Prathi Poovankozhi movie review: Manju Warrier and a brilliantly beautiful rage make up for scanty, confused writing
Prathi Poovankozhi is wracked with problems. Yet, whatever the criticisms of the film may be, it is also true that it is convincing and moving.
castManju Warrier, Rosshan Andrrews, Anusree, Alencier Ley Lopez, Saiju Kurup
As a woman, it is hard to watch this film and not have a flashback to the humiliating sexual assaults you have endured. In private and public spaces, millions of men continue to grab, grope, stalk, flash their genitals at women, masturbate on them or in their presence, sneer, leer, pass lewd comments, verbally abuse, prod and crush breasts, pinch bottoms, fondle midriffs and in numerous other ways molest, harass and dehumanise the other half of the human species.
So yes, I understand Madhuri’s rage in Prathi Poovankozhi and I share it.
It is precisely because the female experience of such male behaviour is so routine though that I also don’t understand Prathi Poovankozhi. In the film, Manju Warrier plays Madhuri, a salesperson in a Kottayam sari shop who is so enraged when a man squeezes her bottom on a bus one day, that she makes it her mission to slap him at least once. She gets a range of reactions to her intent, the sort we have all witnessed and/or personally faced in reality – supportive women, women recounting their own repulsive encounters with perverts, a woman fuming at that man, another fuming at Madhuri for not moving on, yet another blaming her for the perv’s actions. One comment by an ally bothered me though. This friend explains kindly that assaults are not unusual and if Madhuri is unable to get over this one it is because such a thing is happening to her for the first time.
Did I hear that right? This woman who has inhabited the earth for what I assume must be about three decades, who stays alone with her elderly mother, who works in a crowded space, who takes public transport and walks down teeming streets to her workplace each day, who attends social gatherings, this woman has...never...been...molested...before? Ever? Not by a relative, a colleague, an acquaintance, a neighbour, or even a stranger?
It is at this point I wished that writer Unni R. had hired women consultants for this screenplay. Because it takes a man to not know the frequency with which women get molested. It takes a man to not know that most women suffer harassment and molestation on multiple occasions in their lives. This is why, when as a woman you highlight an episode or two on a public platform, men friends think they are helping by badgering you to alert the authorities. Women allies, on the other hand, tend to just lend a listening ear, because they know that if a woman were to go to the police every single time she is harassed, she would have time for nothing else. That is how often it happens.
It takes a well-meaning but partially informed man to write a heroine who is molested for the first time in her life when she is in her 20s/30s/thereabouts.
Most women who file official complaints do so when a particular attack drives them over the edge either because of its severity or for some other specific reason. Madhuri has no tipping point because she has never before been similarly targeted.
It is a measure of Warrier’s arresting screen presence and acting, and the genuine concern Unni and director Rosshan Andrrews evidently have for women, that with all its flaws, Prathi Poovankozhi remains an engaging film.
The title literally translates to “The Accused Rooster”, a play on words and the gender of most harassers since “kozhi” is Malayalam slang for a womaniser, a man of questionable morality and so on.
Prathi Poovankozhi has been adapted for the big screen by Unni from his own short story Sankadam. It reunites Andrrews and Warrier after the former directed the superstar in 2014’s How Old Are You?, her comeback film following her post-marriage hiatus.
This new film is both relatable and unrelatable, heartening and exasperating at the same time. It does not have the intellectual depth of director Sanal Kumar Sashidharan’s Ozhivudivasathe Kali (An Off-Day Game), which was based on another of Unni’s stories. That one showed an astonishing grasp of caste and gender politics. It also did not feature a single excessive moment, word, shot or scene.
Prathi Poovankozhi is weighed down by a string of superfluities. The background score, for instance, shoots through the rooftop every time the villainous Antappan comes on screen, as if to beat into our skulls the point that he is the bad guy here. Madhuri has a mother with whom she is inexplicably perennially impatient. Alencier Ley Lopez plays a close family friend with whom she shares an entire playful song right at the start, which seems to indicate that he will later play a crucial role, but he contributes not a milli-inch of a difference to the plot.
Grace Antony from Kumbalangi Nights plays a sweeper who looks important and says ominous-sounding things, which suggest that at some point we will get to know more about her or her association with Antappan. Ultimately, she too adds up to nought.
More troubling is the satellite character played by Anusree – Madhuri’s best friend and colleague at the sari store, whose flirtations and relationships with several men seem, on the surface, to have been written into the script merely for their comedy value. A later conversation in which her deception involves a child-like innocent man seems to indicate though that she has been placed there to also assert that while the accused in this film may be a poovankozhi, the piddakozhi (hen) in our society ain’t no saint either.
This seems like Messrs Unni and Andrrews pre-empting the wrath of men who claim victimhood and float the hashtag #NotAllMen each time women speak up about discrimination. C’mon!
The only satellite character whose presence makes a legitimate point is the policeman played by Saiju Kurup. Through him we are reminded that sexual predators are everywhere, which of course contradicts the point earlier made when portraying the assault on the bus as unprecedented for Madhuri.
That said, the usually dependable Kurup’s acting here is semi-comical and confusing. Competent artistes like Anusree and Antony are wasted in this film. In Anusree’s case this is a pity because she does manage to be funny while enacting her character’s shenanigans.
Warrier, however, is well utilised and delivers an immersive performance as Madhuri. Watching her, you can almost see her rage physically and mentally consuming her.
Andrrews has done well to step into the part of the creepy Antappan. Just seeing his expression when he mauls Madhuri sent a chill down my spine. He should, however, be held to account for roping Lopez into this project. When a man with grievous allegations of sexual wrongdoing against him is cast as a considerate friend of a woman battling sexual violence in a film, it is ironic, distracting and self-defeating.
Cinematically and ideologically then, Prathi Poovankozhi is wracked with problems. Yet, whatever the criticisms of the film may be, it is also true that it is convincing and moving in part because Madhuri’s anger does not come from the same “avenging angel” cliché that birthed 22 Female Kottayam and Puthiya Niyamam in which unreal women survivors hatch elaborate schemes for vengeance. Madhuri’s actions in the final scene are realistic because they stem from a spontaneous anger that causes her to explode momentarily as a woman might, as women have been known to on occasion, in real life.
The see-saw of emotions she runs through in the closing minutes of Prathi Poovankozhi – a sudden confusion in a darkened, decrepit house followed by a calm before an internal churn and finally, an eruption – are handled perfectly, barring the loud music. Madhuri’s brilliantly beautiful, credible rage lifts Prathi Poovankozhi above its own failings.
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