Director: Gautham Ramachandran
In what's one of the best scenes in one of this year's best Tamil films, we get a brief interaction between a couple who are just days away from getting married. The man, who believes he's doing the right thing, offers to take the woman and her family away from the mess they're in and protect them from any future crises. In all honesty, he believes he's being the hero of the movie when he says this. But when Gargi responds to him, we see the space she's coming from and in a sense, it takes the film beyond the duties of a hero, a man, a daughter, a father, a friend and so many other roles we take for granted. But what is it that makes Gargi such a special film?
For starters, Gargi doesn't even take a minute to get us invested in its powerful premise. Right from the word go, we eavesdrop on a conversation between lovers and dowry is the point of contention. It's quickly dismissed as a joke but there's also an eerie bit of reality that's scary in the context of this film. It also plants a clue about where Gargi's loyalty lies when it comes to choosing between love and family. She's not the kind of person who needs a scene to show us how much she's sacrificing for her family. She probably doesn't even see it as a sacrifice. The right thing to do is the only option she's ever given herself.
These are one of the many points that make Gargi exceptional. In a sense, it's set around a news item we've grown to read so often that we've almost become numb to it. Chances are that many filmmakers would have chosen a more obvious entry point into the said crime like many films before. But in Gargi, even our entry into this case is through the last person you'd think of—the alleged perpetrator's daughter and what she goes through.
But it never feels like director Gautham Ramachandran has just stumbled upon this loaded premise. He explores so many angles and people within this conflict that we feel empathetic to almost everyone involved. Which means that this is not just the story of one father and daughter. It's the story of TWO daughters and TWO fathers— both in equally complex predicaments. But the film does one more and it goes on to give us versions of the space it puts lawyers, media persons, the judge, friends, and even the neighbors in. We see everyone's inner lives and no character feels like a symbol put there just to make a larger point.
Yet what keeps coming back to you is the way this subject has been treated with so much dignity. The film takes a stand by choosing to keep a face hidden. It doesn't force you to get enraged or sympathise using shocking angles but instead, chooses a sensitive way to show us an extremely disturbing scene.
But these scenes are also backed by the writing. For instance, we get a dialogue early on where Gargi asks her sister to never step out of the house wearing yellow. It might seem odd then but there are not one but two beautiful payoffs for this moment that convey so much a lot later. And because the film evolves into the mould of a courtroom drama and a parallel investigation, it's also a film that's as engaging as it is vital.
This isn't to say that the film's perfect. Somewhere after we move into the second half, you feel the focus of the first half shifting. The portions that cover the plight of another father-daughter drama hold up because of the excellent performance, but the writing here tends to flatten out the intensity. This is also true of some of the indulgences of the director. In an instance, I thought I saw a reference to a movie like Fargo in one of the courts. In another, a policeman is named Bennix Jayaraj. Even the choice to set the central crime on the 14th of November felt too on-your-face for the irony to work. Given that you could see a few more tributes placed in a few more places, I felt such ideas did not fit in a film as intense as this.
But these are the smallest of distractions in what's mostly a powerful movie. A transwoman plays the judge in the most important court scenes and the effect she has on the film, which includes the film's best dialogue, cannot be emphasized enough.
This applies to other performances, too. Kaali Venkat's lawyer is perfectly cast as an ally who has his own battles to fight. When he joins forces with Gargi, we get snippets of a rare camaraderie and moments of laughter even when we're dealing with such a serious subject.
But as much as the film belongs to its director, it's also Sai Pallavi's film. The inner conflicts of her character are enough to write an entire novel about, but it's amazing how she's able to make us invest in her, even when we have so many doubts ourselves. It's also a very clever performance. When she has a breakdown earlier on, it hits us hard and it registers with us as a big emotional moment. But much later when we're expecting her to react similarly, she holds back and the moment then multiplies so much in terms of both impact and meaning.
With this devotion to emotions that are so delicate and so complex to even comprehend, Gargi ends up as a special film about a woman who had to lift the weight of the entire world on her shoulders.