Cast: Amala Paul, Ramya Subramanian, Vivek Prasanna
Director: Rathna Kumar
In one of Aadai’s earlier scenes, Kamini, played by an excellent Amala Paul, asks her mother if she knows what the term ‘feminism’ means. To this, her mother innocently answers that it’s the act of giving the extra idlis you don’t need to someone who needs it more. It’s a line from Vijay’s Kaththi and the mother is clearly thinking about another kind of ism…communism. But curiously, Kamini doesn’t stay on to explain what feminism really is. Maybe she thinks there’s no point in explaining such a complex subject to someone from her mother’s generation. Maybe she’s too tired to start her day with a tough topic. Or maybe, she just doesn’t know what it is.
Rathna Kumar’s fascinating new film isn’t just about feminism. It’s also about what it has become to many. Because it’s easy to mistake Kamini as a true feminist icon. She’s fearless, independent and driven with a solid head over her shoulders. She also drinks, smokes and rides a sports bike. So when it’s time to get to work, she doesn’t have to wait for her boyfriend to pick her up. She picks him up and he sits behind, clinging on to her for dear life as she zooms past Tamil film heroes from lesser films. But do these traits alone make her a ‘true’ feminist?
Kamini, for starters, works in a news organisation. And instead of working as a reporter, she finds name and fame hosting a prank show that does a few hilarious things to elicit laughter. Watch out for that scene where a friend ‘reverses’ this prank on her after a failed proposal. When this friend asks her why she always chooses to sit behind him on his bike, if its not love, she says, ‘if I choose to always pick you, that doesn’t mean I like you. It’s just means that I like your bike.’ This has got to be one of the coolest lines I’ve heard this year.
But her mother isn’t exactly excited about her achievements. She dreams of the day when she can see her daughter become a newsreader wearing a nice saree and matching jewellery like a ‘nalla ponnu’. In reality, though, wearing a saree is the stuff that makes up Kamini’s nightmares. So when her mother forces Kamini to properly hide her bra strap, it foreshadows how the film is not just about the female body. It’s also about those loaded terms that we throw around like ‘maanam’ or dignity.
And when Kamini and her friends use her birthday as an excuse to get drunk in their just-vacated empty office building, all these terms suddenly come to effect. ‘I bet you I can even read out the news naked if you dare me to,’ proclaims Kamini in her arrogance. And as luck may have it, when she wakes up the next morning butt naked in the same building, we don’t see the same guts anymore.
It’s almost like she’s being being born again and in just as many clothes. But the position of security and privilege which allowed her to proudly state her comfort in nudity exists no longer. When she’s locked up in a glass building with the fear of a stranger’s eyes peeping into her naked body, the aforementioned idea of dignity and honour which she thought little of, come back to haunt her. In this sense, Aadai is a journey of a faux feminist to understanding the true meaning of the term she has so far used merely as an accessory.
But the movie only really kicks in when she’s alone and scared in this empty building. As she looks around for help and some clothes to get out, the film briefly transforms into the survival drama it promised to be, but it also here that things start getting a bit messy. I, for one, didn’t really understand why her mobile phone was thrown into this situation. It’s supposed to be her ray of hope that assures her a route to safety. But when she realises that she’s out of balance, things are back to square one. I’m not sure if I missed something but I didn’t quite understand why she never tried using Whatsapp or an SMS to get out. Even the idea of using food delivery as a plan to seek help from the delivery boy seemed too far fetched in the scheme of things. It’s these holes in the screenplay that reduces our thoughts about her situation to the ‘what ifs’ rather than focus on the deeper layers of her plight. Which is why Aadai is a film that works best on a more metaphorical level than as a plain survival drama. What makes things worse is the film’s problematic climax, culminating in a speech about all the posturing that goes on in social media. It sticks out in such a nuanced film.
But that doesn’t take too much away from this ambitious film. Coupled with some great non-intrusive cinematography by Vijay Karthik Kannan and some clever use of Pradeep Kumar’s music, Aadai is unlike any film I’ve seen this year. And for all the films that’s been coming our way, being self-labelled as feminist tales, kudos to Amala Paul for picking the ‘ballsiest’.