Nerkonda Paarvai begins with three young women in a cab, all of whom look either distracted or distraught, it is too soon to tell. The cab they are in nearly crashes into a lorry coming toward them. Their driver wisens up at the last moment and they miss death by a whisker. One of the women asks the driver softly, “are you too sleepy, Anna?” Another one, Meera, played with melancholic intensity by Shraddha Srinath, gets off the back seat and moves to the front next to the driver. “Else, he’ll bang us all into something,” she reasons.
At the end of the film — if you stay long enough to watch the credits — you’ll realise what happened just before the cab ride. In retrospect, this scene reveals so much more than we first realise. These are three regular women — simple, hard-working, vulnerable, independent, even somewhat invisible. When the ugliness of patriarchy and corrupt misogynist law enforcement rears its head, Meera does exactly what she did in the cab: Take the front-seat, cross her fingers in fear, yet be driven by her lawyer.
The success of Nerkonda Paarvai is its unwavering focus on the issue at hand — “No means no”. While creating its characters, it shows us only as much as is relevant to the narrative (except for Ajith, but I’ll come to that). It doesn’t waste time on inane flashbacks to establish their humanity. It doesn’t have long moral conversations to justify their actions. Even the few conversations that happen reveal more about the world around than the women themselves.
For instance, Famitha (Abirami) rushes to her lover Zakir (Matthew Varghese) for support. He, however, blames her, albeit tactfully. When she tells him that he’s being unempathetic, he says, “I can either be truthful or liberal”. Hardly ever do mainstream films in Tamil present liberal hypocrisies so straight to your face.
At another time, Meera is sitting forlorn in front of a mirror, when her superior comes and asks, “you performed so well on stage, what happened to you after?” Could there possibly have been a better way to show how often women suck it up and perform their duties, irrespective of the violence they endure? I think not.
Andrea has an excellent scene too. She is at a café with a friend who tells her that she’s ‘brave’. Almost immediately, she receives a threatening message. As if on reflex, this ‘brave’ woman runs for her life. Scene after scene, Nerkonda Paarvai focuses exclusively on the everyday realities of these women, without shying away from showing us the everyday cruelties of men and women either. In Nerkonda Paarvai, it is you who are on trial — your prejudices, your hypocrisies and your misogynies.
This truly amplifies in the second half. Turning completely into a courtroom drama, the film unravels in front of our eyes, through the testimonies of various witnesses. Rangaraj Pandey, in the role of public prosecutor Sathyamoorthy, adequately irritates as the embodiment of misogynist patriarchy. Any women who has engaged in any conversation around rape and sexual assault would have met a Sathyamoorthy at some point. Bharath takes them on, sometimes with evidence to the contrary, sometimes with scathing sarcasm, at other times delightfully combining both.
The judge represents the genuine intent and assumed benevolence of the legal system. Even as Sathyamoorthy repeatedly alleges that women take advantage of this lenience, the judge stays unmoved or disinclined to offer an explanation. It is almost as if the judge is saying, “asked and answered”. Delhi Ganesh as Meera’s father has very little dialogue but says a lot about the helplessness of the common man.
Yet, for much of Ajith’s time on screen, we feel like we are in a completely different film — his hulk-level episodes in the park and his struggle to pop his pills are jarring. There is a fight scene, that feels never-ending — thank god the degree of separation between the hero and villain was two, I found myself sighing. The back-story with Vidya Balan, who is first lighting lamps, then getting pregnant and eventually dead, does nothing to the film at all. And why was he creepily staring at Meera in the first place? What is this creepy idiosyncrasy that needed its place?
Yet, I found myself disapproving less and less as the film progressed. For the Tamil film industry that still tells the woman how to dress and what to talk, Nerkonda Paarvai is no less than a revolutionary film. That it is a star vehicle with Ajith giving the might of his stardom to a film like this is indeed appreciable. Without Ajith, or a star like him, this Tamil film would hardly have got the visibility or support it got. To have that, if the compromise I have to make is to watch Ajith gruesomely beat up some men in a garage, I’ll take that every single day and twice on Sunday.
Even if Ajith is driving the film, the destination is clearly where I want to go: No means no.
Previously published in Huffington Post India.