Films directed by women are often made to bear an unfair cross. We expect these films to be “sensitive” and to tackle subjects that male filmmakers cannot (or will not) – as if only women can be empathetic enough, and sympathetic enough to hot-button issues, while men go about making movies whose only purpose is making their wallets fatter. But Malini 22 Palayamkottai, directed by Sripriya, is truly a film that will give most men pause – at least, they’re going to wince and cross their legs upon listening to the story of the Malayalam original, 22 Female Kottayam (directed by a very brave man named Aashiq Abu).
And at least one development hints at a feminine sensibility, especially for Tamil cinema – and that’s the subplot (a few scenes, really) revolving around a nurse named Jency (Anjali). She lives with two colleagues (Malini, played by Nitya Menen and Sarala, played by Kovai Sarala) in a mansion with a pool, and at first we wonder how they can afford the rent – and then we get the scene where the camera slowly begins to pull back from Jency’s face, reflected in a mirror, and we slowly see that we’re in a bedroom, and that there’s a man on the bed, and that he’s a considerably older man, and that he’s getting a call, and that the call is from his wife. Any minute, we expect Jency to break into a mistressy sulk, but when the man says he has to leave she just picks up his wallet and extracts a few thousands. Her housemates don’t judge her – where another film would have labelled Jency a whore, Sarala simply acknowlegdes the fact that Jency has a large family to feed. (The other, not inconsiderable, fact that without Jency they wouldn’t be living in this palace is also not lost on her.)
But elsewhere, Sripriya sculpts her story with a cudgel borrowed from male hacks. Malini’s heavyset younger sister (Vidyulekha) is mocked as a “gundachi” and Sarala – Kovai Sarala plays her scenes at an excruciating pitch; it’s never a good sign when a character vanishes from the narrative, but in this case, I was relieved to see the last of her – is ridiculed as a woman of a certain age who turns to mush at the mere sight of younger men. Do female filmmakers need to show extra sensitivity to female charcters? Certainly not. In a different movie (and if we were in a politically incorrect mood), we might even laugh at these scenarios. But how can we be expected to take this story about an exploited woman (Malini) seriously if the women around her are being exploited in other ways, for the sake of the film’s commercial viability? Feminism and fat jokes – it’s not an easy mix.
An uneasier mix is found in the film’s inabilty to decide if it’s a pulpy story of revenge or some sort of call to arms. When Malini’s dreams of migrating to Canada are smashed by the actions of men – she ends up in jail; the film’s first shot shows her being cuffed and led away by cops – and when she gets out and plots grisly revenge, we are reminded of pulp cinema (I Spit On Your Grave, Ek Hasina Thi) as well as pulp fiction (Sidney Sheldon’s If Tomorrow Comes). In this universe, Malini’s decision to dole out justice in black (and to the accompaniment of a twangy guitar score derived from a Western) – she is an avenging angel, after all, a harbinger of death – makes sense. We aren’t in the real world but in a stylised movie-world. But reality keeps creeping in, with references to the rape of a 5-year-old in Delhi and with speeches about how human-rights committees help criminals get away with lesser punishments than they deserve. Is the film lurid trash or is it a feminist empowerment saga?
The director may claim it’s both, but you cannot have it both ways. A bigger problem is that we never feel anything for Malini – she’s more a dimbulb construct than a character. During the course of a dull courtship, Varun (Krish Sathar) takes her to a nightclub and forces her to down drinks. Anyone can see what’s coming from miles away, and the fact that she chooses to move in with this creep doesn’t ring true. Actually, there’s not one convincing moment in the movie. The performances are broad, the staging is most basic, and too much time is spent on Malini’s dreary backstory (and not enough on the way she gets even with her tormentors). The minor victory of the film is that we get to hear the F-word, in all its un-beeped-out glory. That sound you hear is Tamil Nadu’s thaikulam turning in its grave.
An edited version of this piece can be found here.
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