Aadai Movie Review: A rebel without a cause
The biggest problem with the film is that the it's end makes its centrepiece feels like a gimmick
Aadai begins by narrating the story of Nangeli -- a woman from an oppressed community who protested against Breast Tax, a sickening practice of asking women from the oppressed communities to pay if they wanted to cover their breasts. In a brief animated sequence, Aadai shows Nangeli’s rebellion and about how she cut off her breasts in protest and eventually died fighting against the practice. The sequence ends by saying that all the rights we enjoy have a blood-stained history. One would think, with a title like Aadai and such an empathic start that the film would address the intricate, layered politics behind clothing. We could not be more wrong.
Let me give you some context first. We have Suthanthira Kodi (Amala Paul), who prefers to use the alias, Kamini. A ‘bold, brash, arrogant, daredevil’ woman. The first half is spent trying to make us understand who Kamini is. Everything is a potential dare to her, and she will do anything to win a bet. Her mom (Sriranjani) tells her that she couldn’t be a docile newsreader, dolled up in a saree, speaking fluent Tamil. Kamini accepts the challenge. Jenny (Ramya Subramaniam) dares her to read the news naked and again, Kamini doesn’t shy away until her friends force her to stop. It is all about proving a point. Kamini is an unapologetic bully and it is only fitting that she runs a prank show on a TV channel. After an inebriated night, Kaamini wakes up alone, naked, in an empty building.
Cast: Amala Paul, Vivek Prasanna, Ramya Subramaniam
Director: Rathna Kumar
In an era where cinema objectifies women’s bodies at every opportunity, Aadai’s gaze remains unflinchingly dignified. The nude sequence is Aadai’s centerpiece and crowning glory. Cinematographer Vijay Karthik deserves an extended round of applause for some terrific, terrific work. The duo finds some extremely innovative angles to capture Kamini in the most graceful manner possible. This beautifully staged sequence is a lesson in perspective. Rathna Kumar says as much as well. The first object Kamini picks up to cover herself is a mirror. That mirror is held to us, the society. What we see, is the reflection of our perspective. And I am at a loss to describe how important that respectful gaze is. Amala Paul is brilliant as well. It requires an insane amount of courage to pick a role like this and deliver with such conviction.
However, I wish the film had been clearer with its intent as much it is with its form. The biggest problem of Aadai is that the film’s end makes its centrepiece feel like a gimmick. Amala Paul, in an interview, likened the director Rathna Kumar to Kamini, saying that Kamini is Rathna himself. Remember what I said about making a point? Aadai feels like an accomplished dare; as if someone challenged Rathna to make an aesthetic film about a naked woman. It's like he's checking a list for a 'bold film' -- scenes with drugs, references to feminism, women drinking, mentions of condoms etc. The writing seems all over the place, unsure of what it wants to say.
Yes, the film rebels, but against what exactly? The lack of empathy or any sort of etiquette? The toxic hate that spreads on social media? The ‘misuse of freedom’? When did that become an issue of gender more than one of humanity and ethics? Why make a woman suffer the trauma that Kamini faces in those forty minutes? Why name the film Aadai? At the end of the film, Kamini goes to back her original name, Suthanthira Kodi. Again, I am not sure what to make of it. Or should I just assume that Kamini is 'free' because now her objectives are different?
Kamini teases her mother for not knowing the difference between feminism and communism. Feminism has always been about advocating equality in the treatment of all genders. A character compares Nangeli’s struggle with the 'Free the Nipple' campaign. She asks, ”Avanga maraika moodinatha, neenga kaata poradaringa.” Haven’t protests sparked when someone robs us of the right to choose the way we want to be seen? After all, even men were banned from going shirtless until a hundred years ago. Nangeli fought against inequality between castes, because oppressed women were forced to not wear upper cloth. And now women, are questioning why their bodies are incessantly sexualised while the other gender isn’t. What can be more disappointing to see a film subvert the same philosophy its form propagates?