Angry Indian Goddesses. Not since Dulhan Wahi Jo Piya Man Bhaye has a film’s title so briskly summed up its appeal, its audience. Chew on those three words. The first one is an emotion that makes the subject sound important enough to be debated, written about in op-ed columns. You don’t have to feel sheepish about wanting to watch it. You know, it may be about women, but it’s not exactly ‘Sex and the City’… The posters may make it look like Cosmopolitan, but it’s actually The Caravan. The second word is a geographical indicator. Angry Americans are passé – way back, in 1976’s Network, we saw them screaming, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” But angry Indians? Hmmm… you can see the international-film-festival tickets selling themselves faster than one can get off the yoga mat and say nah-muss-tay. And finally, “goddesses.” So the film may be serious and issuey and have more hot buttons than a microwave someone forgot to turn off, but at least it has many pretty women. Hetero girlfriends and wives of the world, please note. This is a movie you can drag your men to without hearing them whine endlessly about it.
None of this is meant as a diss to the director Pan Nalin. I’d rather see a film made with this kind of focus than something that pretends to be all things for all people. (And let’s not forget that, for these niche films, marketing focus is as important as narrative focus.) And I must say I enjoyed quite a bit of Angry Indian Goddesses, which begins with a pre-credits sequence as action-packed as the ones in the James Bond movies. We get a montage of six women being taunted or heckled or insulted by men, and in a subsequent montage, we see these women explode. They say, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” The choice of music is intriguing. It’s Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King, a piece that’s climax upon climax. These women storm the king’s hall, male domain. They strike back. You can practically smell the burning bras. And then, like subsiding tsunami waves, they retreat into a calming cocoon of sisterhood. The story gets going when they land up for a few days at Frieda’s (Sarah-Jane Dias) house in Goa. You can practically smell the scented candles.
The structure and the narrative contrivances of Angry Indian Goddesses reminded me of both François Ozon’s 8 Women (a gathering of women, murder) and Terrence McNally’s play Love! Valour! Compassion! (a gathering of gay men, a ton of dysfunction) – but the film looks and feels new. It’s the cast, mainly. You can sense these actresses (along with Dias, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Anushka Manchanda, Sandhya Mridul, Amrit Maghera, Rajshri Deshpande, Pavleen Gujral) savouring the feeling of slipping into parts that Indian filmmakers, with the exception of Zoya Akhtar, rarely write for Indian actresses. As in Akhtar’s recent films, the characters are painted in the broadest of strokes. It’s the wartime rationing approach – one underlying issue or dysfunction per woman. A musician keeps running into rejection emails. A trophy housewife resents being a “commodity.” None of this cuts very deep, but shallow pleasures are not to be underestimated. Despite the smoke-spewing title, this is a fun film. The musician, we learn from her boyfriend, has attempted suicide earlier – that’s why he’s worried when she doesn’t pick up his calls, that’s why he rushes down to Goa. She’s annoyed by his solicitousness, but after he leaves, she smiles a kind of sheepish post-coital smile and tells her girlfriends, “He’s cute, na?”
The film is strongest when it isn’t making a point, when it’s just hanging out with these women. The funniest scene comes when they ogle at a shirtless neighbour who’s washing his car – it’s gratuitous nudity with the polarities reversed, revenge for Mandakini in Ram Teri Ganga Maili, Sridevi in Kaate nahin katte, Raveena Tandon in Tip tip barsa paani… There’s even a she-wolf whistle at the end of the “show.” And the filmmaking is fantastic, from the cinematography (the light is just right) to the boho-Pepperfry production design to the sound that makes voices slightly echoey indoors, in the large rooms. We feel we’re in there, a fly on the wall at a pyjama party. Nalin creates an ideal, insular world – a womb, really – where women can heal through talks and tears and therapeutic hugs. Only one woman recoils from an embrace, and she’s the domestic help. Maybe she’s uncomfortable with physical intimacy. Or maybe where she comes from, they don’t do these things. There aren’t many others from her class, and the film isn’t apologetic about this. Again, a matter of focus – even if this could cause the film to be titled, in some quarters, as Angry Indian Upper-Class Goddesses.
Nalin seems to be in a little ivory tower of his own as well, one where complex problems get resolved easily, quickly. One of the women is a high-flying corporate type, always barking into a cell phone– by the end of the film, she has embraced her inner tree-hugging hippie. If only. Another woman, a British citizen, is an aspiring actress, and she’s made to rehearse “main tumhare bachche ki maa banne wali hoon”-type lines. There are many jokes to be made about Bollywood, but this isn’t one of them – unless a time machine is involved. But I laughed when the actress’s accent is mocked. Nalin’s business card (Samsara, Valley of Flowers) says Serious and Arty Filmmaker, but at some point he should listen to his inner clown – humour comes naturally to him.
The serious parts of Angry Indian Goddesses are the weakest. These characters simply don’t have the heft to represent anything more than diaphanous divas who are pleasant to be around, and they’re asked to transform (collectively) into the Indian Woman Who Picks Up A Gun And Blows The Balls Off Patriarchy. The film gets afflicted with about-itis. There’s a discussion about homosexuality and Section 377. There’s another about how we worship Lakshmi only when she’s a goddess, not when she’s a woman. But I suppose the film could not have been any other way, for even the number of women seems representative of something larger. (Seven wonders? Seven colours of the rainbow? Seven forms of Durga?) At the end, we get one of those Agatha Christie scenes where Poirot declares one of the people in the room is the murderer. I laughed out disbelievingly at the plot device, but what followed brought a small lump to the throat. It’s ridiculously idealistic, but if movies are wish-fulfilment, then this is a good wish to fulfil.
- Dulhan Wahi Jo Piya Man Bhaye = see here
Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.