Ms. Representation: The wonderful women of Awe
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema, and this week it's about the women in Awe
When I went in to watch Prashanth Varma’s Awe last week, I had no clue who was in it or what it was about. I had just seen a poster (which featured a coffee cup) and read a few lines of a review (on Cinema Express), and decided to just try my luck. I walked away really impressed with what the film managed to pull off. A motley crew of famous actresses, in a wonderfully weird acrobatic display of genre as well as gender-bending skills, make Awe a film of note and has already endeared Prashanth Varma to me. His casting is nearly pitch perfect. Including Nani as the light, comedic, talking fish and Ravi Teja as the tree that delivers punch dialogues, Srinivas Avasarala (who is the director of one of my favourite rom-coms Oohalu Gusagusalaade) as Shiva the nerd who wants to time travel, Murali Sharma as the cruel, asking-to-be-humbled magician, and Priyadarshi Pullikonda as the chef-in-waiting.
Now that I am done with the formality of acknowledging all these men, you’ll wonder what’s left. How can this movie be about women when it’s got all these men? Here’s how. This film also features Nithya Menen as Krishna (she of the ‘picks roles that speak to the sensible’ fame), Kajal Aggarwal as Kali (in a wonderful role that plays on her ability to keep a straight face and not reveal what’s going on in her mind), Devadarshini as Parvathy (who after Marma Desam has finally been cast in a role that fits her perfectly and I wish more roles come her way after this), Regina Cassandra as Meera (in an amazingly fun avatar looking convincingly bewildered), young Kaitlyn D’mello as Moksha who’s in on some magic realism/religious mysticism trip and Eesha Rebba as Radha, who looks like one thing, and turns out to be something else, much to our delight. That’s a lot of ladies, right? And here’s the kicker, each of their roles is fascinating. In this genre-a-minute movie that could have easily been a web series (I would watch one more of a similarly themed film, with a largely female cast, if it came by Varma) things change really fast and nothing is as it looks. And as Parvathy says to Shiva closer to the big reveal, the film is one big ‘mis-direction’. A magic trick that plays on your mind.
Spoiler alert – Nithya Menen and Eesha Rebbe play (Telugu cinema’s first?) lesbian couple and Nithya Menen’s speech about sexuality was something I appreciated listening to, not because it was righteous, but because she delivered her lines convincingly while looking convinced. It was a remarkable moment. But without giving away too much I would like to also add that Awe, gives not one but if you think about it, two lesbian couples… As I said earlier, it’s so weird and wonderful. The gender-bending conversation between Shiva and Parvathy is charming, witty and Devadarshini’s ‘look’ (both make-up wise and expression-wise) is on the money. She has the look of someone who knows something everyone else does not. And she keeps that look, one filled with scorn, authority and mysticism going for as long as she’s there. Incredulously.
As for Regina Cassandra, I am hoping to see her in a horror film. I do not watch horror films, at all. Ever. But if she were in one, I would watch for her eyes speak of horror better than most actors today. It is not a faint fear. It is not a fear of someone who’s weak. Her eyes and face, in this film, at the sight of something otherworldly speak of true horror – that isn’t laced with ‘feminine’ coy hand-reversed-and-placed-over-mouth kind of fear. But true and utter fear for life that is fierce and goes to someplace I haven’t seen women in horror films go to. She is going through something, and alone, as in most horror films. Except it’s incredible to watch her, it’s not boring and you aren’t yelling at her – why would you do that? You are in on it with her.
Kajal Aggarwal, without a doubt, must listen more to whatever instincts made her choose this film. She glides in and out of the frames, looking seamless, and in fact, it is her role that looks the most like it belongs, and for a reason, of course. She breathes easy and looks convinced of what she’s saying and doing. She looks different. Good different. And I am happy for her.
And as for Prashanth Varma, he has done more for Telugu cinema and the way roles are written for women in the industry than most people have done in their entire lives, with this one film. If he wants he can rest on this alone and go ahead and do whatever else his heart desires. I do hope he doesn’t rest though. What I appreciated most was that he found the right mix of art, heart, and conscience. He doesn’t use abuse and sexuality as tokens or props that make for interesting plot points while also getting him brownie points. By having Krishna deliver a new-age upadesa on sexuality and having Kali rush through emotions that destroy her from within, and having all of these drive the premise of the film, he showcases his commitment to finding that balance between righteousness and the right thing.