When Gautham Ramachandran and Hariharan Raju set out to write Gargi, a courtroom drama that explores an incident of sexual abuse through an evocative father-daughter relationship, they didn't look at the framework from the lens of a whodunit. They were more interested in a shift in perspective.
"There were so many of the routinely made grammatical films coming out, and we wanted to see how we could try not to take the audience for granted. Point A to B is the same for most films, but how you get to 'B' is what makes it so much more interesting," notes Gautham.
Gargi's universe is unique in its outlook, not just with its layered inhabitants, but also with its technical flair. In terms of its costumes, music and design, the film maintains a sense of "purity" in Gautham's words, which helped audiences connect with Sai Pallavi's story of strength. "We are not short of courtroom dramas. But being a lawyer myself, I wanted to see how fresh a film we could give to the audience in this genre. Namba thol pakkathla nadakara incident maari irukanum: It had to be as if the incident was happening right next to our shoulder – We had every department imbibe this theory in their approach."
The filmmaker breaks down the syntax of Gargi with five poignant frames and sequences from the film. Spoilers ahead:
The Court Fiasco
In this scene outside the court, Brahmananda, Gargi's father is escorted by the police when furore erupts amidst the public and the press
A good percentage of even the literate people that I know have zero courtroom and police experience. You are baffled when you have to come to a police station. You don't know whom to talk to or trust. The same applies to a court. While writing, we named this episode the 'Court Fiasco'. I wanted Gargi's world to break in this scene.
When you see some of these high-profile accused being brought to courts, this is how messed up it is in person. Whatever we capture through the lens is what makes the visuals more disturbing — there are people rushing, reporters hurriedly making space, and the police pushing everyone. I wanted an exact replica of that for this scene.
The usual way to shoot something chaotic like this would be to add voices. I wanted to stay clear of that. So, we shot this scene as a musical. If audiences buy the first few frames, then they will believe Gargi when she cries. Visually, I was inspired by what we actually see in the news through the lens of a reporter's camera.
After a point, my editor and Govind Vasantha (music composer) and I worked out of one house — we moved into Govind's house along with my edit machine to choreograph the scenes.
Power Gets Cut And A New Hope Emerges
When Gargi has lost all hopes of finding a lawyer for her father, she finds respite in the form of Indrans (Kaali Venkat), who visits her house during a blackout in the night.
We wanted the scene to be as if Indrans was putting his resume out there, asking for a job. And Gargi is so desperate that even before he completes his sentence, she says OK. Metaphorically the light comes on, and it's like the light at the end of the tunnel.
Between Kaali and Sai, we barely went for retakes. They had such a healthy competition going on between themselves. And this scene was a single take right from the power going off to Sai opening the door. We only had to do a light rehearsal because usually for such a scene, they will rig the mobile to give out a higher light. But we didn't do that because we just wanted to make use of her mobile torch.
'The Arrogance Of Man And Pain Of A Woman'
The judge ruling over the case is an empathetic trans woman (played by Sudha S), who stands up to bigotry over her gender identity in the courtroom. In this sequence, she sums up why she is the best person to judge the case.
When we address transgender people, there is an obvious stigma that is attached, which comes from the physical nature of whoever they are. I wanted to use the same thing but turn it around. Once you hit rock bottom, you only bounce up, right? It was the same theory. She (the judge) played to what people might otherwise call her weakness and used it as a strength. I didn't want to go into a space where she gives seven-eight dialogues.
With actor Sudha, who played the judge, it just seemed like she had years of angst. It looked like she was already sitting on a volcano. And we just gave her a platform. I would give her very little instruction. There was something that happened when she put on the gown. Because when she put on her gown, she knew she was putting it on for her community. I watched the scene and went 'whoa'.
While filming the courtroom, people usually do cut-to-cut and go too wide. I didn't want to follow that. I needed cuts to be from face to face. We had to put them in the middle of the action. The court is an almost inch-by-inch replica of the Mahila court that I had built from scratch.
Saravanan's Emotional Detour
Saravanan (the rape survivor's father) lands up at Gargi's house with a machete, hungry for blood. But when he sees Gargi's younger sister walking in, he lets his rage go
The advantage with Saravanan's character coming at that point was that we realized that his brief will hit the screens even before he does. The moment you see him, you are heavy and topsy-turvy inside.
But in the middle of the heat when he turns around, he realizes that 'this girl and my daughter are the same', and has an emotional detour. This man comes there with the most anger and then decides to let go of that anger. And what a point to let it go. This scene is when he is actually saying 'Maitreyi, amma Maitreyi'. But his dialogue is muted. The name Gargi is an inspiration from a mythological character. And Saravanan's daughter is called Maitreyi — another female saint — in the film, which is only revealed in this dialogue.
Udayanidhi Stalin sir asked me why we muted this dialogue. He found the explanation of nomenclature to be beautiful because Gargi and Maitreyi are friends in mythology. I didn't know the answer to this question.
In this scene, Brahmananda is revealed to be the offender, and Gargi, who accompanies Maitreyi, helps put her father in prison
I wanted Gargi to be the person in whom Maitreyi confides in. We don't show this scene. But it was important for Gargi to do this. This is Gargi's coming-of-age story, where she does the right thing and sends her father to prison. That is the philosophical layer, and I wanted to execute this in as simple a manner as possible.
We wanted Maitreyi to walk in Gargi's shadow. I didn't want her face to be revealed in the scene. My camera team Sraiyanti and Premkrishna Akkatu were magicians. They come from a non-fiction background. So, the way they wanted to cover this was not with jazzy angles and backlight. But when you see the film, you can feel the proximity to the incidents. We wanted a fly-on-the-wall treatment, where you capture a scene, and leave the judgment to the audience.