Cast: Oviya, Bommu Laksmi, Masoom Shankar
Director: Alagiya Asura
The trailer of 90ml, directed by "Alagiya Asura", suggested an unapologetic sleaze fest, but this isn't that film. Yes, there are the expected titillations: a young woman launching into her "first night" story, or a chat about how lesbians make love (which results in a Rajinikanth-movie catchphrase being used to connote cunnilingus). Something about a bunch of women invading Tamil cinema's "male" territory and throwing themselves a beer-and-biriyani party made the (primarily male) 9 am audience around me go wild. (Is this the first time the statutory warning about smoking and drinking is announced in a female voice? ) The fantasy is amplified when a (very willing) man is summoned to make a "half-boiled".
The crowd went wilder when Oviya made an entrance, in a short skirt. The attire leaves everyone else in this middle-class building (she's moving in) open-mouthed, and she stays open-mouthed, too — say, nibbling the lips of her live-in boyfriend or blowing out smoke from a slender cigarette. I was afraid that, amidst all the celebration, people might miss a crucial line of a song that defines this character: that we come into this world alone and we leave it unaccompanied, so who the fuck are you to ask me questions? (The swearing is my addition. I didn't want to feel left out.) She doesn't believe in marriage. Just in having entries and exits in her "bungalow". (In case you missed that euphemism, let me just add that there's no news whether the lawns are trimmed.)
Her screen name is no accident. At one point, she snatches a gun from a gangster and announces that she's Revolver Rita. This isn't about the gun. (90ml isn't deep enough to begin writing a thesis about phallic imagery.) This is about the unapologetic nickname that Rita assumes, referring back to a time when vigilantes (who, in the movies of the time, were usually male) went by names like Gunfight Kanchana. 90ml says whatever men do, women can do. For a Hollywood pop-culture equivalent, you might think of Russ Meyer's sexploitation epics like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! — but without the cleavage display. The women in 90ml are put on display. (We wouldn't bat an eyelid if men did these things.) But they have agency. They are never reduced to objects.
90ml is reasonably fun and remarkably non-judgmental about Rita. The other (more conservative) women in her building warm up to her very quickly, and their rapport looks real. These actresses look like girls next door (Oviya, though, does a lot of hair-tossing, like a model), and they seem comfortable in the language, which always helps. When Rita changes the name of their Whatsapp group to "Hot Chicks", she isn't doing it (just) to get a whistle out of the audience. It's more for themselves. It's empowering. Though they embark on booze and weed adventures, those don't define them. Their closeness does, their willingness to be there for each other.
This is something we saw in Veere Di Wedding as well, and this is what sets 90ml apart from being just a female version of, say, Trisha Illana Nayanthara. Look beyond the "taboo-breaking" and you'll see the scene where the girls complain (albeit humourously) about their breast size. When was the last time you saw a hero worry about size issues? Or the fact that his sex life has all but vanished after the birth of a child? The very existence of a Tamil film where women demand sexual satisfaction feels like it's worth all that screaming in the theatre.
As always, the writing doesn't keep up. It's patchy. 90ml can't decide whether to treat Rita as a poster girl or a flesh-and-blood character, and her decisions about her boyfriend feel too random. Several episodes (a shootout in the streets, or threatening a man who's taken on a mistress) needed to be less gimmicky. And don't even get me started about the ending. But I keep thinking about the killer twist at the interval and the non-sensational way this development is handled. I keep thinking about the neglected married woman who finds a caretaker for her "bungalow" again. I keep thinking that this film doesn't reduce emancipation to an earnest Jyothika-starrer — realisation and self-improvement are important, but so is the freedom to live like men do, maybe even making the same mistakes. And this makes me want to give 90ml an extra half-star. It opens the door for a conversation that doesn't always come up, and that's more than what most mainstream movies do.