Director: Kavya Prakash
Cast: Anaswara Rajan, Nandhana Varma, Vineeth
There’s no denying the power of the core idea of Kavya Prakash’s Vaanku (azaan). Written by Unni R (Leela, Ozhivudivasathe Kali), the film’s about Razia, a college student who wants to recite the azaan just once in her life. The azaan is a part of Islamic tradition and it’s a privilege that’s reserved exclusively for men. In Vaanku, a young Razia listens to her teacher at the madrasa explaining the azaan to be a heavenly recital where Allah himself is inviting all of us into his home. In his words, it’s not like the voice of God. It is the voice of God.
Can a young girl’s voice ever take the place of God’s himself? Razia’s teacher explains her conundrum in just one dialogue. She feels that God will understand Razia’s desire, but not humans who act as his/her/their gatekeepers. Instead of magnifying the film to fit into a larger, political context, Vaanku is a film that wants to keep it personal. Beyond judgments of the society at large, Vaanku is also a conversation between Razia and her God.
It’s a fascinating space which could easily have been about devotion, like we witnessed in films like Ranjith’s Nandanam. But devotion is just one part of Vaanku. Almost the entire first half of the film explores something that’s far more loaded. It’s about desire and for once, we get a film that explores not just a sisterhood but also their respective ideas of desire, without the male gaze or judgement. Even the plot point that sets this part in motion is their teacher explaining how her biggest desire was merely to walk with her lover on the last day of college.
Two of Razia’s friends share a similar idea when they think about the one thing they must do before they leave college. For two of them, it has to do with love. While one just wants to watch a movie with her boyfriend, the other wants to profess her love for a boy she’s been eyeing for a couple of years. As for the third, there’s incredible innocence in her wanting to just hug one of her professors. Told through clunky humour, we’re caught unaware when we’re told that this hug was that of a daughter, who sees her deceased father in her teacher.
The film deals with several loaded questions and there’s always a scene around the corner that has the power to surprise you. Like the writing that has gone into Razia’s father in the film. Although surrounded by women (both powerful and weak) who prove to be her allies, it’s also important to see how a man, the only one in her life, treats this desire. As her entire community is up in arms against Razia’s dream, we see a father who struggles between the pressures of his religion and his love for his daughter. Although in a much milder tone, in her father (Vineeth) we get the same shades of the character Prakash Raj plays in Vetrimaaran’s film in Paava Kadhaigal.
But a lot of this depth is more imagined than felt. Between intentions and their execution we’re constantly caught in a battle between what the films wants to say and what it eventually ends up saying. Like the strange, strange scene where one of Razia’s friend’s proposes her love for a boy. He says no and he even explains that he’s in love with another boy. You’d think that a film with such intentions would treat his character with dignity. But the shock value is milked for laughter to create a scene that sticks out, just like another dialogue where a teacher spits out a terrible rape joke that has no place in this movie.
A lot seems to have been lost in translation from the writing to screen. This conflict seems to even take up Razia’s characterisation, who at times appears immature and casual, while appearing to be pious and mature all too suddenly. There is no transformation in her and we hardly get to see a religious side to her. So, when she opens up about her secret desire, if feels like it’s comes out of nowhere (of course, not if you’ve seen the trailer).
The making feels dated and the conversations between the four friends never come alive with the clumsy staging of a school play. In places, it feels like the cinematic equivalent of a first draft, begging for more details and even more polish. It has so much going for it even though it shies away from the really heavy-duty topics such a film could have addressed. But in here we get a an incomplete film that opposes religion and orthodoxy but isn’t at war with a person’s personal belief system.