Cast: Amala Paul, Ramya Subramanian, Vivek Prasanna
Whenever a film's protagonist is a woman, a certain section of the audience calls the heroine "the hero of the film" – as though the importance of the central figure can only be assessed in masculine terms. But Kamini (Amala Paul), the "hero of Aadai", may be the first female protagonist to deserve this title. For one, she is the least "feminine" female you'll find. In a bit that's staged like a gag, she dreams of herself in a red silk sari and wakes up with a start, as though from a nightmare. Later, she says she is allergic to saris – and one reason could be that they wouldn't be convenient while riding a bike and challenging boys to impromptu drag races. Her terrified boyfriend sits behind her, like "the heroine of a film".
But more importantly, the "hero of the film" label fits Kamini because she's essentially a dick. (A politer colleague calls her a sadist.) She works in a trendy TV channel (HashtagTV), and with her friends and colleagues – played by actors like Ramya Subramanian and Vivek Prasanna – she anchors one of those obnoxious prank shows where innocent passers-by are duped for laughs. I loathe these shows from the bottom of my heart, and the pranks here are way worse than what you usually see – some of them could end up giving someone a heart attack. The way Kamini has been designed is one of the many brilliant decisions by the writer-director Rathna Kumar, who shows no signs of being the man who made the genial, enjoyable Meyaadha Maan. He isn't just out to "entertain" the audience or make easy money by making Meyaadha Maan 2. He is making a movie because he wants to explore his id – the things we are too scared to speak about because… "what will society say"! – in his chosen medium.
The "Kamini wakes up nude in a desolate building" trailer led me to expect a victim. I thought we were in for a female version of a survival drama like Trapped. After all, this is what most filmmakers do – they make the protagonist sympathetic, so we are right there with them, our oh-poor-thing-s and ayyo-paavam-s becoming a parallel soundtrack. But Aadai complicates our reactions by making Kamini completely unsympathetic. She snaps at (or else condescends to) her conservative mother, played by Sriranjini. She is terrible to her friends. Except for a brief mention of an absent (or maybe dead) father who was a drunk, there's no backstory. There's nothing about Kamini that makes us want to spend two seconds with her, leave alone two hours in a theatre. I was torn between feeling sorry ("no one deserves this plight") and being indifferent ("…but if anyone deserves it, it's her").
Rathna Kumar toys with us constantly. The trailer isn't the only bit of misdirection. He knows we expect the nude scene, so he has Kamini take up a bet that she will read the news while doing a striptease. (I found this scene more tense than the climaxes of many thrillers. I knew "logically" that this could not be it, and yet, something made me wonder if Kamini was really that much of a daredevil.) And when we do get the nude scene, we're still being manipulated. It's still unclear whether this is a prank, a return gift from one of Kamini's victims. (It's her birthday. How sadistically apt that she finds herself in her… birthday suit.) Are we in a film like David Fincher's The Game? Is this all an elaborately constructed artificial reality? Or is Aadai indeed along the lines of Trapped? That film was an existentialist meditation on urban loneliness. Is Rathna Kumar existentially meditating on… something else?
What's at least a little clear is we're watching a morality tale: You were a bitch, Kamini. Well, karma is one, too. Aadai is a Shankar film with the polarities reversed, and not just in terms of gender. It's a Shankar film narrated from the "villain's" – and not the avenging victim's – point of view. Imagine Indian Thatha relegated to the margins of the screenplay while we spent forty-odd minutes with, say, the corrupt doctor (Nizhalgal Ravi) strapped to a chair. The difference is the refreshing lewdness. Some of the lines made me laugh out loud. Kamini may be a wannabe (more on that later), but her swearing isn't. It fits. Perhaps the most (deliberately) misleading aspect of Aadai is the animated stretch at the beginning. We get a bit of Raj-era history through an oppressed-caste woman named Nangeli who defied the "breast tax", levied in proportion to the size of a woman's chest. This prepares us for a story on caste, with feminist under(or over)tones – but that's not Aadai, at all.
Yes, on the surface, it does seem to be that movie. After all, Kamini does cover herself with a mirror, whose reflecting surface faces us, the audience, challenging our gaze. It isn't just about HashtagTV. It's a Twitter-ready HashtagMovie. But dig deeper and you'll see that the aadai of the title refers not to clothes (or the lack of them), but to the "cover" we adopt in society: the way we walk, talk, dress, choose to be in front of others. But what are we, really, when the naked self is revealed? Aadai literalises this idea with Kamini's nudity. Outwardly, Kamini is this brash, wannabe woman who boasts that she is comfortable taking off her clothes. But when actually confronted with the reality, she finds her first reaction is to hug her knees. She mocked her mother's conservatism, but she now finds herself thinking about her mother's definitions of "maanam", and equating it with her nudity. This is not anti-feminist. It just says we cannot put people in convenient buckets and expect them to be the way we expect, just because they come with a label. Kamini's mortification has opened her eyes to at least a bit of whatever her mother is all about, a woman who won't even hang undergarments to dry in the open. People are bundles of contradictions, and until we find ourselves in a situation, there's no saying how we will react. The same thing could have happened to a man, too, and the film would still (mostly) work. For an instant, I imagined myself in this plight, faced with the prospect of flashing my twig and berries at the good citizens of Chennai. It was not pretty.
I wish the writing had been better, though. The fillers around Kamini – two men who come to raid the premises, a bunch of cops (one of whom is look-shamed), Kamini's friends ending up in jail, a snarling pack of (symbolic) dogs – don't work at all. I would have liked Kamini's trauma to have included a few quiet, inward moments – she's almost always reacting to something. But the film's biggest sin is its inability to stop talking. The clumsy exposition dump by Kamini's mother, which could be titled My Daughter 101, is easy to overlook. But the lecture-y feel of some of the scenes (though Ananya Ramaprasad is very good as one of the lecture dispensers) is a shock in this movie. Ice-bucket challenge? Free the nipple? Why not simply stick to the central premise about our clothed selves versus our naked selves? But I admit it takes balls to go after a #MeToo-accused lyricist. It sits superbly in the screenplay – for it, too, is a kind of "prank".
Aadai worked for me. It's thematically one of a piece. Amala Paul's face is nude – there's no makeup. Vijay Karthik Kannan's cinematography is nude. Save for a drug-use scene, which features the Star Child from 2001: A Space Odyssey and cackling skeletons and an unhinged, handheld camera, the rest of the shots are remarkably gimmick-free. (The gimmick in the conceit, in the writing is enough.) The camera treats us like witnesses to the proceedings rather than an "audience" to show-off to. Even the colours are dialled down so that the reds stand out – the red of Nangeli's robe, the red of saris in a dream and in a TV commercial, and the ominous red light bathing the pre-interval stretch. When the reds appear, it's like a bucket of blood has been splattered on you. Sensational? Yes. But also sensationally effective.
And after a long, long time, we get a message movie without a facile message. When you watch a Raatchasi, you know the importance of what's being said – it's pre-packaged, pre-digested, and you've bought into it long before you enter the theatre. It's the cinematic equivalent of an "eat your vegetables" poster. The message in Aadai is trickier. It makes you think about hard-won freedoms and our responsibilities while using them. It also makes you say, "But why can't Kamini remain a dick if she wants to? Isn't that freedom, too?" A fantastic Amala Paul sinks her teeth into one of the great hero… um, heroine roles of Tamil cinema. But there's no overt hero(ine)ism. After a period of helplessness, Kamini dons her "warrior garb" and gets ready to face the world – but the you-go-girl reassurances can wait. First, she has to become a more sensitive person. Humanism first, feminism later. I wish this last stretch, with its big reveal, had been sculpted better. I wish it had been less screechy, less pious. But I came away with the satisfaction of witnessing – after a long, long time – a character with a complete arc, forged in very personal fires. Watch Kamini at the start of Aadai. Watch her at the end. You'll see the film is a journey from, as the cliché goes, zero to hero. Watch her tackle the #MeToo-accused lyricist, and you'll see strength is not about wearing pants. You can dress like a woman and still bring down The Man.