2012 was the year when conversations about sexual violence in India took a distinct turn. There had been rape cases before that which gained national attention and even changed the course of the law, but the Nirbhaya gangrape and murder case was the tipping point. Though then too there were the usual victim blaming narratives, the voices opposing these grew louder. It became acceptable to say that it's never the victim's fault.
Cinema, which has traditionally used rape as a plot device to pump up the hero's rage and machismo, too began to reflect this change gradually. Rape survivors were allowed to live on screen, without being killed off conveniently as "death by suicide".The hero no longer had exclusive rights on seeking revenge.
Ponmagal Vandhal, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, and directed by debut director JJ Fredrick comes 8 years after Nirbhaya, and in the time that has passed, there have been several more horrifying crimes against girls and women that have come to light. Quite a few films, too, have been made on the subject. However, in a departure from the usual vigilante justice plots, the film tries to find answers within the legal system though the journey is not without its bumps.
The film opens with a double murder in Ooty that took place 15 years ago. A woman named Jyothi is arrested for abducting and murdering children. Dubbed "Psycho Jyothi", she's shot dead in an encounter and the case is closed.
Advocate Venba (Jyotika) decides to reopen the case, the first one that she's arguing in court. Bhagyaraj plays her father, Petition Pethuraj, a man who has the habit of filing petitions on just about anything under the sun.
From the beginning, it's clear that Venba has a pressing reason to argue this case. However, though we think we know the answer, Fredrick manages to keep the surprises coming. Like an old fashioned investigative thriller, we piece together what must have happened 15 years ago from different accounts -- eyewitnesses, affected families, police officers, and yes, a survivor too. But the narrative does not take us to how Venba (and her father) tracked all these people down and how she put together the evidence. Delving into this would have given more weight to the script, and made the film a more satisfying watch.
Jyotika is impressive as Venba, looking confident and in control of the situation at hand. She holds her own in the lengthy courtroom scenes, and though the dialogues may not be what we usually hear in sober real life legal proceedings, the conviction with which she speaks makes us look past that. Her parley with actor Thiagarajan, who is on the witness stand and brings just what is required for the role, is especially enjoyable and gives her some "mass" moments. Arguing opposite Venba is Rajarathinam, a hotshot lawyer played by Parthiban, an effortless actor. His character though gets the short end of the stick -- for someone who's money-minded and used to defending hardened criminals, his capitulation seems sudden and unconvincing. He also makes an important reveal towards the end but there's no explanation for how he arrived at this truth.
While there are some feeble attempts at comedy (though I must say I giggled when I saw Bhagyaraj getting caned for saying 'Raghu thatha'), the film mostly sticks to the central plot. But I wish Fredrick had spent more time defining his characters and their lives. What, for instance, is Vinodhini Vaidyanathan's role? In the flashback, Pethuraj is married to someone else, but in the present, he seems to be married to Vinodhini's character. In a conversation that Pethuraj and Venba have, he says, "Let's go home, Amma will be waiting". But if this 'Amma' refers to Vinodhini, it's strange that she knows next to nothing about Venba. Prathap Pothen, who plays the judge, is also left hanging -- his motives and actions are unresolved.
The visuals of the violence that the children are subjected to are mercifully minimal, but did we really need the camera on the crying child's face while the man is loosening his belt to take off his pants? Is it not enough that the audience more than understands what has happened? This is how rape scenes are typically shot but it's time we rethink such imagery too. What does it really add to the film? Does the narrative become any less diluted because the filmmaker has not shown this indignity? Is there a better way to tell the audience what has happened? Especially when there is a child involved? These are questions that creators must start asking themselves.
Like Pink, Ponmagal Vandhal too amplifies truths about sexual violence that can't be stressed enough, and it does make a powerful impact when these words are mouthed by stars whom people love and cheer for. I was disappointed, however, by the comparison of death and rape -- why must we continue to propagate the idea that the pain of death is somehow lesser? Nirbhaya, despite all the brutality that she suffered, wanted to live. Sexual violence is certainly traumatic but much of the pain that is relived over the years is also because society does not let a survivor move past the incident. And if we are to kill the stigma, we must stop believing that death is easier.
That said, Ponmagal Vandhal squarely places the responsibility on men, categorically moving away from victim blaming narratives. I find myself at conflict while reviewing such films. On the one hand, I feel it cannot be reiterated enough times and at this volume for the audience to understand it (Govind Vasantha's background score, it must be said, doesn't overplay any of the lines -- a plus). But on the other hand, as someone looking critically at a work of art, I wish filmmakers would explore the medium more and believe that what they have to say will sink in even if they don't spell it out in neon.
The twist at the end is unexpected, and brings the film together -- the different versions of what we've watched so far melding to form one narrative. It's just as effective as the interval block. Ponmagal Vandhal is ambitious in what it wants to do and Fredrick has good instincts as a filmmaker. He only needs to trust his material and medium more. If the audience can watch close to 3 hours of films that celebrate toxic masculinity, they can be persuaded to watch longer, more detailed films on the ramifications of toxic masculinity too, can't they?
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.