Director: Gautham Ramachandran
Writers: Gautham Ramachandran and Hariharan Raju
There’s a lot to like about Gargi, directed and co-produced by Gautham Ramachandran, but I’d place the writing (Gautham and Hariharan Raju) right on top. They humanise every character they’ve created, giving them an arc, a reason for being who they are. And, in the process, instead of a taut or dull procedural, what you get is a layered film that speaks of a crime, but also gives you a peek into the various people affected by that crime and the officials who bring the criminals to book.
And, it helps that the camera is not voyeuristic — it gently steps in to show you the aftermath of a crime or the precursor to one, trusting you to flesh out the horror in your head. Such empathy is rare.
By now, we know the story — a child has been gang raped in an apartment complex and four people have been arrested from Odisha. A fifth, the watchman of the building has been arrested. He’s 60-year-old Bramanandha (a frail RS Shivaji’s visage revealing nothing), who has a teacher daughter Gargi (Sai Pallavi), and a much younger child and a wife who grinds idli batter for extra money to run the household. The wife loves making upma often — a small nugget that tells you about the economic situation of the house, too.
The child’s sometimes angry, sometimes teary-eyed father is played by Saravanan, the man who wears Crocs but does not think twice before heading out with a sickle to try and kill someone he thinks has hurt his child. “Ava enna appava paakala ma, aambalaya paakara,” (now she does not see me as a father, but as a man) is possibly the worst torture for any parent.
Everyone wants to know the meaning of Gargi’s name but the director lets you find out in her actions — it means a scholar, someone who inspires another to think, a name for Goddess Durga. What will this Gargi do when confronted with her worst fears? She’s the teacher who is always terrified when her kid sister is out in the evening in the park, a girl who has suffered possible abuse as a child — this is revealed in flashes — a girl who seemingly does not let too much affect her. She’s able to switch off news that a watchman has been arrested, and smile at her boyfriend, and get on with life, before a cold fear gnaws at her when her father is arrested.
Sai Pallavi, possibly one of the very few honest actors we have around now, plays Gargi with rare sensitivity. This is one role that has seen the actor explore various facets of a single character — because Gargi is written that way. She begins with conviction, derives strength from the teachings of her father, and that very strength helps her take the final decision. In between, she forges a strong bond with advocate-cum-part-time pharmacy assistant Indrans Kaliyaperumal (a lovely, lovely Kaali Venkat who shows what he’s capable of), who swears by the book of law, and who does not allow himself to be defined by his stammer. He reels off the law when his senior (a dignified Jayaprakash) excuses himself from defending his family friend because the advocates’ association is against it, and agrees to help Gargi. Indrans is also proof that the quiet types often hide the potent armour they possess. Full props for Gautham for casting Venkat in this role.
Only one character fumbles. Ahalya (a journalist played by co-producer Aishwarya Lekshmi) is the person who identifies Bramanandha because her boss wants flash news. But she’s also the one who attempts to help. She speaks Tamil like a non-native, but spouts Tamizh poetry. And the last dialogue to Gargi’s sister is like underlying and marking what the film has already said with a highlighter.
What does Gargi eventually speak about? That it is possible for someone to do the right thing sometime. And that one right thing will create a ripple of goodness that leads things to their natural, just conclusion.
A Sub-Inspector Bennix (a superb Capt Pratap) acknowledges he blundered, and is willing to take the hit for it. His superior is angry, but understands. Bennix understands his job, but he also knows what will befall the family of the person arrested for rape.
The best dialogue of all was reserved for the transperson judge played beautifully by transwoman Dr S Sudha when the acerbic public prosecutor (Kavithalaya Krishnan) remarks that the case would have been disposed of a long time ago had it been a ‘normal’ judge — “I am best suited to decide this,” she says, “because I know the arrogance of a man and the pain of a woman”. She works with empathy, following the rule book even as she follows the law in spirit. Kudos Gautham, for this terrific casting.
Cinematography by Sraiyanti and Premkrishna Akkatu’s zooms in to show you the big picture, but also conveys the intense sense of choking the family experiences when life has been turned upside down. Music by Govind Vasantha is haunting and rightly so, for what has happened is nothing short of horror, and what will happen is equally crushing. Sound design by S Alagiakoothan and Suren G is fabulous, especially in the climax, when all Pallavi can hear is the thud of her heart, before she allows the breeze to caress her face and hair, and allows life to happen to her again.
Editor Shafique Mohamed Ali skilfully cuts between the past and the present, considering how the past has impacted how Gargi views her world. Art director Jacki recreates a middle-class home beautifully, where the window sill often bears the marks of wet idli batter as the mother holds on to it while speaking to someone. Costumes by Subhashree Kaarthik Vijay are on point, especially for Pallavi.
Eventually, by the time the end credits roll, you realise Gargi, the wise one, has also learnt along the way. She has decided to live her life, not hide behind a wall of shame, she is empathetic to all, has a smile for everyone, and no longer tells her sister to not wear a particular dress. She’s learnt the hard way that nothing is what we presume it is. And that nothing can protect anyone.