As someone writing about women in cinema, exclusively week after week, since July for this paper, I finally struck gold this week. I watched Aruvi. Starring a glorious Aditi Balan in the lead, it is for me, undoubtedly the film of the year. From rip roaring laughs to unstoppable tears, the film had me going to extremes I haven’t gone to in a while, especially in a film that’s about one woman. And her life.
The introductory montage of Aruvi – as a child and as she grows up – is the finest I have seen for a girl/woman in a long, long time in Tamil cinema, heck I’ll say it, Indian cinema. It helped me get into the skin of the character. Know her intimately. As if I was watching her grow up in front of my eyes. And boy, does it help that her presence lights up the screen. Her smile, delights. And the fact that she is wearing simple everyday clothes of today’s young women and very little or no makeup (for the record I like makeup and have nothing against it), is disarming. As if a filter has been removed between her and us. She looks like any of us.
In one sequence, she is scandalised by a friend drinking and smoking and then later she is taking to it… in one sequence she is sceptical about touching a gun (as a child), and in another, she’s showing it off and later, wielding it with an almost otherworldly rage. None of it is, of course, in your face. The film isn’t trying hard to get you to notice how intelligent it is. It just is.
Aruvi’s departure from home, at first beguiling, culminates in an a-ha moment. These a-ha moments can happen in our cinema only when filmmakers trust the audience instead of trying to think for them. And the audience rewarded the filmmaker in my show in so many ways – least obvious of it being with applause. In one hilarious scene, the entire audience pre-empted a character on screen and shouted in unison, “Rolling sir”, and then when the character said it, broke into unabashed peals of laughter. It was a moment of pure Tamil cinema bliss, being a part of something like that.
Here’s something else to cheer about, not only does Aruvi hit the Bechdel test out of the park (which demands a movie have two women characters with names and they must speak to each other about something other than men), it does so with a beautiful friendship, between Emily and Aruvi. Emily (the wonderful Anjali Varathan whose screen presence should bring many roles and one hopes non-stereotypical ones her way) is a transwoman in whom Aruvi finds a soul sister.
A great friendship. In a touching scene, towards the end of the movie Aruvi shows a mirror to us, even as she realises how the burden of taking care of others fall on the most vulnerable in any society – as Emily does for Aruvi what no one else wants to do for her, despite being doubly disadvantaged. There are also other gal pals in the fray who come and go.
Now that we have established all that is amazing with the film, I would like to delve a little into some of the problematic positions it takes. This isn’t to take away any of the cheer and accolades the film deserves. In fact, when was there last a Tamil film with a woman at its heart that had us analysing it in depth?
Aruvi’s ‘relationship’ with the men and how the plot proceeds in this film is somewhat unsettling in hindsight. While my emotions were all over the place as the film gripped me while I watched it. In hindsight, was I happy about Aruvi settling for not even a sorry from four of the five main men that had wronged her? (One of them apologises while the others including her father whom she loves dearly fails her miserably.) The satire element though of the reality television that is today making a mockery of the miseries of the poor, uneducated and vulnerable even as TV channels laugh their way to the bank hits home rather well.
When I analysed why I teared up towards the end (of course, because Aditi Balan was unbelievably good and the scene was very moving), the fact that all of the people who wronged her in the film, and had given up on her (except for the amazing Emily) instead of apologising, paying the price for it or even feeling remorse are allowed to pity her. That did not feel good at all.But the fact that Aruvi was made and this well is something one is happy about. Here’s to Arun Prabu Purushothaman (the director) for a job done dazzlingly well.
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema