Wonder Women Movie Review: Anjali Menon's feel-good drama invites you to be vulnerable
The economical 80-min screenplay of Wonder Women packs a lot of emotions
One of my favourite moments in Anjali Menon's new film is when the principal characters, the women, bring their husbands to the prenatal class 'Sumana' run by Nadiya Moidu's Nandita. During an interactive session, a baby doll becomes an object of study for each couple. Some husbands are good at handling it -- one even overdoes his conversation with the 'baby' -- while some find it extremely awkward. Veni's (Padmapriya) husband belongs to the latter. He admits that, like most Indian men who, from childhood, are conditioned to believe that being vulnerable or soft doesn't suit a man, such an experience is a first for him. And Veni assures him he is not alone, and she is there to share the burden; they'll handle this together.
Director: Anjali Menon
Cast: Nadiya Moidu, Parvathy Thiruvoth, Padmapriya, Nithya Menen, Archana Padmini, Amruta Subash
It's one of the many sweet moments in the film which made me tear up. The above situation, in particular, did something more to me: it made me reflect on how we consume movies and the awkwardness some -- especially men -- feel when watching soft emotions in films. Yes, this is a movie intended to register a therapeutic effect for expectant mothers and their partners. But what if it's also Anjali's way of telling us that vulnerability is not something to be ashamed of -- a scene with Parvathy, Nithya Menen and Padmapriya towards the end of the film illustrates this very point.
How many would admit to reaching for the tissues at either heartbreaking or heartwarming scenes? Isn't it possible that some may have discreetly done it but act tough on the outside by telling everyone that feel-good films are cringe-inducing? It reminded me of my conversation with Vineeth Sreenivasan after the release of Hridayam -- about whether harsh reactions to soft emotions in his feel-good entertainers bother him, and his response was, "Isn't it nice when emotions have an aspirational quality?"
The emotions in Wonder Women have this aspirational quality. However, in doing so, it's not being 'unrealistic' because pseudo-positivity is one of the things that the film addresses in more than one place. Wonder Women addresses the fear that accompanies any major life decision, in this case, parenthood. But you don't have to be an expecting parent -- or married, even -- to connect to this film. It's about venturing outside your comfort zone and not being worried about what lies on the other side. It's about being prepared for any outcome.
Aside from Veni, the other women who show up at Sumana -- a very comforting place -- are Mini (Parvathy), Nora (Nithya Menen), Saya (Sayanora Philip), Archana Padmini (Gracy), and Jaya (Amruta Subash). These are women of different temperaments played by wonderfully talented women. Most of them get along well, particularly Nora and Veni, given their similar wavelengths. However, Jaya, a Marathi-speaking Mumbaikar, feels like a fish out of the water because she doesn't comprehend English. But she, too, is made to feel at home by the others. Then there is the outsider, Mini (Parvathy), who remains constantly distant; she is the only one hesitant to connect.
I mentioned earlier about pseudo-positivity and why this film, despite its smile-inducing ability, is not trying to endorse it. I don't think Anjali believes that saying something like, "Be positive; everything will be alright," is automatically supposed to make everything hunky dory. When these women first enter Sumana, they are asked by Nandita what they all feel. They mention majorly positive emotions. But once the first session is over, and it is time to note down, on a blackboard, what their genuine emotions are at that particular point, you learn that they are all not as relaxed as they seemed at first. Mini, who showed up last, adds to the mystery when she writes, "Nothing."
Mini, as I said earlier, is the loner of the pack. She is going through a lot, as evident from her phone conversation with her lawyer. She participates in the activities suggested by Nandita, but she isn't keen to establish a kinship with the other members. But there is one revealing moment -- again, it's the dummy baby scene -- where you begin to see a drastic change in her. There are no dialogues, but through her body language, she seems to convey that her baby is the only family member she is willing to have, and she doesn't want to lose it. She also exhibits little signs of warming up in one scene when Veni and Nora join her when Mini is doing yoga all by herself.
The runtime of Wonder Women is a mere 80 minutes, but Anjali packs a lot of emotions into it. The focus is not always on the activities at Sumana; it also finds time to paint a rudimentary picture of the home lives of all these women and their family members. But, these portions are not as effective as the others. Some dialogue exchanges, such as the ones between Roma and her hubby, for instance, bear an artificial quality.
However, these portions also give us a couple of unexpectedly delightful moments, such as the ones involving Veni's mother-in-law, with whom she initially has a tricky relationship; the latter eventually proves herself to be a worthy ally. Her transformation in a wonderfully clever scene where Veni asks her husband to accompany her to Sumana elicits a much-welcome feeling of relief.
It also finds some humour in the hippie couple portrayed by Saya and her husband. At one point, the latter's unrealistic way of calming her gets on her nerves. "I'm not a goddess," she says. "I'm a manushya sthree (human woman)."
Aside from facts and misconceptions pertaining to childbirth (and its stereotypical portrayal in movies), the economical screenplay explores the backgrounds of all characters in a short time, including a possible explanation for why Nandita started Sumana in the first place.
Manesh Madhavan's cinematography is interested only in the bare necessities; it's not distracting. Praveen Prabhakar's crisp editing ensures a smooth momentum, while Govind Vasantha's peppy guitar-heavy score lends the necessary warmth.