The title of Nerkonda Paarvai translates to ‘Look straight ahead’. It’s a line from a poem by Bharathiyar, who is often quoted in Tamil Nadu in the context of women’s rights because of his vision of the “pudhumai penn” – the “modern woman”. But the Bharathiyar vision of “modern” that the state has celebrated is the woman who steps out of the four walls of her home – to work.
Not drink, party, or have fun.
The “pudhumai penn” who asserts her right to have a good time is an outlier, unsuited to “Tamizh kalacharam”. And if she bites back when you object, she is also a “fake feminist”. Tamil cinema has rarely stepped outside these boundaries of just how “modern” a woman can be. And when it has, the woman is either killed as poetic justice or at the very least, made to lower her gaze. Seldom has she been given the dignity of looking straight ahead.
It’s important to place H Vinoth’s remake of Pink in this context. If the original was considered groundbreaking for Bollywood, where women drinking and having premarital sex has become fairly acceptable on screen, it is even more explosive in Tamil cinema where even industry insiders in the past have come down heavily on films which show women enjoying themselves in legally sound ways. And to the director’s credit, he has respected the spirit of the original and hasn’t tried to make his women protagonists any more “innocent” than the Hindi film.
Nerkonda Paarvai begins at a music event where Meera (Shraddha Srinath) is one of the dancers on stage. After the show gets over, she catches up with her two housemates and the three of them say hello to a group of young men. We’re not shown the events that follow immediately – one of the men, Adhik (Arjun Chidambaram) is bleeding profusely and his friends Vishwa (Adhik Ravichandran) and Venky (Ashwin Rao) are rushing him to the hospital. In another car, Meera, Fami (Abhirami) and Andrea (Andrea) are going home, looking disturbed.
The two parties have different versions of the incident and why Adhik ended up with a grievous injury. In the process of examining this, the film brings up several questions that are put forth to survivors of sexual violence – what were you wearing, why did you go with so and so, why were you out so late, why did you drink – the list is long and endless.
In Pink, we heard them answered in Amitabh Bachchan’s thundering voice and in Nerkonda Paarvai, it is Ajith who does the honours. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need a man to transform into a hero and rescue the damsels in distress. But though Vinoth has taken certain liberties to please Ajith’s core fanbase who are unlikely to have turned up for a crash course on consent, Ajith’s Bharath is more of an ally than a hero.
The first time we think we’re going to see Bharath transform from lost, feeble-minded old man to “mass” hero, Vinoth allows the moment to pass. (The build-up and cheat reminded me of the “Kya re, settingah” moment from Kaala – when once again, the point was to establish that Kaala isn’t a lone superman but merely the face of a much larger force). Ajith isn’t playing the hero who dispenses justice by a sheer show of muscle to “save” the women here, he is an ally who stands by them as they navigate a twisted and hostile system. As if to underline this, though the first name on the credits is Ajith’s, the statutory warning about cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption is in Shraddha’s voice.
Frankly, I would have preferred it if Vinoth had done away with the two over-the-top fights, the unnecessary romance with Vidya Balan (why get such a talented woman actor on board only to give her such a clichéd, uninspired track?), and punch lines that sound like primary school tongue twisters, but it’s a small compromise in the larger picture.
The Tamil lines spoken by the three women have a certain artificiality to them. It’s true that Andrea is playing a Meghalayan woman, but it may have been a wise choice to have her speak in English throughout rather than the mangled Tamil that we hear. Shraddha and Abhirami are better at the language, but the affected way in which the characters express themselves somewhat comes in the way of building up the warm and organic sisterhood that we saw in Pink. The hauntingly beautiful “Vaanil Irul” number is therefore less effective in the film than it should have been.
Nevertheless, Shraddha is impressive as Meera – in the beginning, when we don’t know as yet the events of the night, she stares at herself in the mirror, her face like a flame, as she wipes a spot of blood off her body. It’s an image that stays with you all through the film, far more effective than all the crying and arguing that comes later.
Nerkonda Paarvai is also an important film because it shows us that a rapist needn’t “look like a rapist” and more often than not, the survivors and perpetrators are known to each other. The men who are accused of sexual violence in the film don’t particularly look sleazy – you can easily place them in your family or workplace. These are facts which are repeatedly revealed in an overwhelming percentage of sexual violence cases and yet, cinema has always gotten away with drawing neat categories of good heroes and bad villains.
Delhi Ganesh, playing Meera’s father, offers quiet support to his daughter. He doesn’t look delighted by what has happened, obviously, but lays off the victim blaming entirely. I was waiting for an “Idhukka unna padika vechhen?” kind of line to indulge the sentiments of the audience but it never came.
The screenplay could have done better in how it goes about illustrating that days have passed between court sessions; we’re shown scenes of client-lawyer discussions or just simply the faces of the parties involved – these seem meaningless when repeated, especially since the dialogues are either very brief or muted entirely. The second half of the film is a lengthy courtroom drama (with Rangaraj Pandey playing the semi-comic prosecution lawyer) and I could feel sections of the audience getting uncomfortable, laughing in relief when they recognised something familiar like the joke about F1 racing. But it is only to be expected that Nerkonda Paarvai will have such an effect – it has failed if it doesn’t succeed in making people uncomfortable.
Is it better than Pink? Not by a long mile. But it is a film that needed to be made, and if it takes a hypermasculine big star to drill “No means no” into the heads of lakhs, then a thousand times yes.
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.