Aadai charmed and confused me in equal measure

I was charmed by Aadai’s sense of humour. There’s a character called Senthil who gets called Censor (from ‘Sen sir’, get it?). There’s one nicknamed Sambavam, with an enjoyable back story that ties in very well with the main idea of the film. I even enjoyed the crass ‘vilakku’ joke, which again, served as a micro example of the film’s focal point: Harassment of people in the pretext of humour.

I was confused that this film was titled Aadai. A better title would have been, ‘Hashtag’. Aadai seems far more comfortable in discussing the ‘hashtag’ culture and how it has affected the world, than it does about feminism and the politics of clothing.

I was charmed by Aadai’s central character being a woman—Kamini alias Sudhanthira Kodi (?)—who doesn’t conform and takes pride in it. She rides—no, races—a motorbike, she couldn’t care less about a bindi, and uses obscenities freely. I liked that Aadai doesn’t judge her for these choices.

I was confused by Aadai’s commentary, or the lack of it, on… ‘aadai’. It begins with a illustration-story of a woman who kills herself to protest against ‘Breast Tax’. This sombre beginning aside, there’s never a sense that the film truly delves into the socio-cultural rules that govern what women wear, despite a substantial—sensitively shot—portion of the second half being about the struggle of a naked woman to protect herself. It’s intriguing and disturbing to note how nudity restricts—and how true this is particularly for a woman. It is telling that she cannot trust strangers, not even the police, for fear of being shamed, for fear of her safety. And yet, it’s confusing that the film in its overzealousness to attack the ‘hashtag’ culture, takes on the ‘free the nipple’ campaign, which, if anything, would have benefitted Kamini a great deal. There’s a different sort of criticism for the campaign, but Aadai’s disagreement with it seems in conflict with itself, and fairly superficial.

I was charmed by the film’s seeming good intentions. This is probably the first film to come out so strongly in support of the MeToo movement, for instance. The last scene seems like a cathartic takedown of a popular lyricist accused of sexual assault; there’s an attempt at a joke on the name, Radharavi. It’s evident that this film cares, and isn’t looking to make sweeping assaults on internet movements. In discussing the ‘prank’ culture—the truly problematic ones like Jalals, for instance—I liked that the film approaches the distinction between ‘prank’ and ‘nuisance’ with clarity. Having said that, I definitely don’t think life has to be absolutely utilitarian, and that every act of amusement must look to target positive social change, like Kamini’s eventual transformation seems to suggest. Mere avoidance of negative impact is a worthy enough goal.

I was confused by the implication of an important line or two. For example, in this film that ostensibly means well, a victimised food delivery girl tells Kamini, “Maanamaavadhu nu nee apdiye vandhuruvanu paathen”, thoroughly confused me. Kamini’s response, “Naan avlo mosam illa”, positively infuriated me. Kamini is a victim of her circumstances. She’s naked, bleeding, starved, and in real danger of being abused. Her mother is depressed about her absence, and yet, amid all these pressing problems, we are supposed to attach some sense of misplaced pride about her refusal to walk out on the road naked? For a film that seems to mean well for women, the implication that shame is above survival seems a bit strange. It’s a society-inflicted tragedy that she is not able to overcome that idea.

I was charmed by Amala Paul who has shown much courage, passion and maturity to be able to do as her character demanded. She’s wonderful as the devil-may-care non-conformist. I also liked that the film, at no point, looks to capitalise on all the nudity in the second half. The gaze is always dignified. She’s surrounded by pigeons that happily flap in and out of the property, clothes be damned, and it’s poignant irony that this woman subjects herself to such torment on account of her lack of them. There’s another fascinating irony. At the beginning of the film, you are shown that Kamini’s idea of a nightmare is seeing herself decked in a saree. Curiously, her real nightmare turns out to be a situation in which she would do anything to get a piece of cloth to cover herself up. I trust there’s no more subtext to this, except for this seemingly poetic contrast.

I was confused by the decision to bring in a fashionably late twist and an accompanying flashback. A particular cause of grouse for me was the usual depiction of a small-town girl as being the noble spirit in the film. She’s dressed conservatively, her hair neatly in plaits for the most part. It’s contrasted for effect with Kamini, who’s strutting about with sunglasses and jeans. As I see it, there’s enough grey in Kamini — she can get aggravatingly insensitive about others’ plight when she wants to get her way. There is little reason then to contrast it with the pure white of a small-town girl. You have to wonder what message it sends people.

I was charmed by the film’s refusal to to overtly vilify men. The men who are drinking with Kamini are portrayed to be quite well-behaved. Despite being drugged and drunk out of their minds, they do not misbehave. One even turns away as Kamini begins to strip. Later, there’s a man who’s not as well-behaved and is shown to try and capture Kamini’s nakedness with his phone. However, it’s anybody’s guess what he’s stepped into the property for. Is it only curiosity, or is there malice? Would he be decent enough to help if Kamini asked him? After all, as the film points out, all sorts of decent people do horrible things with their phones. Kamini cannot trust him though, and it is at this tense moment that his phone rings: “Manidhi veliye va…” from Iraivi. Later, a couple of men enter the property looking for scraps, and if the situation had been more conducive, would she have asked them for assistance? Would they have obliged? These are the best bits of the film, as Kamini wrestles with her instincts… as you ask what you’d have done in her situation.

I was confused by Kamini’s behaviour. We are told she is “spontaneous, sharp and bold”, and yet, when stuck with nothing except her mobile phone (even if one without balance), she happily plays video games, paying no heed to precious battery power. She can’t call anyone for lack of a way to recharge her phone’s balance (an aspect I wish they had dropped a hint about earlier in the film), and yet, she’s able to order food. Perhaps it’s a toll-free number? I probably missed it.

I was charmed by how well the intoxication of Kamini and friends has been captured. The whole trippiness is imaginatively shot, with quite a bit drawn from the imagery around them. In fact, there are quite a few beautiful shots in this film. The mass-y moment that shows her, wrapped in toilet paper and armed with an iron weapon like the sort you see in Murugadoss films. Later, there’s a lovely top angle shot as she finally steps out into freedom, while it is raining buckets. It feels like an ode to The Shawshank Redemption, with Andy Dufresne stepping out of his prison of decades. It’s a different sort of prison for Kamini, with her single day inside her office, feeling like Dufresne’s decades.

Ultimately, I was charmed by the feeling of impending dread that flavours this film, but was left confused by the odd detours the film later takes: like the sermonising end, like the policemen being milked for humour… I was charmed by how Aadai began and progressed, but confused by where and how it actually ended.

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