Well, this was an uneven movie! As a movie as a whole, it wasn’t perfect. But there were certain sections that were perfect. And, you know, trigger warning for people who are worn out dealing with gender issues. You can read the review and have a helpful supportive discussion here, but maybe don’t force yourself to watch the movie? Put it in the Article 15 pile.
This is a movie about an acid attack survivor. That isn’t a spoiler, it was in the poster. And before talking about the specifics of the movie, I want to think about what an acid attack means. It’s not just one moment in time, it happens to particular women (almost always women) for particular reasons that go back to their whole life.
Acid attacks are almost always on the face. Have you noticed that? We don’t even think about it, we just accept that of course the acid is thrown on the face. But why? It burns and causes horrible damage no matter where it lands. Why isn’t it usually thrown on hands, making a woman unable to care for herself as her skin fuses together? Or on feet, so she cannot run? Or on her back, where it will have the largest target and be simplest to hit?
More than that, the “sad story” of the acid attack usually focuses on the damage to the face. It’s not about the incredible pain, the disabilities that can result, or even the psychological pain of being hated to such a degree. It’s “look at her face! Look at what it was before and what it is now!”
A woman’s sexual power is seen as being held in two locations, her vagina and her face. An acid attack comes from the same anger and carries the same message as a rape. “You have hurt me, you have made me feel bad, I resent your power over me, and so I am going to attack what I see as your source of power and take it away.” As with rape, there is a second message in the way the survivor is treated. If a woman is told that, after an acid attack destroys her face or a rape destroys her “purity”, that she truly is destroyed, it confirms that this was her only value. She is nothing but a face and a vagina. She must be hidden away to bemoan her fate (along with her weeping family) for the rest of her life.
An acid attack or a rape is, of course, a truly terrible thing from which a woman will never fully heal. But that message must be tempered with the lesson that life goes on, there is more to her than the parts that were broken, she herself is not broken, her innate inner spirit is more than any physical pain. And that is what this film achieves.
It does it in a somewhat awkward way. Really, the last third of the film is just terribly cheesy and over dramatic. But the central point is important, our heroine was someone before the attack and she continues to be that same person afterwards. That’s how she wins.
The kind of targeted violence of an acid attack often hits the strongest women, and that is not a coincidence. It is because of their strength that men want to tear them down. Beautiful, sure, they might be extra beautiful. But also outspoken, confident, in some way seen as an offense to men because of their very existence. It is the same reason male trolls attack women online, or (sometimes) the reason why men will harass a female co-worker in the office. She is special, she is better than them, and it makes them uncomfortable, challenges their world view, so they must tear her down.
This movie shows the attack as a continuation of a long hard specific road that our heroine has taken, the way her attempts to live her life and be herself are a threat to others around her. And it shows that the attack fails, because she refuses to let it stop her. More importantly, the people around her refuse to let it stop her. That’s what matters most, that her friends and family and co-workers refuse to say that, because her face is damaged, she is no longer the person she was. That her only value was in her beauty. Again, in a very cheesy way, but it is still a good message.
Our heroine has one female friend, but the strongest people in her life are men. Like Dangal, this is a film that targets men slightly more than women, tells them how they should be since, ultimately, they are the ones who have the most power. Parvathy playing our heroine is wonderful (that goes without saying), capturing the slight uncertainty and hidden fragility combined with strength. Siddique is lovely, warm and caring and concerned and proud, as her father. Asif Ali as the “villain” has the hardest part, at certain points we even feel a little sorry for him before switching back to hate. And then there is Tovino, playing the plot contrivance perfect man. He’s fine, but his character is ridiculous, so it’s not an easy play. Anarkali Marikar as our heroine’s closest female friend does what she can with her small role.
Overall the quality of filming is solid but not spectacular. That’s fine, this film is about the story more than the appearance. And the story unfolds carefully and correctly. Well, until the last third which is….not believable.
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Our heroine Parvathy has wanted to be a pilot since she was in school and took a plane ride for the first time. Her father Siddique is excited to support her dreams, choosing to forgo retirement so he can help pay for her training program just as he paid for her sister’s wedding. But Parvathy’s long term boyfriend Asif Ali is not happy for her, focused on his own problems getting a job. Parvathy goes off to training and excels in the program, and also enjoys the freedom to go out with friends and do things without getting permission from Asif. Asif surprises her at school and yells at her for being out with her friends, she stands up for herself and breaks up with him. The next morning he is waiting outside the gate and throws acid on her. After the attack, everyone (family, friends, the school) expects her to continue her training. But the peripheral vision in one eye is damaged, she can’t be a pilot. Her father files a case against Asif and Parvathy testifies against him but he is still released on bail because it is just “her word”. Parvathy is beginning to sink into depression when Anarkali, her friend from pilot training, invites her to visit her. On the flight there, she bumps into Tovino Thomas, a vice president in the airline where she was training. He recognizes her from her training and is sincerely sympathetic to her situation, she challenges him to make her a flight attendant so she can still fly. Tovino goes up against the board and convinces them to accept her as a flight attendant, Parvathy becomes a state wide symbol of endurance. But on one of her first flights, Asif is a passenger and asks again for her to withdraw her case, becoming aggressive about it. She throws water in his face, he files a complaint, she refuses to apologize and is fired. And then, on her second to last flight as a flight attendant, the pilot collapses!!!!! The co-pilot has never flown before!!!! WHO CAN HELP????? Parvathy, despite her impaired vision, is talked through a landing by her flight teacher (coincidentally now working air traffic control). She’s still fired though. On her last flight, she is given a round of applause and learns that most of the people there are survivors or relatives of survivors of her previous flight where she safely landed the plane. THE END
You see what I mean about the cheesiness? We have this sensitive story of a girl stuck in a bad relationship who is “punished” for ending it by getting acid thrown in her face. And then we also have World’s Worst Airline who makes a big deal about hiring an acid attack survivor and then doesn’t think The Public will understand when she throws water on the guy who attacked her. Scratch that, what the heck kind of airline sells a ticket to the attacker/stalker of one of their flight attendants? How did they even end up on the plane together? Oh, and she saves everyone’s lives by landing the plane and then she is STILL FIRED???? That whole last third after she switches to being a flight attendant just veers off into soap opera unbelievable territory.
There is one tiny part of this that I guess is based on my not being from Indian culture. In America, where I am, when I am on a plane, I expect to see some nice middle-aged women who really know what they are doing, a smattering of men, and MAYBE one attractive woman under age 35. Being a flight attendant is a difficult and really good job, high demand and not a lot of turnover. There is a difficult interview process and training program, and once you are trained and experienced, the airline wants to hold on to you and you want to stick with the job (increasing salary levels and benefits as time passes and so on). So, it’s all very competent people in the middle of their careers. A partially trained pilot with facial scarring but no physical disabilities (beyond a slight sight problem) would be an excellent candidate. But in this movie, it was taken as accepted practice that flight attendants are hired based on appearance, and appearance only. No middle-aged woman in poor fitting uniforms casually handling every difficult situation that comes up without breaking a sweat, all pretty young things looking pretty and young and just trained. Really hard for me to get my head around that idea! That this is a job where all that matters (or most of what matters) is appearance. Parvathy being hired was a big news story because of her facial scarring, would there have been the same story if she was simply over 30? Or a man?
Even if I accept that I don’t understand the cultural component of why this is such a big deal, the rest of it is still ridiculous. The reason she has to be fired is because of some vague public pressure around the complaint. And she refuses to post a long thing on her social media accounts apologizing. But weren’t these the same “public” who sympathized when she was hired? It’s not like she threw water on a random passenger (would have kind of been more interesting, if there was just a run of the mill drunk jerk insulting her because of her face, asking what she had “done to deserve it”), this was the guy who scarred her. Who is out on bail for that crime right now. Where the heck is this whole “the world is unfair, now you have to be fired” coming from?
And then it’s all compounded by her heroically landing the plane and STILL being fired. What sort of crazy airline is this that one mild passenger complaint carries more weight than saving hundreds of lives???? I get that they wanted a bittersweet ending, showing how her life is still damaged, but they really needed to think it through a lot more. To my mind simply having her be a flight attendant instead of a pilot is plenty of damage, no need to take the flight attendant part away too. And the plot holes with how they got here are sooooooooo ridiculous! It almost ruins the sane and sensible first half.
Almost, but not quite, because there are still so many good things in this second half. For instance Parvathy’s relationship with Tovino. He bumps into her during training and generally likes her. He really cares about her plight after the attack and tries to get her the flight attendant job not out of pity, but a sense of justice. And they are friends because, again, he really likes her. Culminating in him finally proposing and her gently turning him down because she doesn’t need that complication in her life. Such an important relationship to include, a man who can see past the scarring not because of “love” but just common decency. And who when he does fall in love, she does not feel obligated to accept, she has confidence in herself not to leap at the first (and possibly only) man who offers. That whole journey was very nice.
The journey of Asif from attacker to defendant in court was also nicely handled. And the sequence where I most felt the rape parallels. He is arrested immediately and his family is shamed. But after that first tidy arrest, it hits a long slow period of the court case. The judge pushes for more evidence than simply Parvathy’s word, and is sympathetic when Asif asks to be let out so he can look for work. The prosecutor is practical about it, luck of the draw, some judges are just not going to be fair. And he gives them the option of backing off at this point so they don’t have to go through the drawn out years long process of prosecution. Parvathy opts to stick with it and her father supports her and the prosecutor agrees. All of this could happen the exact same way with a rape case. And the prosecutor would be honorable to offer options and be blunt in both situations. Sometimes it won’t happen like you want it to happen, be prepared for that, and make an informed decision if you want to keep going, no pressure to go either way.
Where it gets really interesting is when Asif’s father comes to talk to Siddique, Parvathy’s father. He acknowledges his son did a terrible thing, but he asks for mercy, why ruin his entire life? He seems to be a nice kind man, but at the same time he is going to talk to Siddique about this, assuming it is Siddique’s decision and not Parvathy’s because in his world, the men are always in control. Siddique doesn’t play that game, he says it is up to Parvathy. And Parvathy really doesn’t play that game, when Asif’s father tries to get her to feel pity, she simply faces him and reveals the scarring on her face. And he is shamed and leaves. That’s one advantage of acid attack victims over rape victims, their scarring is visible to the world and impossible to deny.
We end with Asif killing himself after learning he will probably go to jail for a minimum of 5 years. A fascinating ending. It is, to me, not because Asif feels bad about what he has done. It is because he can’t face 5 years in jail, and feels bad for the shame be brought on his family. And contrast that with Parvathy, who faced a life time of scarring and unimaginable pain for a short time. Who lost the one dream of her life. Whose scars will always be a permanent blot on her family. And who picked herself up and kept going. Asif’s suicide reads, to me, not as a sacrifice but as yet another moment of cowardice. Or maybe as punishment for being a small selfish man with no friends while Parvathy had loads of people around to support her on her journey and help her get through the hard times?
Of course, the most important part of this whole section of the narrative is that Parvathy wins. Yes it is hard and draining and Asif humiliates her at work and causes her to be fired (if that was set up in a less ridiculous fashion, it would feel true to life, the witnesses/survivors of attacks have to deal with harassment from their attackers and their friends and family that can continue to ruin their lives), and she has to deal with social pressure, and stand up to a sometimes unfair legal system. But she wins. And that is not treated as unexpected. If you have a strong case and can handle the years of waiting, you very well might get justice in the end. An important message to the potential victims and attackers who are watching this film, the system works. It’s slow, but it will get you.
The second half is a mixed bag, but the first half is pure gold. We start by seeing Parvathy happily part of a dance team that wins a cultural competition. And then she sees Asif and rushes over to him and happily starts talking about her win, only for him to bring her down by forcing it to be about him, how can she talk about winning when he just failed another job interview? All her happiness blows away and it turns into a conversation about him and his needs and his misery.
This happens over and over again. So much so that her father, Siddique, notices it. One of my favorite lines of the movie, he goes to talk to Asif and warns him gently “I am tired of seeing my daughter’s smiles fade”. And follows that up by talking with Parvathy and very carefully saying that, while he does not exactly disapprove, he also can’t see why she is with Asif. It’s a perfect vision of a toxic relationship, one that is always about the needs of the other person and not yourself. One that must always revolve around the other person, not you. But Asif isn’t hitting her, he isn’t being cruel, he isn’t even sexually pressuring Parvathy There’s nothing exactly “wrong” with him, nothing you can put your finger on and object to. Siddique is a nice father who trusts his daughter, he can’t forbid her dating or forbid Asif from seeing her, but he still knows something is wrong somehow in this relationship.
Parvathy explains why she is with him, and again, it clicks into place in a familiar pattern. Her mother died when she was in high school, she was lonely and sad, Asif was there. And now they have been together for so long, she can’t just throw that away. This is how emotional abuse happens, or toxic relationships, or whatever you call this particular thing Asif is doing to Parvathy. He saw her when she was vulnerable and preyed on her (consciously or subconsciously) and as the years went by, pure inertia and habit made it harder and harder for her to break away. Especially since he spotted every moment of breaking away and killed it before it could flower. Pilot training, that was the one thing he couldn’t kill, the one thing that went back before their relationship and which everyone else in her life whole-heartedly supported, he couldn’t go against it.
All Parvathy had to do was get away, just for a little bit, get out of his emotional tangles, and she could break free. But that is always the most dangerous moment, when a woman tries to leave. Asif had never hurt her before, never even physically threatened her. But once she “humiliated” him, once she dared to walk away, he lashed out.
What I love about this story is how we see, moment by moment how Parvathy was trapped in something beyond her power. Her mother’s death was an act of God, in no one’s control, and that is what made her open to Asif at such a young age. After that, how could she break free? She had a wonderful supportive father, she was smart, she was ambitious, and yet it wasn’t enough to end this relationship.
On the other hand, it was also her smarts and ambition and supportive father which got her acid in her face. A different woman would have simply lived her life for Asif, would never had had the opportunity to beak free. Instead of an attack and a visible scar, it would have been a lifetime of emotional abuse and internal scars. The acid attack is a badge of honor, it means you did something so brave, so remarkable, that it made a man scared enough to try to destroy you in response.