‘Aadai’ begins 200 years ago, with the story of Nangeli and her fight to wear what she wants. After the animated prologue and the moral science lesson (“all freedoms we live today have claimed many lives in the past”), we move to the present. We meet Kamini.
Kamani — given name: Suthanthira Kodi, literally, freedom flag, which she rejects summarily — is a television producer. She is successful, her ‘bold’ ideas and relentless perseverance give the show its TRP boost. She is purportedly a feminist, much to her mother’s chagrin. But it is somewhat refreshing that she is a feminist not of the ‘Magalir Mattum’ Prabha kind. Because she is flawed AF.
Like Prabha (who I love to bits), Kamini rides a bike. But unlike her, she also carelessly races on the streets, without so much as wearing a helmet. She eats, drinks and makes merry. Her vocabulary contains the words “fuck” and “mayiru“. She has an incessant need to prove people wrong — “bet katriya?” she keeps asking people, even though no one ever places a bet. She lives her life on the edge trying to prove her naysayers wrong. Who wouldn’t relate to that?
The first half of ‘Aadai’, that sets up Kamini’s life, features some remarkable writing. The scene where Kamini jolts awake after dreaming of herself in a sari, pottu and poo is an interesting prelude for the idea of clothing in a woman’s life. This idea keeps coming back: Kamini’s mother tells her how in her generation woman didn’t even put their undergarments out to dry in public view. Later, Kamini and her colleague Jennifer (Ramya) have an interesting conversation about how much clothes maketh a woman. When Kamini rejects the sari calling it uncomfortable, Jennifer points out that high heels are too. The film surely doesn’t take its title, and its theme, lightly.
But it also wants to do more than that. It wants to show its social awareness and political standing. So, there’s a double-joke about a Malayali chaya seller saying he might be CM or PM one day. A sly dig at centrists. And a series of digs at everyone named in the #metoo movement — even the likes of Radharavi and Vairamuthu, who very few men have had the courage to take on. Yet, TM Karthik, also an accused in the #metoo movement gets a role in the film. He gets to be Kamini’s boss and even say “my girl”, about her.
‘Aadai’ is filled with contradictions — may I dare say hypocrisies — like this. The second half stops being about clothing and becomes about a woman’s body, a traditional battleground of culture-keepers. It is almost as if Rathna Kumar went out to buy popcorn during the interval and left his feminist card at the counter, by mistake.
Because here, a woman’s body becomes a metaphor for dignity (maanam). Not that there aren’t interesting moments of filmmaking here. The scene where Kamini walks with a mirror to hide her body is a clever mockery of the audience. The creep from a distant building — who spots Kamini from afar and comes looking for her — made my skin crawl. Kamini’s difficulty in finding a singular woman to help her out of the situation is telling.
But underneath all that, ‘Aadai’ is about controlling a woman’s body and associated freedoms. It could easily have been a modern and bold response to the ancient dig at women: “Aambalaingalaala satta illaama nikka mudiyum, pombalaingalaala mudiyuma?” (Men can stand top-naked in public, can women?) But it isn’t. ‘Aadai’ is just an upgraded, performative version of the same question.
In asking that question, it punishes Kamini for who she is and not what she does. The fact that the film can’t differentiate the two is its biggest failing.
The film equates Kamini’s feminist sensibilities with her recklessness. It implies that her competitive nature, fed by her belief that she (and women) can do anything they want, is the same as her thoughtless disregard for the people around her. It tells us that she’s both a feminist and a sadist in the same breath. Reminds me of ‘Agni Saatchi’, where K Balachandar walks the thin rope of equating Kannamma’s (Saritha) militant feminism with schizophrenia.
So, in the end, when Kamini comes face to face with the consequences of her ‘actions’, the film fudges it to be the consequence of her ‘person’. When, finally, the reason for her situation is revealed, the film falls crashing, nearly negating all its allyship I had come to believe in. In addition to a Ram-esque rant about everything wrong with the Tamil nation, there is an unmissable and grossly misplaced caution about “misuse of freedom”.
Most disappointingly, the reformation (not so much redemption) of Kamini is alarmingly close to the taming-of-the-shrew genre. “Vekkamillaama ammanama vevila vadhuduve-nu nenachen”, (I thought you’ll come out naked without shame) she is told and praised for not doing so. She is given the “right cause” to be bold about. And she’s also given a dupatta for good measure.
It is not until the very end did I realise that the writing was always on the wall. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have expected any better.
P.S: Dear Rathnakumar, there is overwhelming evidence that women don’t “misuse” their freedom (whatever we have, I mean). Even in your own film, the prank show had nothing to do with “women’s freedom”. If you want to be an ally, please, pretty fucking please, stop bringing up this idea.
P.P.S: Dear women, if you are anything like me, waking up stranded and naked on Indiranagar 80 ft road might be your worst nightmare (I’ve lost count of the number of times and ways in which I’ve had this dream, really. Therapist has a theory, but that’s for another day). Remember, there is no shame in your body. Boldly (and cautiously because men are creeps), ask someone for help. Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s your fault.