Director: Arun Prabu Purushothaman
Cast: Aditi Balan, Anjali Varathan, Mohammad Ali Baig, Kavitha Bharathi, Lakshmi Gopalswamy, Pradeep Antony
Who is Aruvi (Aditi Balan)? That's what the interrogator (Mohammad Ali Baig), at the police station, wants to know. He sits opposite this twenty-something woman, staring at her bloody face, wondering if she's a Naxal from Dantewada. The title of the film — also Aruvi (Waterfall / Stream) — suggests that our heroine is something of a metaphor (that eco-friendly name! the gradual "pollution" of her body we will soon learn about), but the first half of Arun Prabu Purushothaman's movie positions her the way Raj Kapoor presented his heroine in Ram Teri Ganga Maili, an innocent from a pristine town who becomes increasingly corrupted as she moves to the big, bad city.
The early portions paint a picture of Aruvi's life, back home, but these aren't scenes so much as scenelets. Amidst vignettes of her father (Thirunavukarasu) sniffing food simmering on the stove and a family trip to a nearby waterfall, a life flashes by. With flavour. When Aruvi asks her father to stop smoking ("It stinks!"), he doesn't toss the cigarette away at once. He inhales one last lungful and then tosses it away. The gesture lingers. I remembered this bit when, later, he begins to smoke again — this time, too, due to Aruvi. She made him stop. She makes him start again — because she vomits. After 19,837 films featuring this situation (and much wailing about "family honour"), we think we know the reason. Turns out we don't.
The film isn't afraid to make Aruvi less-than-perfect. When a classmate asks her for a sanitary napkin (this is after Aruvi's move to Chennai), she refuses, even mocks her
So on top of the "Is she a terrorist?" question, we have an "Is she pregnant?" question — and the director isn't giving any answers yet. The writing is ambitious. A gun that's introduced early on appears (expectedly) when Aruvi attempts suicide, and we think it's played its part, having obeyed Chekhov's rule — but it will (unexpectedly) appear again. The story keeps building, gets denser. The film isn't afraid to make Aruvi less-than-perfect. When a classmate asks her for a sanitary napkin (this is after Aruvi's move to Chennai), she refuses, even mocks her. The change is already showing. For contrast, we get Emily (the beautiful Anjali Varadhan), a transgender who's compassion incarnate. She becomes Aruvi's friend, a saviour of sorts — but the film refuses to canonise her as a saint. There's a refreshingly non-PC bit where someone wonders how Emily has sex. In a film so attuned to issues, I didn't see this as insensitive — more as an acknowledgment that not everyone is sensitive.
And then, we get to the most audacious stretch of the film, when Aruvi decides to approach a reality show (named "Solvadhellam Sathyam," so we don't have to wonder too much about the satire's target). From the wide, open spaces of her childhood, Aruvi (and Aruvi) moves to a flat in a series of closely bunched-up buildings, and the noose tightens further, now, when she gets crammed into a studio set. It's topography as psychology. From the embrace of nature in her hometown, she descends into complete artifice, a totally manufactured show, driven by TRPs. And the story really begins.
As do the doubts. So we have here a 25-year-old girl who's abandoned, desperate — she has nothing to lose. The world has raised a giant middle finger to her and she wants revenge. Why would she seek justice through a tacky reality show (through which we see her expose the men who took advantage of her)? Why not take to, say, YouTube, like she does at the end of the film, and shame the men online? Here's why. Unlike the show, the director isn't after "reality." He's after something more… postmodern. He's asking, "What would the heroine of Parasakthi be like if she decided to do something about her plight?" Put differently, Aruvi could be read as Parasakthi with a feminist twist.
Let's look at the similarities. Both are what you'd call "protest cinema," which use melodrama to interrogate (and comment on) society. The upper castes/classes, in both films, get a lynching (a helper is named "Pappathi;" make of it what you will) — they're portrayed as predators, hypocrites. Both stories are about a young woman who's separated from her family due to a cruel twist of fate (and through no fault of her own), and becomes a social outcast. Both films feature a long monologue, a rant against society. (Her face a deadpan mask, Aditi Balan barrels through a series of scathing truths.) If the older film climaxed in a court, this one plays out on the sets of a reality show whose anchor (Lakshmi Gopalswamy) is a self-appointed judge, passing verdicts on her guests.
The director has lots to say, and he wants to say it all. From medical companies making money off deadly diseases to film stars making crap movies, we get an earful about it all
The difference is that, unlike the heroine of Parasakthi, Aruvi isn't a wailing victim waiting to be rescued by a man. Seeing the things she does, I was also reminded of Dog Day Afternoon, where Al Pacino holds up a bank in order to pay for his lover's sex-change operation. Aruvi has that vibe, that 1970s socio-political, closed-door thriller vibe. The reality show setting is a stroke of genius — and yet, it highlights this film's problems. The director has lots to say, and he wants to say it all. From medical companies making money off deadly diseases to film stars making crap movies, we get an earful about it all. Some of the potshots (like the obvious mockery of TRP-crazy television) are too on-the-nose.
A bigger issue is the music. Bindhu Malini and Vedanth Bharadwaj deliver an experimental soundtrack that works beautifully as a concept album (think Picasso meets early Pink Floyd) — it's certainly art, a free-flowing mix of a cappella choruses and ocarinas and didgeridoos. But the newness of the music, the very thing that would make it stand out as an album, is distracting on screen. The music keeps calling attention to itself. Still, this variety, this inclusiveness of the offbeat, is consistent with the tone of the film, which keeps hinting at the larger world outside the reality show. During a hostage negotiation, for instance, the film makes way for a funeral procession: yet another reminder of death.
At some point, Aruvi slips into Buñuel territory — and into greatness. Aruvi takes charge of the reality show and the satire turns tongue-in-cheek surreal. She recreates moments from her past. A game of truth or dare makes a reappearance. Earlier, she told a classmate that she'd share a chocolate bar only if the girl made her laugh. Now, she wants to be made to cry. (The ensuing story, about an old woman in a village, is marvellously written.) Earlier, a boy proposed to her, and she dissuaded him. Now, as though regretting her mistake, she asks a man to propose to her, which results in a gentle jibe at Gautham Menon. The furious editing (Raymond Derrick Crasta) mirrors Aruvi's rage. But the director doesn't make the mistake of channelling this anger into a series of lectures. That's why the reality show is such a stroke of genius — it adds an unexpected layer and cushions the messagey bits.
This is where Aruvi should end, but the story goes on, and a bracingly unsentimental (so far) film begins to beg for our tears. The "happy ending" has already happened when everyone at the reality show clicks a selfie with Aruvi, but now, we're primed for another reunion. It's ridiculous. You can see why the director wants this warm embrace of the marginalised — but the blatantly manipulative way he goes about it is a shock to the system. But Aditi Balan holds the screen (it's a vital, earnest performance) and almost convinces us that Aruvi needs this, that these are what our last memories of Aruvi should be, that she's done her bit to transform the world into a purer place again. I preferred the satire to this fantasy, but I guess hope isn't the worst thing given the state of the world today.
Watch the trailer of Aruvi here: