In Prathi Poovankozhi, directed by Rosshan Andrews, Manju Warrier plays a no-nonsense clothing-store employee named Madhuri. There's a briskness to the woman, even in her walk. She doesn't stop still for conversations. Even as she talks, she continues to do whatever she's doing. Some people would call it a lack of people skills. Others would call it efficiency. She's a working woman, the sole earning member of the family, and time is precious. In any case, she may be curt in her replies to her mother, who wants her to get married, but when the situation demands it, she can be caring.
At work, she sees a young girl try on a sleeveless dress. When the girl's conservative father yells that she's showing her armpits to the world, the girl is devastated, in tears. Escorting her back to the changing room, Madhuri says crying is so old-fashioned. She advises the girl to be strong, work hard, get a job and buy the dress on her own. That's what Madhuri would have done had she been this girl – for she, too, has problems, like a bank loan hanging over her head, thanks to her father. This is when you see how good the writing is. The bank loan has nothing to do with the movie, or with Madhuri's character arc. But it helps flesh out the woman. It helps us realise that life is multi-dimensional, and just because the plot is about one thing, it doesn't mean the character can't have other things happening to her.
What, then, is the actual plot? It gets going when a creep on a bus – Antappan (played by the director) – squeezes her behind. The scene is superb, as is Manju Warrier. She lets you see, in a matter of seconds, the disbelief and shame and rage. Finally, it's the rage that prevails. The bus stops. She combs the streets for signs of her molester, who has slipped away. She isn't able to find him. She concedes defeat – but only for the moment. The rage inside her needs to be quenched. She wants revenge. In other words, we are in a drama that could be titled Manjuvinte Prathikaram.
In an early scene, we see Madhuri releasing a rat from a trap. She lets the creature loose instead of, say, submerging it in water. But what does one do when confronted with a bigger, scarier pest? For Antappan is a rowdy. He gets one of those one-versus-many fights that's usually the domain of our movie heroes – thug after hefty thug throws himself on Antappan and he quells them all with brute force. What can a woman do – especially one who wants to land a blow on this man's face because of what he did to her?
At first, she simply seethes. She reaches home and snaps at her mother. Then, we get another terrific bit of writing, when she hears her neighbour yelling at his "barren" wife. This is a daily thing, but earlier, Madhuri would just sigh whenever these ugly rants floated into her home. But now, the rage won't just let her be. She clambers over the compound wall, marches into the neighbour's house and gives the man – someone she's known from when she was a child, someone who's been affectionate to her – a shelling. It's a reminder that, sometimes, things hit home only when they happen to us. Now that she's been (physically) assaulted, Madhuri knows what it must really feel like for the neighbour's wife who's constantly at the receiving end of (verbal) assaults.
These are the touches that we get only in mainstream Malayalam cinema, where we constantly see recognisably flawed (yet not totally evil) people. If you take the "toxic masculinity" subgenre alone – a subgenre Malayalam cinema has owned like none other – we see so many character shades, so many writing styles as we move from Ishq to Kumbalangi Nights to Uyare. Like the latter, Prathi Poovankozhi depicts "toxic masculinity" through the eyes of the affected woman, and the two films also share a surprise in the way the attacker/molester is portrayed. He isn't forgiven, exactly. Far from it. But sometimes, the universe (or destiny or karma) is watching, waiting for just the right moment. That can result in a punishment worse than anything Madhuri can dream of.
What happens to Antappan is a writing masterstroke not just in terms of how we regard the man by the end of the film, but also in how it makes Madhuri's journey more "realistic". Yes, in a way, the film is structured like a classic vigilante thriller, with a top-notch interval twist. But as much as we want Madhuri to land that blow on Antappan's face, as much as we want her to empty herself of all the rage inside her, we also want these things to happen in a reasonably "realistic" manner. Everything depends on the ending, which is another masterstroke – at once deeply satisfying (for Madhuri) and inspiring (to other women). Actions speak louder than words. But here, an action scene speaks louder than a dozen messages.
Yes. Madhuri actually gets an action scene – rain-drenched chase and all – that's, again, "realistic". How do these Malayalam writers keep doing it, time and time again? Prathi Poovankozhi isn't perfect. The background score (Gopi Sundar) made me furious. When someone makes a reference to Lord Murugan, we hear a temple bell on the soundtrack – it's that obvious. And the attempts at light comedy with Madhuri's colleague and friend (Anusree) are surprisingly lazy, given how strong the rest of the screenplay is. The film can't quite decide what to do with this woman, who juggles two phones and multiple boyfriends.
But it's nice to have her around. She lends welcome touches of (benign) self-absorption and flakiness to an inevitably serious narrative. She also serves as a contrast to the other women in the film – the co-workers who advise Madhuri to forget it and move on, or even Antappan's wife, who says Madhuri must have jiggled her bottom and "asked for it". Prathi Poovankozhi combines all this social drama with traditional (but deftly done) genre manipulations: the suspense of whether Madhuri will escape being framed for the attempt on Antappan's life, or the tension that mounts when she chases down Antappan at night, unmindful of danger, or the fear of what corrupt cops may unleash on her and her family. The film belongs as much to Manju Warrier and Rosshan Andrews as Unni R, the writer who adapted his short story, Sankadam. In other words, there's no great mystery behind why Malayalam cinema is what it is. The directing is being done by directors, and the writing is being left to writers.