It is the many assumptions we make when we watch courtroom dramas that director Gautham uses to his advantage.

Gargi poster featuring Sai PallaviScreengrab
Flix Review Friday, July 15, 2022 - 15:47
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It’s difficult to write a review for a film that leaves your hands shaking. As Gargi comes to an end, the heartbeat you hear echoing from the screen merges with your own. It’s the shock of finding a film that resonates so strongly with all that you have known and experienced, growing up in a female body. An acknowledgement that cinema rarely gives. 

Gargi is an unusual name. It’s not explained in the film, but it’s the name of a philosopher who is mentioned in vedic texts. A woman who was the daughter of a sage, a fierce debater whose intellect was second to none. She’s often hailed as an early feminist icon, and it’s not a coincidence that this is the name of the film’s protagonist. 

Written and directed by Gautham Ramachandran, Gargi is headlined by the fantastic Sai Pallavi who is undoubtedly one of the finest actors of her generation. She plays a school teacher, a young woman who is getting married soon. When her boyfriend tells her over the phone that his family has dowry demands, Gargi’s spontaneous response is that she cannot burden her father more. 

We don’t see the father – he is not a sage but a security guard – at this point or later, when Gargi watches the news and hears about a minor’s gangrape. We know something is wrong, that things are going to spiral downwards, but we don’t yet know how. Gautham skillfully plucks the dread from Gargi’s chest and places it in ours. As she searches frantically for her father, the background score rises and falls, building empathy for this ordinary family caught in the crosshairs of what seems to be a botched up investigation.

It must be one, right? What else could the film be about? It is the assumptions we make when we watch courtroom dramas, particularly on this subject, that Gautham uses to his advantage. The camera doesn’t show us Brahmananda, Gargi’s father, immediately. The first time we see him, he’s crouching at the police station, his face not visible. He’s still wearing his security guard uniform. 

Gautham deliberately makes us wait to see Brahmananda – and when we see the frail RS Shivaji at last, we immediately worry about what the brutal police system will do to the elderly man. The scene when he’s taken to the court for the first time is brilliantly written and executed; the camera shifts between the angry crowd, Gargi’s trembling face, the police which is trying to do its job, an assailant’s weapon, and finally, the bewildered expression on Brahmananda’s face. The background score emphasises the unfolding tragedy; it’s beautifully orchestrated to convince us of the urgency in Gargi’s fight for justice. 

The stock characters of a courtroom drama appear; the underdog lawyer (Kaali Venkat) who is pitted against an experienced senior (Kavithalaya Krishnan); a sincere police officer who believes in investigating a case honestly (played by Capt Pratap, the character is named Bennix Jayaraj, after the two men who died in custodial violence); a strict but fair-minded judge who happens to be a trans woman (the role is played by S Sudha); a journalist who leaks sensitive information (Aishwarya Lekshmi); and so on. 

The plot falls into a predictable trajectory of surprise clues and red herrings, but all along, Sai Pallavi’s pitch perfect performance smoothly leads us into unfamiliar territory while making us believe we know exactly where the film is going. Saravanan also does an admirable job as the survivor’s devastated father. Livingston plays a small but pivotal role – one that subverts our ideas of good and evil once again. In fact, the casting greatly helps in pulling the rug from under our feet.

The only disagreement I had with the film was in how the gangrape is shot. It is much more sensitive than the average film that has obviously voyerusitic sexual assault scenes, but the focus on the blood pooling beneath the child’s body and the shots of the men taking off their shirts are unnecessary; isn’t it enough to suggest that a child has been subjected to sexual violence? Do we have to see her blood, the smallness of her hand to feel her pain? The problem with depicting graphic sexual violence is that it desensitises us to the crime. A case has to be so terrible if it has to catch the attention of the media and the public. In fact, there have been instances where judges have gone easy on the criminals because the rape wasn’t “gut-wrenching” enough. 

That said, Gargi makes a powerful statement about sexual assault, agency, and empathy. It’s an important film from which there are many take-aways, and deserves to be watched widely for its unflinching portrayal of uncomfortable truths. 

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.

Sowmya Rajendran writes on gender, culture and cinema. She has written over 25 books, including a nonfiction book on gender for adolescents. She was awarded the Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar for her novel Mayil Will Not Be Quiet in 2015.

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