Where are the men?

Updated: Aug 24, 2019, 21:52 IST | Meenakshi Shedde

We need to see more films where a woman is treated, and judged, just like a man. Because, the film asks, when a woman needs help, where are the real men?

Where are the men?
Illustration/Uday Mohite

Guide

"Are you a virgin?" Ajith Kumar, playing a lawyer, asks his own client, a woman, this offensive personal question, and in an open court. The woman looks him in the eye and says no, unrepentant and without guilt—as any man would. In this, and many other effective ways, H Vinoth's Nerkonda Paarvai (Direct Gaze), the quietly powerful Tamil remake of Pink, calls out our double standards when it comes to women's morality. Pink, starring Amitabh Bachchan and Taapsee Pannu, was directed by Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury in 2016. Nerkonda Paarvai is a superbly directed film led by Ajith Kumar, one of Tamil cinema's biggest stars. The prosecution claims that the men were not molesters, but the girls were of loose morals and soliciting. Ajith emphasises that regardless of a woman's virginity, character or any circumstance: No. Means. No.

Vinoth directs a clever genre-bender: a thriller, courtroom drama and feminist film. Information comes to us in slivers. The sequence of what actually happened comes only in the end credits: the girls went out drinking with some boys after a concert. The boys tried to molest the girls. One of them, Meera Krishnan, hit a guy on the head with a bottle in self-defence. Next thing, she's in court, accused of attempt to murder. The goons have connections to politicians and corrupt police, and as is increasingly common in today's India, the victim swiftly becomes the accused.

The three young women Meera (Shraddha Srinath), Famitha Banu (Abhirami Venkatachalam) and Andrea (Andrea Tariang, reprising her role in Pink), are just hard-working women in the city. They have become the family they have left behind. They represent a Hindu, a Muslim and possibly a Christian, inclusive of the marginalised Muslim and the Northeastern communities. Famitha has a lover: it is quite daring to show a modern, working Muslim woman in a live-in relationship.

The film underlines how a single woman, especially a successful single woman, is a powerful lightning rod for a range of violent, repressive behaviour in a deeply patriarchal Indian society. From the acquaintance who molests her; the goons who rape her in a moving car; the suspicious neighbour who claims she is a loose character; the landlord who doesn't want trouble; the lawyer who hounds her with false allegations; to the corrupt cops, reluctant to file a woman's FIR. It includes a wide majority of men—as well as women—who stand by, when they see a good woman go down.

One exception is Bharath Subramaniam (Ajith), the sexy, low-key, grey-haired, realistic lawyer. The screenplay would have been more powerful if he had been an ordinary lawyer, fighting for what is right. It is a weakness of the script—and perhaps our society—that it's because he's bipolar or abnormal, he will fight for what is right, where an ordinary man will not. And unfortunately, here, bipolar means you stare and you can fight off 20 goons. But his backstory explains why he needs to save the three women because of personal issues with his wife (Vidya Balan).

The cross-fertilisation, as Zee Studios and Boney Kapoor produce this Tamil film, is welcome. Vinoth's direction is mainstream, yet gives you much to think about. It is fairly faithful to the original Pink; though this being an Ajith film, there are sequences romancing his wife and two extended fight sequences. We don't mind them as it brings in wider audiences, but the pace suffers a bit. This is Vinoth's third thriller, after Sathuranga Vettai (Chess Hunt) and Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru (Theeran—Chapter One, with Karthi).

Ajith is excellent as the bipolar lawyer. But Shraddha Srinath, Abhirami Venkatachalam and Andrea Tariang are very good, too. The superb original screenplay, by Shoojit Sircar, Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury and Ritesh Shah, implicates everyone—including us—in the double standards against women. Nirav Shah's cinematography glorifies Ajith but without the usual fan-giri, while Gokul Chandran's editing is smart, but lags because of the masala. Yuvan Shankar Raja's music is effective. The film is showing all over India; in Mumbai, they switch off the English subtitles, so best to go with a Tamil friend.

We need to see more films where a woman is treated, and judged, just like a man. Because, the film asks, when a woman needs help, where are the real men?

Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. She can be reached on meenakshishedde@gmail.com

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