Wonder Women review: Anjali Menon’s film is often moving but needed more heft

Pregnancy is a time of tumultuous change in a woman’s life, and the film acknowledges this; yet, there appears to be a hesitation to really get into the frustrating and ugly challenges that women face.
A still from Wonder Women
A still from Wonder Women
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All through the pandemic, as OTT platforms released anthology films on the experiences of people in lockdown, I waited for at least one filmmaker to make a movie about mothers and their struggle to manage home and work with schools closed for two long years. We had films about lovers, the elderly, married couples with problems – but not a single story representing how women coped with young children during those uncertain, depressing days. This isn’t a contradiction in a country that glorifies pregnancy and motherhood; it is because we’re so fond of glorifying both that we don’t want to acknowledge any narrative that doesn’t fall in line.

The many ways in which women become mothers or cope with motherhood has not been of much interest in mainstream Indian cinema where babies are routinely born in a matter of minutes on the road (preferably when it’s raining). We don’t have something like a Workin Moms that is unapologetic about women’s myriad responses to motherhood. I was, therefore, excited when Anjali Menon’s Wonder Women – with a stellar cast – was announced.

Now streaming on SonyLiv, Wonder Women is about six women who meet at a prenatal class run by Nandita (Nadiya Moidu) in Kerala. They’re all hugely pregnant but that’s the only common factor. Krishnaveni (Padmapriya) is from a conservative Tamil Brahmin family and is accompanied by her disapproving mother-in-law (Radha Gomati); Nora (Nithya Menen) is a Kannadiga Christian married to a Malayali man (Harris Saleem); Jaya (Amruta Subhash) is an older Maharashtrian woman who has gone through several miscarriages and is now pregnant with an IVF baby; Saya (Sayonara Philip) is a Malayali musician in a live-in relationship; Gracy (Archana Padmini) is Nandita’s Malayali housekeeper who is from a social class lower than the other women in the group; Mini (Parvathy) is a single woman from Hyderabad who is going through a divorce. The film is mostly in English, with some lines in Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, and Kannada.

At first, this diversity struck me as forced. When we don’t have enough films featuring women and their experiences, the rare one that comes out carries the burden of having to be representative of every kind of woman out there. If you make a film about women who become biological mothers, you may be asked if you don’t think adoption is a valid way to become a mother. If you make a film only about middle class mothers, you may be asked if you don’t care about women from the working class – and so on. Balancing the need to be inclusive with creating authentic, organic characters, and situations is a tough tightrope walk. If you stumble, the characters are in danger of becoming a ‘type’ rather than a person.

For instance, in one of the early scenes in the film, Jaya asks Nandita if she can speak in Hindi and the class erupts in protest. They make the point that Hindi isn’t the national language; she uses the word ‘Madrasi’ to describe the language(s) they speak; they list out the number of languages that exist in the south. It’s too textbook – or like talking heads on primetime news – for us to suspend disbelief and be drawn to these characters.

But the actors in Wonder Women bring a certain warmth inside ‘Sumana’, Nandita’s light-filled home where most of the action unfolds. The chemistry that the group shares makes you relax about the labels that they have to carry. The women look actually pregnant and not people with perfect bodies who just happen to have a pillow under their T-shirt. Nadiya is lovely as Nandita, taking the women through what is essentially a condensed version of pregnancy bibles like What To Expect When Expecting.

Nora’s effervescence (Nithya is so good!) is foil to Mini’s forever-grumpy face; Saya’s bohemian life is in contrast to Krishnaveni’s tradition-bound existence; Jaya’s fervent wish for a baby is opposite to Gracy’s lack of conviction that she needs a second one. These differences are established sometimes through dialogue and sometimes by taking us into a character’s home. Anjali has proved her knack for creating contrasting personalities and putting them in a room earlier – conservative Kuttan and rebellious Aju from Bangalore Days, or vivacious Jenny and morose Joshua in Koode. In each of these stories, the personalities were immediately established when the characters were introduced to the viewer, but we travelled with them further through twists and turns.

Wonder Women, however, doesn’t take the time to build conflicts sufficiently. Pregnancy is a time of tumultuous change in a woman’s life – personally and professionally – and the film acknowledges this; yet, there appears to be a hesitation to really get into the frustrating and ugly challenges that women face.

For instance, Veni’s problem with her mega-overbearing MIL (she doesn’t even allow her to state her name in the way she wants to) is resolved super fast over a single conversation. Padmapriya and Radha are both wonderful in the scene, speaking mostly with their eyes, but the resolution comes so quickly that it plays out like an ad film that demands instant gratification. Mini is probably in the stickiest circumstance of the lot. She has an office job – but what is her situation with maternity leave? And is the work culture supportive of single mothers? We don’t know because she’s never shown dealing with her boss or colleagues.

There is a lot that Anjali leaves unsaid – and this is a writing choice that works well in some instances and not in others. Nora is resentful of her mother for not spending enough time with her when she was a child, so she declares that she will not be the kind of mom who leaves her child with an ‘ayah’ or at boarding school; this makes sense for the character to say, but without a reasonable counter (which could have come from, say, Mini’s experience at her workplace had it been shown), it sounds like a vilification of mothers who make such choices to keep their careers.

Despite the effective and often moving performances of the actors – Amruta Subhash and Parvathy in particular – the resolutions feel too pat because we are only skimming the surface of their stories. I would have loved to see more of Nora and Mini having a go at each other (with Veni watching in horror) or Saya’s irritation with her overly demonstrative partner (Sayonara’s expressions are hilarious when he’s speaking). Gracy’s banter with her security guard husband also deserved more space. Anjali has written male vulnerability beautifully in her earlier films, and in Wonder Women too, you see sparks of it. I only wish they had been given more depth.

The background score is gentle, lilting, like a lullaby, but towards the end, its near continuous presence feels intrusive. Still, the film has many moments that stay with you. My favourite is that of Mini quietly enjoying a meal all by herself, the camera showing us what she’s eating and how much she’s loving it. Jaya’s face squeezed with terror, pain and determination is another.

I wonder if the film would have felt more fleshed out if Anjali had told the story of a prenatal class sisterhood through the point of view of one or two characters in the short runtime of about 80 minutes. That said, Wonder Women is an earnest effort to rewrite how pregnancy, motherhood, and female friendships are shown on screen. Nobody craves raw mangoes and the baby doesn’t slide out of the mother without putting her through hell first. It’s a first that one hopes other filmmakers will learn from and build on.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film’s producers or any other members of its cast and 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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