If we should talk about films with small budgets but big hearts in Kollywood, few hit the nail on the head like Aruvi, starring debutante actor Aditi Balan.
But don’t let the mention of big hearts fool you into thinking that this is an overstuffed sentimental drama. At times Aruvi is downright savage in its observational criticism. After all, how many other Tamil movies can you think of that will talk about middle class life as one big consumption machine designed to further enrich the richest classes of society?
From the start, the film directed by Arun Prabhu is miles ahead of most of its compatriots. In an industry where women still function mostly as appendages to aging heroes, Aruvi lavishes all its attention on its female protagonist, a young woman named Aruvi who’s determined not to let society dictate how she lives her life.
Losing control of her life for no fault of her own, Aruvi becomes a captor herself through a suddenly escalating set of circumstances. (It’s impossible to reveal any more of the story here without giving away many significant spoilers).
Aruvi’s story unfolds much like living memory, going back and forth through her current traumas to the warm embrace of her innocent childhood and back through the sudden tragedies that led to the fall. Through all this, the girl and young woman is frail but powerful, light-hearted but with a deep melancholy that grows through the film.
But, like Aruvi herself, the film is unsentimental and clear-headed almost till the very end. So, it doesn’t shy away from showing Aruvi’s rough edges, such as when she puts down a fellow student who begs her for a sanitary napkin so she can avoid the traumatic embarrassment of staining her school clothes. Despite this clear-headedness, the film is not overly harsh, and retains a warm and loving tone throughout.
What’s most exciting about the film is how crisp and economical it is. Particularly in the first half, the film lets each picture tell a thousand words, its characters speaking only when absolutely necessary.
Most excitingly, it uses creative montages to speed through the lulls between its high moments, and effectively avoids traps where the script could have easily stumbled. Especially the first montage, of Aruvi’s sun-kissed beautiful childhood, accompanied by the wonderful acapella rendition of “Kukkotti Kunaatti”, tugs at the heartstrings so perfectly.
When the film does speak, it’s with devastating effect. For instance, in the early parts of the film, Aruvi’s budding friendship with a trans woman (Anjali Varathan) refuses to make any sort of fuss about the latter’s gender identity. The only exception is a line where she says, “These men will even ignore Aishwarya Rai on the street, but they will never leave us alone. Are we that beautiful?”
There’s also the great takedown the film does of Tamil talk shows like Solvadhellam Unmai and the moral high-ground that their anchors routinely take.
But if the script and direction are wonderful, it is Aditi who fills the film with soul. An amazing revelation, she shows none of the hesitation and reluctance of a debutante. But she never overplays her hand either, not even in the film’s most sentimental moments. The rest of the cast, including Anjali and Lakshmi Gopalaswamy, are no lightweights in their performance, but it is Aditi who holds the film together.
Aruvi is not a perfect film. Some parts of the script do feel a tad contrived. And the film too lightly lets off three men who are accused of sexual assault or sexual exploitation. But these are minor quibbles in a film that otherwise works wonderfully.