I did it! I watched a Tamil movie! For the first time in ages. Tamil movie, hard Hindi film last week, my brain is getting all kinds of a work out.
Well, this was interesting! A movie with an entirely female cast. And that wasn’t even the main point of it! In my “feminist film criticism” post I talked about how female presence is far more common in Indian films than American. It’s unusual and a novelty to have an all female caste in this film, but that’s not actually what the film is about, it isn’t showing us a terribly new setting or character types or anything, this is a story we have seen variations of before, it’s just that this time all the main characters half to be women for the mystery to work, for the message to come across.
This is a Priyadarshan movie, so it will shock you not at all to learn that the script idea came from a different language film industry and he just rewrote it for a new audience. In this case, Marathi to Tamil. But this is also one of those Priyadarsha rewrite/redoes that I think he deserves some credit for. Taking a large cast, a large female cast, is risky. And he embedded some really interesting commentary on women in society, particularly within one amazing song sequence. And the cast he chose is wonderful, Tabu and Shweta Menon and Mita Vashisht as the older generation, Jyothika leading the younger. Jyothika is the biggest name among the youth, but her co-star is yet another Mukherjee-Samarth cousin! Sharbani Mukherjee, child of a Mukherjee brother, so related to Kajol and Rani through their fathers. That’s interesting! Well, to me.
This is one of those movies where it really falls apart with the execution. The sound mixing in particular is dreadful. It’s a thriller, so the women spend a lot of time running and gasping and running some more. Only instead of just seeing them run, maybe with some light “tingle tingle” music, we get “gasp gasp GASP” like it is a sex scene instead of a chase scene. That’s what it feels like, like they are mixing in female gasping because they can only think of the women leads with that kind of sound effect. In the same way, so much of the action is panicked flailing and awkward running instead of just regular running. And there is so much hair! Even while terrified and on the run, big loose hair flying around.
But that’s just the superficials, the script does not treat the women like that at all. They are people, not just women-as-strong-as-men, but people who are people. They are still women in a patriarchal society with all the dangers that entails and weaknesses it trains into you, but they are also people who have hopes and dreams and plans and abilities outside of that patriarchal world. And relationships outside of that patriarchal world, which is what landed it in Pride week.
This film takes place in a world of women. Aunt and niece, mother and daughter, teacher and student, all of these relationships matter. And at the center of it is the relationship between two young female friends, complete with compliments and arguments and gestures of love. It could be a close female friendship, it could be more than that, the film doesn’t judge it either way. I’d love it if this was a straight up film about female college sweethearts, but I’m happy with this too, just being a film about two young women whose friendship is the most important relationship in their lives.
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This is a movie that tricks us over and over again, every time we think we know what it is. It starts out looking like yet another fun college film, a group of girls tricks the hostel matron into letting them call over their friend Sharbana so they can surprise her with a birthday party. Jyothika leads the celebration. She is the confident risk taking fun one, Sharbana is the sweet kind good one. Their friendship has an enemy, Ishita Arun. She is the richest girl in school, getting money from overseas from her family, and she has her own group of friends to support her. Sharbana runs against Ishita for head girl and loses, thanks to the birthday party demerit. Jyothika is angry and gets angrier when Ishita starts making their lives hard by enforcing the rules. She sneaks in and cuts Ishita’s hair off, sealing their feud.
So, this is fun, right? And if we need more complications, there’s also Sharbana being an heiress with a protective loving aunt and Jyothika having her own tough single mother from the village. Sharbana’s aunt wants her to get married and grow up, Jyothika’s mother wants her to stay tough and make something of herself. Plus there’s the hints that Ishita isn’t as mean as she makes out, is more lonely since her parents left her in India and stayed overseas. I would be perfectly happy with a movie that was all about Sharbana and Jyothika playing pranks on Ishita until they learned to understand each other and eventually graduated and went their separate ways while always keeping their school day friendship in their heart.
But, TWIST! One of Jyothika and Sharbana’s friends has been getting upsetting letters and phone calls, her friends suggest she talk to her parents or the police, she doesn’t want to, hopes it will go away. And then while walking in the street, a man in a passing autorickshaw reaches out and grabs her scarf, drags her behind him, and kills her.
It feels like this should be the rest of the movie. Mourning, changing, solving the mystery, and so on. But again, no. It is just a moment of learning and growing up. And having their world open just a little bit. Jyothika and Sharbana learn that they can be in danger simply because they are women and no one will care what happens to them. And they meet Tabu, the older female detective who becomes their hero and role model. And then the film moves on, this whole incident just became part of the backstory and explanation for their lives.
Now that I think about it, a more traditional film structure might have made this all backstory. Start with the big action scene, then flashback briefly to explain the role of each character in the story, and then move forward. But instead this film puts so much importance on understanding who these young women are and how they think and why that we are brought through it all step by step before the actual “plot” begins.
Jyothika and Sharbana decide that as a measure of their friendship, they will both remain unmarried until they can both marry. Meaning, rich Sharbana will have to wait on poor Jyothika getting to that point. To get Sharbana’s aunt to back off, they invent a fake boyfriend for Sharbana, say that she is in love with him and is waiting to marry him. Her aunt is happy, Jyothika and Sharbana are happy that they have come up with a delay. But then the boyfriend materializes, Sharbana starts getting calls and letters from him. Her aunt is happy and they can’t admit the truth or go to her for help. They are scared because of what happened to their friend. So Sharbana and Jyothika arrange a trap, invite the fake boyfriend to their room in the girl’s hostel and plan to scare him into leaving them alone. Only it goes wrong, and he is shot. Not by the guns that they brought to scare him but by some third person. Only, the girls are sure they won’t be believed by the police and so hide their crime and later go on the run.
All of this makes so much sense based on what we already know! We saw how close Jyothika and Sharbana are, how much their friendship means to them, we can understand why they do not want to lose that in marriage. We saw that Sharbana’s aunt loves her but also sincerely believes she should be married and so a fake boyfriend is a good tool of delay. We saw the girls’ previous experience with violence against women which would lead them to be overly nervous about letters and phone calls from a stranger. And we saw their previous experience with the police (the investigation of their friend’s murder) which would make them aware of the complexities of an investigation, that it isn’t as simple as just telling the truth and not fearing the consequences.
The aunt character is one of the most fascinating to me. Played by Lakshmi, one of my favorite older woman actors. She is the only woman in the film who has no fear of men. In her mind, marriage can only be a good thing for Sharbana. And Sharbana knew that she could invent any boyfriend and Lakshmi would approve, because any man is a good man. Finally, we learn at the end that Lakshmi had arranged for the fake boyfriend to appear. She asked a random acquaintance to play the role, thinking to gently tease the girls into telling the truth. It never occurred to her that Sharbana and Jyothika would find the idea of a strange man calling and writing them deeply terrifying, or that this strange man might end up being a threat to them. Lakshmi was blind not just to the danger inherent in men, but to the deep fear women can hold for them.
The young girls we see are torn between Lakshmi’s view (marriage is good, men are trustworthy, nothing bad will happen) and Tabu’s (men will kill you, hurt you, it is up to us to rise and use our strength to defend ourselves). The concept of “men” has not even entered their world at the start of the film (as we can see by the all female cast, teachers and students and female guardians). And then it first appears through the stalking and killing of their friend, “men” are still an unknown quantity, but now they are one to be feared as the demons in a fairy story. And Tabu encourages that idea in her interactions with the girls.
After the murder, there is an interesting flip to this idea. While Sharbana and Jyothika are investigated as killers, Tabu and Shweta Menon (side-note for the potential Lesbian reading of this film-they wear uniforms the whole movie and look HOT! In a very “for the female gaze of women who like women” kind of way) simultaneously investigate them and protect them from the greater male world. They are arrested, but Tabu is careful to cover their faces and stops the male photographer who takes their photograph. And every police officer involved in the investigation is also female, they are never left alone with a male policeman. It is women against women, but ultimately still united in protection from men.
Come to think of it, that’s one thing a lot of “all female” movies get wrong. It’s not “women united in hatred towards men”, it is “women united in self-defense against male violence”. What happens in this film comes out of legitimate fear of what men may do.
Which brings me to the reveal. Jyothika and Sharbana were questioned, then went on the run together, looking for potential witness Ishita Arun. They find her, and learn that she is scared too, not angry with them or trying to ruin their lives, she has moved past all of their schoolgirl fighting once she entered the real world of fear. And they learn that she is afraid of Tabu, the hero policewoman they all admire, because she is the one who committed the murder.
Tabu finds the three girls together and they are scared of her, and we the audience are scared for them. But we needn’t be. Tabu, even to save her own life, is incapable of harming a fellow woman, of becoming the victimizer instead of the victim. Her instinct is protection, not anger or selfishness. That is why she killed, the murder victim was a rapist who befriended her little sister and tricked her and then brought his friends to rape her and escaped justice.
Lakshmi, Sharbana’s innocent aunt, thought this was a “nice” man because she instinctively trusts men. Sharbana and Jyothika were afraid of him. And they were right to be afraid. That is the lesson of the film, that the sweet older woman who thought she could play a harmless trick on her niece and get her married and happy, in fact lead a rapist to her. That Jyothika and Sharbana’s wish to remain unmarried and free and happy, and instinct to protect themselves and fear men, was understandable and correct. Even Tabu’s murder of the man was correct, she killed him just as he was about to find two more victims. The world of women is the only safe world.