review and see if I can articulate what bothered you, if perhaps it is the same thing that bothered me.
We open with a black screen and the sound of a phone conversation, Samantha Ruth Prabhu is talking to her ex-boyfriend, saying she is worried because he sounds sad, inviting him to come over and let her “cheer him up”. And then the first visual of the film is Samantha having sex (fully clothed, as you do). She finishes and asks her ex why he is worried, he says he borrowed money from mobsters for his business. She suggests going again since he isn’t relaxed yet. And then she looks down and sees he has died. And hears her husband arriving outside. We cut away at this point, and then cut back to find her husband Fahadh coming home and the body is hidden. Until the neighbors stop by and Fahadh offers them a cold drink and finds the body in the fridge. Samantha tells him the truth, that it is her old boyfriend who she hasn’t seen since their wedding, she invited him to come over and have sex, and then he died. Fahadh is furious but suggests they hide the body together to save face so they don’t have to explain what her ex was doing at their apartment, and then get a divorce. Samantha agrees. They get the body out of the apartment hidden in a mattress and then put it in his car, planning to drive the car somewhere with the body and leave it. While moving around, they start to talk honestly about what was wrong with their marriage and slowly come closer together. But then they get a call, a scuzzy police officer has been following them. He has video of them with the body. He wants Samantha to sleep with him in return for his silence. Fahadh encourages her to do it, Samantha doesn’t want to, Fahadh has a change of heart and suggests that they just string the cop along until they get something on him. But then the cop changes the plan, says Samantha has to sleep with him right then, in the abandoned warehouse. He pulls out his phone to film it, Fahadh is handcuffed to the car yelling for him to stop, and then a TV comes out of nowhere and hits the cop on the head and kills him. Fahadh and Samantha leave the cop and the other body together in the car, and walk away, indicating that they will stay married and make it work.
Second story, is about 5 dumb young men. They are getting together to eat snacks and watch porn. Only the first movie they put in, one of them freaks out because the lead actress is his mother. He breaks the TV and then runs off, furious at his mother, and one of his friends follows him. The other 3 kids freak out about the broken TV and go off to talk to the local goon and get a job to raise money to buy a new TV. They mess up the job, and the goon chases them and they end up breaking his TV too. They go to the local rich man’s house, planning to sneak in and steal money from his drawer. They succeed, but it is demonetized notes and they have to go back. They are caught by his daughter who reveals herself to be an alien. She offers them all the money they need, but wants to keep one of the boys as her companion. He agrees, but he has responsibilities. So she uses her powers to split him in two, one stays with her and she tells him about her mission to observe earth and wait for the people of earth to discover they are all one thing. The other goes with his friends to watch a porno in theaters that opens with a fake doctor talking about how everything is connected, and therefore we should all have sex. Which is the very end of the film.
Third story, about a priest, Mysskin. He survived the Tsunami by holding on to a rock that turned out to be a statue of Jesus and it made him believe in miracles. He left his family and founded a small church. At the start of the film he is in the middle of a crisis of faith. But then he gets a call that his son was injured in an accident. His son is the young man who recognized his mother in the porn movie. He rushed home angry with her and wanting to kill her, grabbed an ice pick and ran towards her, but tripped and fell and impaled himself. His mother Ramya Krishnan is desperate for the money to pay the hospital for his operation, his father Mysskin wants to pray over him and save him that way. The parents fight and Ramya brings in a local politician to help her get the boy back and to the hospital. Mysskin gets angry at the Jesus statue, hits it and declares it is “just a rock”. The statue falls over and cracks and diamonds fall out. He uses the diamonds to pay for his son’s operation. His story ends with him confronting his crisis of faith, did God put the diamonds in the statue or was rejecting God how his son was saved? Ramya’s story ends with her confronting her son and refusing to apologize for being in porn, pointing out that he watches the movies along with millions of other people. She did it because it was a job, and he needs to understand that and accept it.
Fourth story, the best story, about Vijay Sethupathi, a Hijra, and his son. His 6 year old son and his wife and his parents and his in-laws are all waiting for him to return after 6 years away. His son is especially excited. He finally arrives and steps out of his taxi cab to reveal he is now a Hijra. Her family is shocked and stunned, but her son does not care, is just excited to meet his father. She offers to take her son to school, but on the way they are stopped by a police officer who finds them using a bathroom together. She is taken to the police station and the corrupt inspector forces her to perform oral sex. She is released, shaken, and reunited with her son. He takes her to his school, where the guard refuses to let her in. She goes across the street to a travel agency and books a ticket back to Bombay. She starts walking her son home, giving him final lessons before saying good-bye, but he suddenly disappears. She searches the marketplace for him, then goes back to the police and begs for help. The corrupt inspector laughs at her and takes off her wig, and she is finally infuriated, attacks him and half a dozen police officers are not enough to hold her back, she curses him with death, then takes her wig back and leaves. In a flashback from Mysskin’s story, we see that after that she went to the underground tunnels in misery and the priest met her. She confessed to him that she was afraid this was her punishment for unknowingly transporting two street children to a gang that blinded and crippled them in order to make them better beggers. She also confessed that she was saved from the Tsunami too, which is what set off the Mysskin’s crisis of faith. In the tunnels, she is found by the same police officer who initially arrested her who volunteers to help her look, and suggests the first place to go is back to her home in case her son made his way there. She goes back home and her son is waiting, he explains he saw the ticket she bought to Bombay and was teaching her a lesson, the misery she felt not knowing where he was for a few hours is the same misery her family felt not knowing where she was for 6 years. She must promise never to leave them again. Vijay agrees to stay and the last shot we see is of her comfortably and happily talking to her wife while her son plays in the background.
The more I think about this movie, even just writing out the plot descriptions above, the less impressed I am by it. Vijay’s story is by far the best, and I love the little touches like the aging constable who first arrests her turning out to be the most sympathetic police officer. When she says she doesn’t want to go back to her family house with a police officer the first day she arrives, it will embarrass her, he goes to change into plain clothes. He searches her out after she is thrown out of the police station to help her search for her son. Kindness can appear in unexpected places. And even the kindest person can still be trapped by society, the police officer has to bring her in to the station because she does not have ID or any way of proving she is the boy’s father, and because she had to go with him to the public men’s room. If there was a separate bathroom available, or if she could have legal ID, or even just felt able to stay with her family and be a recognized part of them, than the police officer would not be so trapped. All of this is lovely and good. And Vijay’s performance is of course excellent. And I especially like that it ends with her and her wife happily talking together, showing that whatever they had between each other, it is still there and they are still happy to be reunited.
But this story, the more I sit with it, disturbs me a bit in that it only seems to consider Vijay’s situation as a woman because she used to be a man. And because of how she relates to the men around her. There is a growing body of work discussing the problem of trans stories in this way, that trans women bring with them the confidence and privilege they enjoyed from their lives as men. And perhaps that the male storytellers can relate better to their stories because they used to be seen as men, than they can to stories of women who were born in female bodies. Yes, trans women have terrible problems. But over the course of Vijay’s entire story, we never see her interact with a woman, not even her wife until the very end, and never with her mother. The focus is on the parent-son relationship, and her relationship to all the men around her from the snack shop man she convinces to give her a donation, to the corrupt police officer, to the good police officer, even to the priest. At a certain point it crosses from “reflecting the reality of society that only men will be in public spaces and interact with Hijras” to “a creator who does not see the women in the world as women, unless he thinks of them as women who used to be men”. None of this takes away from so many things that this story does well, but I also don’t see it as the end all-be all story of a Hijra’s experiences. A large part of the transsexual/Hijra experience is interactions within the community of other transsexuals/Hijras, and we never see that, and interactions with women who were born into female bodies, and we never really see that either. Imagine how different this tale would be if it was a story of a young girl who is eager to meet her father for the first time. Or if the sympathetic police officer was an older female constable instead of a male one.
That same problem echoes through all the stories. I appreciate that the film attempts to address gender issues, but I do not think it fully succeeds because the filmmakers still seem to be looking at women as the “other”, trying to explain them to the audience instead of thinking of the audience as half made-up as women. The treatment of Samantha’s character bothers me more and more as I think about it.
The groundbreaking part of Samantha’s character is supposed to be that she has sex with her ex-boyfriend and the narrative never really punishes her for it. Only, the problem is, I am never clear on if she desired that sex. She is still treated as a non-sexual being, in an odd way. Over and over again, she repeats that she had sex with him to comfort him. Towards the end of the film she says the line that I know I am supposed to find groundbreaking, “I wanted to make him feel better, he isn’t a child that I could just give some candy”. This is a really gross way to look at sex. That it is a gift a woman gives a man because she loves him. She gets nothing from it herself. Even in the opening scene, we hear Samantha say she is worried about her ex because he sounds so sad and insist that he come over so she can “comfort” him. The film never questions this either, at least not that I saw, Samantha acts as a female fantasy providing warm undemanding sex to a man when he feels bad. Samantha is never punished for this sex, yes, but I am not sure if the narrative is accurately describing what sex is, if she is avoiding punishment for her female desires or avoiding punishment for her female generosity and kindness.
Later in the film, she and Fahadh are talking honestly about their marriage and she whispers to him the number of boyfriends she had before marriage and he looks shocked. This is followed by the scene where she expects him to sleep with the police officer in order to protect them from prosecution. I feel like the movie expects me to be on Fahadh’s side, to think “well, if a woman had many boyfriends and was willing to sleep with them, why not with the police officer?” The film then builds on the horror, lets us see Samantha crying and miserable and Fahadh slowly coming around to thinking this unacceptable. This sequence goes on and on and ON, far longer than any one scene in any other part of the film. It was torture for me, relating to Samantha, and then became kind of boring because it just lasted so long. But now I think I wasn’t supposed to be relating to Samantha, she had no emotional journey in that sequence, she went from fearing rape to continuing to fear rape. But Fahadh had the journey, I was supposed to be relating to him, starting out thinking “well, if she slept with her boyfriends, what’s the difference?” and slowly coming around to sympathizing with her distress.
Not only can I not relate to Fahadh’s emotional journey in this scene, I find it quite gross that the director thought I would. But then, with the understanding the film had of female desire, I suppose it makes sense. Women agree to have sex as a gift they give men they care about. Samantha gave sex to her boyfriends when they needed it, what is the difference between giving sex to this police officer? It’s not so much a lack of understanding of consent, as a lack of understanding of desire. A woman does not “give” sex like some kind of transaction, she can desire and initiate herself, she can receive sexual pleasure herself, the man has to do some of the work too. Sex with this police officer would not be much different from sex with her boyfriend as we saw at the beginning, because in both cases it is all about the man and not about her. And that just tells me that this filmmaker has no idea what truly making love is like, and expects his audience to think the same as he does and not understand why Samantha doesn’t want to do it. Most of all, I do not see how a woman could laugh off and reunite with her husband after he was about to force her to have sex with another man, and the film suggests that would happen.
This same male desire focused attitude is present in how Ramya Krishnan’s story is presented. She is a woman who did pornography in her past. But rather than allow her to speak for herself about that experience, it is only seen through the eyes of the men around her. Her husband tried to kill himself when he found out, her son tries to kill her. And the film sympathizes with both these poor men and their suffering and shame. Ramya is not allowed to speak for herself until the very end, and only then after having established herself as a divine mother, fiercely devoted to her son and willing to do whatever it takes to save him. If she had not had the opportunity to prove herself, would the film expect the audience to forgive her? Would her son forgive her? Even her speech in defense of herself looks outward towards the male gaze, saying that she should not be shamed because someone has to make the porn for men to be able to enjoy it. Her speech does not say “I had sex voluntarily in order to make money for my survival, it is wrong that there was no other way for me to earn an income, but it is not my fault that society pushed me to this position”. It is supposed to be about her, but it isn’t really, it is just about the men watching her again.
And this whole use of women as a magical other being reaches its zenith in the culmination of the story of the 3 young men trying to make money for a TV. This story is one of my favorites because the men are described so perfectly and accurately in all their stupidity. But then at the very end, they run into the most magical of all Manic Pixie Dream Girls, an alien who unlimited powers who is disguised as a woman. I disapprove of this plot twist in general, it is just too off the wall and ruins the grounded tone of the film, and frankly feels lazy. But I especially disapprove of it as a symptom of how the film treats all the women in it, except for Vijay. They are all magical creatures put here to fix the problems of men. Samantha has sex so men can feel better. Ramya does porn so men can feel better. And now this alien creates money and uses her powers so that these 3 stupid young men can have better lives.
There are a lot of things this film does well. The visuals, the editing, the camera work, it is all phenomenal. And as I was watching it and in the afterglow of watching it, all of that visual beauty swept me away. If I wrote this review within a few hours of seeing the film, it would be glowing. But it’s been 3 days now, and the more I sit with this movie, the more I have a bitter aftertaste in my mouth. All the visual and narrative sparkle, all the great performances, they are in service of covering up an ugliness at the core of it all.
It’s not just that I am disturbed as a feminist, or as a woman, by how these characters and stories play out. It ruins the stories themselves, to have these massive empty parts at the center of them. Fahadh’s character has great monologues, but he has no one to act against, because Samantha’s character is a blank. Vijay’s character has no backstory, because that would include his fellow Hijras and his wife, and those people are invisible to the director. The Alien woman has a long monologue and many powers, but no clear motivation for anything she does. And we never learn exactly what Ramya’s experiences were doing pornography, or her feelings about her son and husband both blaming her for doing it, her character is simply the saintly suffering mother and is boring to watch. I feel no need to rewatch this film, I have processed the visual fireworks already, and there is nothing left without them, no heart to it.
It doesn’t have to be an either-or situation. Early on the film shows a poster for Kill Bill, a little nod to the Tarantino influences. I have watched Kill Bill more times than I can count, and there is something real there, under all the pastiche and genre switching, the characters have a goal to them and a heart. The same is true of Pulp Fiction (even more of an obvious influence than Kill Bill). Closer to this film, I can also think of Vijay’s last movie I saw in theaters, Vikram-Vedha, with the jumping back and forth between stories and timelines. That managed a complex narrative, while still having a firm grasp of character and a moral message. Or Awe, which I just watched, which had its own flaws but at least gave me some characters to root for and left me with a warm feeling instead of an ugliness. Angamaly Diaries, combined black comedy and male coming of age, without needing to sell out its female characters. You do not have to choose between intellect and heart, between visual and surface and emotional depth. The film should always serve its characters and story, not the story serving the film.