Angry Indian Goddesses review: The film's bravery makes it significant, despite its flaws
It is this bravery that makes Angry Indian Goddesses significant despite its flaws
Through years of watching Hindi films, I’ve experienced a lump in my throat each time I’ve listened to Jai and Veeru sing "Yeh dosti hum nahin thodenge," invested myself in the gentlemen buddies from Dil Chahta Hai, Rock On, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Kai Po Che, laughed and wept with those 3 idiots.
Yet this week’s release, Angry Indian Goddesses, comes as such a joyous relief. Can it possibly be true?
Are we really seeing seven female Indian human beings on the big screen, hanging out together, talking, doubling up with laughter, fighting, crying, partying, sharing secrets and forming new equations?
This is that rare Indian film featuring a group of real women – women who could be you and me – bonding, responding to what life throws at them and living.
Angry Indian Goddesses comes to theatres in the wake of a laughable run-in with India’s Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). Among other things, the Board compelled the director to mute out swear words – even after handing him an A certificate – and the word “sarkar” (government) from a conversation in which the heroines are discussing government interference in the private lives of citizens. Strangest of all though is the directive to blur pictures of Hindu goddesses, although the divine imagery in the film celebrates the strength of its women.
A pity. Because despite an off-putting sell-out through one plot element and an inexcusable instance of factual carelessness, Angry Indian Goddesses is a pathbreaking film filled with humour, realism, tragedy and, ultimately, hope.
The setting is Goa where former magazine photographer Frieda (Sarah-Jane Dias) has invited her best friends from across the country. They are top corporate honcho Suranjana (Sandhya Mridul), musician Madhurita (Anushka Manchanda), Pammi (Pavleen Gujral) who is a housewife, the activist Nargis (Tannishtha Chatterjee) and Freida’s half-Indian cousin, Bollywood aspirant Joanna (Amrit Maghera). Suranjana is accompanied by her little daughter. The group’s constant companion is Freida’s housemaid Lakshmi (Rajshri Deshpande).
Right from the opening montage of the women before they gather at Freida’s home, it is clear that this film will be feisty, fiery and funny, all rolled into one – just like its leading ladies. The pace of those initial scenes, the deliberately raised decibel levels, the blistering anger of the protagonists, the comedy that is inherent in many of life’s bizarrely appalling situations and a touch of hyperbole are all woven together in a flawlessly edited, disturbing yet hilarious few minutes. Though this mosaic is a contrast to the understated nature of the rest of the film, its flaming fury still manages to set the tone for what is to come.
Gujarat-born, Paris-and-Mumbai-based writer-director Pan Nalin has adopted a naturalistic style for the rest of his narrative. Along with his co-writers Dilip Shankar, Subhadra Mahajan and Arsala Qureishi, he has also ensured that his characters are credible and speak a language that real people speak. The film begins with endless natter among the women as they bond over their many painful and amusing experiences, before a calamity freezes the smiles on their lips.
The cast is talented and uniformly relaxed before the camera. Hats off to the casting director (Dilip Shankar again) for seeing in former beauty queen Sarah-Jane Dias something more than the gorgeousness that was the sole focus of her first Hindi film role, in 2011’s deadbeat Game. She is a revelation here. Pavleen Gujral and theatre artiste Rajshri Deshpande are both blazing balls of fire. Singer Anushka Manchanda – long legs, striking face and familiar husky voice in tow – delivers a nuanced performance. And the ever-dependable Sandhya Mridul is brilliant.
Since violence – verbal and/or physical – is an intrinsic part of every woman’s life, it goes without saying that our leading ladies are no different. In the past, when Indian cinema has addressed violence against women, it has usually turned the spotlight entirely on the aggression rather than on the women coping with it.
Likewise, films in the past have often adopted an impractical, undesirable recommendatory tone towards women responding to brutality with premeditated brutality. Cases in point: Zakhmi Aurat in Hindi (1988) and 22 Female Kottayam in Malayalam (2012).
Angry Indian Goddesses does not do either of the above. At no point does it define its heroines solely by the difficulties they encounter as women. In fact the dominant memory from the film is of their constant chatter, sometimes nonsensical, sometimes ruminative, sometimes grave. When they do suffer assault and one of them explodes, the treatment of the explosion gives it a far more credible feel than a plot summary might suggest.
In a cinematic scenario where most films are made with an eye on the male audience, it is an act of valour to make one which insists on being entertaining notwithstanding its grim elements, rather than issue-based, which is what women-centric films are expected to be. Since Angry Indian Goddesses sticks its neck out thus, it is particularly disappointing to spot its big sell-out.
Spoilers Ahead In The Next Three Paragraphs:
At one point in the story, we are introduced to an Indian lesbian couple – one a Muslim NGO type, the other a Christian artistic type. The choice of profession serves to perpetuate a prevailing stereotype that homosexuality exists only among certain classes of people in certain fields (you know, like the “all fashion designers are gay” assumption some people make?), while the choice of religion suggests a play-it-safe strategy considering the violence with which fundamentalists targeted Deepa Mehta’s Fire back in 1998 for portraying two Hindu women as lesbians.
The CBFC got the name of a lead character in Fire changed from Sita to Nita. Still, theatres showing the film were attacked by communalists. A seemingly pre-emptive effort to placate such forces is unexpected from Nalin whose 2001 film Samsara had the courage to be critical of Buddha on behalf of his wife Yashodhara.
This has also led to a gaping loophole in the film: a Catholic priest agrees to get two women married in the story. Fact: the Roman Catholic Church is officially against homosexuality. Even with the present Pope making conciliatory gestures towards the LGBT community, the RC Church in India remains adamant about its position. While there may well be individual Indian priests who are liberals in this matter, the passing mention in this film does not in any way let on that this particular priest must be a mega-rebel who could be thrown out of the Church for his actions. Was this casualness towards facts a bow to the prevailing situation in India where majoritarian groups are aiming at thought control?
Yes seems to be the only plausible answer since it is hard to attribute any of this to lack of awareness from such a well-travelled, experienced filmmaker. This is disheartening, considering the immense bravery Nalin has shown in every other aspect of this film.
It is this bravery that makes Angry Indian Goddesses significant despite its flaws, its climactic song in a church – more melodramatic than the conversational tone of the rest of the film – and an unnecessary epilogue featuring a man mourning the loss of a lover he never had. The film made me wonder at its female leads’ ability to laugh – out loud and a lot – in spite of the crap life doles out to them, a large part of it because of their gender. It got me asking: Why are women not angrier with the world? What a pleasant change it is for an Indian film to raise such a question. And what a pleasant change to see a female dosti film.