Raatchasi review: A watchable message-padam

A couple of years ago, while discussing how women are robbed of their own crusade in Tamil cinema, I’d written:

These films also go out of their way to establish that these women’s journeys are dangerous for them and cannot meet with success without the intervention of a man.

I dismiss the idea on two counts. I don’t accept that a protagonist needs to be able to fight to win a war. Neither do I accept that she can’t violently fight her own wars. If we are willing to accept that a male street thug can stand up to the powers of a corrupt state machinery with nothing more than brute force, would it be so difficult to see a woman do the same thing?

Raatchasi has an excellent fight scene, inside a school classroom, somewhat reminiscent of the one in Theri (I mean this in a good way if that’s even possible). This scene is one of the several endearing things about Jyotika’s latest release, Raatchasi. For instance, there is a little boy who is in love with her and a prediction involving paniyaaram. There is an auto-driver who is desperate to tell ‘karutthu’ (opinion/moral) about everything. There is a highly supportive father who also makes tea. The film has its moments. But what lets Raatchasi down is that these little endearments don’t add up to an entirely endearing film.

Raatchasi is the story of Geetha Rani (Jyotika), who comes to Puthur to take over the local government school as its headmaster. She walks in to find the school in disarray — corrupt leadership, incompetent teachers, non-existent infrastructure, thuggery and the like you know…

In fact, much of Raatchasi‘s world-building relies on the fact that we know. It spends little time in painting the environment for us. We know nothing about the individuals, their lives, their pains and their motivations. We don’t feel for the parents — in fact, at one point, Geetha Rani sends the police to threaten parents to send their children to school. We don’t get to see why an entire group of teachers don’t take any interest in their job — we are left to judge them based on what we’ve read in the news. We know nothing about the PE Teacher other than that he seems to have an eating disorder. There is more ‘karutthu solradhu’ by the auto-driver than there is empathy for the people dotting the milieu.

The film explains this as being ‘pro-student’ and not ‘anti-everything else’.

The film explains this as being ‘pro-student’ and not ‘anti-everything else’. So, everything about Raatchasi appears either black or white. Geetha Rani is obviously purely white. At one point, we are shown that with animations of a Kali motif (with weapons) and an angel motif (with wings) around her. It is a shame that she needs a backstory to explain her ability to ‘fight’. There is a twist in the end, that does nothing for the story or the person.

Apart from her, there are bad teachers and good teachers; bad businessman and good collector; bad AHM, who becomes a worse individual; bad politician who turns into a good politician. There is no arc for anyone, just a straight line they are pushed past by the persuasion of three questions. There is such little internal conflict in any of the characters that in a mass-hero cop movie they’d be shot dead and we wouldn’t flinch.

But internal conflict is the least of Raatchasi‘s problems. There is no conflict of any kind that truly moves us. The main antagonist, played by Hareesh Peradi, is never menacing enough — he is a paper cut on a brick wall. The teachers turn around very easy, burning the midnight oil to meet Geetha Rani’s standards. Jaadhi katchi politicians walk away when a mirror is held up to them — if only! The children in the school, for their part, are only too eager to listen to her. For Geetha Rani, each difficult situation is just a slo-mo walk past her detractors.

In that sense, Raatchasi’s world is rather superficial. It believes in the goodness of heart. It believes that holding one accountable in and of itself will solve problems. Geetha Rani is merely that mirror of accountability. She is not a consensus builder. Neither is she a patient navigator. She is a benevolent dictator.

This is perhaps what makes Raatchasi watchable. Over the course of the rather short runtime of 2 hours and a few minutes, the film doesn’t drown us in boredom. The lectures, while plenty, are short. The tactics, while strange, make for powerful visuals. If just removing caste symbols and burning them would solve caste-based violence, who wouldn’t want to cheer for that! The people, while flaky, turn around quickly and dramatically. The situation, hitherto bleak, gets a ray of hope. The easy wins and the corresponding lectures make social change look not just achievable, but quite simple.

And, it doesn’t hurt that the film is headlined by a woman, for whom I was rooting even before I went to watch the film.