Wonder Women and the Disappointment of Underwritten Female Friendships

Dynamite performances do their best to compensate for the lack of nuance in Anjali Menon’s latest film
Wonder Women and the Disappointment of Underwritten Female Friendships

We’re living in a time where despite the growing representation of women on-screen and behind the camera, it’s still valid to ask why we don’t have enough narratives that explore the nuances of female friendships. And so when Anjali Menon’s Wonder Women begins with the dedication, “To the sisterhoods that uphold us”, it warms your heart. Over the course of the film, Menon introduces women across the length and breadth of class, language and social upbringing. They meet at Sumana, a two-week pregnancy class run by the warm and headstrong Nandita (Nadiya Moidu). Sticking out in the largely South-Indian group is Jaya (Amruta Subhash), a Maharashtrian who doesn’t speak any English or “Madrasi” – a statement that leads to uproar and a dig at South Indian remakes. There is the sour-faced Mini (Parvathy Thiruvothu) who coldly refuses to mingle with the rest of the women and there is Veni (Padmapriya Janakiraman) whose conservative Tamilian mother-in-law insists on babysitting her daughter in-law for the class. Minutes into the film, Nora (Nithya Menen) tells her husband over the phone, “Weird folks are turning up.” The class seems ripe for conflict, but of course, despite their initial differences, the collective experience of pregnancy – the constant hunger, the bursting bladder and the thrill and fear of bearing a child – will bring the women together.

Through her characters, Menon contrasts the natural-ness of pregnancy with the unconventional circumstances and relationships of her characters. Menon focuses instead on what occurs as a consequence of the pregnancy and how distinctly it affects each character. There is, for instance, the question of one’s tumultuous relationship with their own mother; another grapples with the absence of a support system while for yet another, the issue of feeding another mouth on a low wage is an unpleasant reality check. These are conversations and perspectives we rarely encounter in Indian cinema, which remains, despite recent interventions, male-dominated. How many films can you think of that document the experiences of multiple women during the life-changing, challenging and uncomfortable journey of pregnancy without romanticising them? How many films are backed by an established writer-director and feature some of the best actresses of our time? 

Menon’s Wonder Women has a tight 80-minute runtime, but the compactness doesn’t allow the narrative to properly explore the six distinct journeys. Nor does it offer a sufficiently insightful commentary on the patriarchal issues. Instead, there’s a heavy dependence on montages that show the women laughing together, splendid background music and inspirational dialogue that doesn’t always land (For example: “I is for identity”). Conflicts are raised only to be resolved easily or with force. For instance, Nora’s central conflict with motherhood is shown superficially, through her “polite” relationship with her own mother – an arc that is granted all of three scenes, ending with a monologue on how she won’t repeat her mother’s mistakes. In another scenario, a man talks about how toxic masculinity has made him fear being a father, but this confession feels unnaturally forthright, given he’s an orthodox man and an absent husband. For him to share such vulnerability – without probing – before a group of strangers (some of whom are women) feels out of character.  

Wonder Women joins the unique roster of Indian projects that attempt to fill the female-friendship-shaped hole in our cinematic history, only to seemingly cop out from the responsibility it brings. Paradoxically, this seems to occur exactly because they’re so terribly preoccupied with the womanhood they must present. Their story and characters become a means to broadcast a series of statements. Are these statements bold, provocative and necessary? Yes. Are they woven effectively into the storytelling? No. This results in something that lands halfway: The sentimentality of some scenes may move you to tears, while others make you cringe at the performativity (hello, Four More Shots Please!). Lena Dunham’s Girls – especially its first season – remains a masterclass in letting a character take charge of the story and hence, the larger statement. In Girls, the struggles of being a twenty-something woman in New York – paying rent, being attracted to a deviant, contracting HPV – are incidental to the lead character Hannah’s (Dunham) personality. The friendship shared between the women is born out of their unique energies, offering one of the most truthful glimpses into the politics of female friendships and the female existence. 

This is not to say that Wonder Women isn’t an enjoyable watch. In an interview with Film Companion, the cast spoke of the easy camaraderie between the women on-set and this reflects on-screen. The film might overuse montages to get its point across, but the montages are still endearing to watch. There is a pleasure in watching formidable performers in a single frame, elevating stilted dialogue and making the most of silent stretches. Amruta Subhash especially delivers an achingly vulnerable performance. But mostly, Wonder Women is a joy because of the daydream it presents – one where middle-aged pregnant women get together to chat, meditate and hold each other up, despite all the ways in which the world beats them down. 

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