90ml Review: Little finesse, but a film that needs to be protected nevertheless
At a time when dull adult comedies are all the rage, the all-woman focus in 90ML helps
The trailer of 90ML had caused quite some furore on social media (for what it’s worth). People were mostly upset about the ‘crass innuendoes’, of all the ‘debauchery’. It’s hard not to notice that many of those outraging didn’t seem to have found our recent trend of brodeo adult comedies (perhaps I should use that last word in single quotes) too problematic. This isn’t as much an exercise in whataboutery as it is about wondering why the reactions are as polarised. Are the protesters angry about the intoxication and innuendoes on screen, or are they angry about women being shown to partake? The latter makes me want to defend this film, to rally for it. The more audience in my theatre insulted those women on screen for doing what men on screen have done for decades, the more I felt protective about Azhagiya Asura’s 90ML. The film’s arguing that women be free to lead their lives, make their choices, and without judgment. Does this mean mistaken choices too? Damn right, it does. Does 90ML feel a bit too simplistically propagandist? Does it seem a bit too far-fetched that a group of women, who have never tried alcohol before, go as wild on their first night together? Yes, and yes, but its faults don’t concern any danger it poses to society. 90ML, its title notwithstanding, isn’t about women being lured into alcoholism; these women only meet once every few months, after all. All the outraging makes you wonder how our society would react should we make a woman the protagonist in a film like Dev D. 90ML isn’t great cinema, sure, but it’s still far better than some of our recent adult comedies, if only because you see it from the perspective of women.
Director: Azhagiya Asura
Cast: Oviyaa, Anson Paul, Masoom Shankar, Monisha Ram, Shree Gopika, Bommu Lakshmi
It’s a film about a woman of action, quite appropriately named Rita (in keeping with the 1970 film, Revolver Reeta, I imagine). It’s the sort of name we have typically given dispensable, negative female characters in cinema whose job is mainly to titillate. In the 1970 film, a woman seeks revenge against a group of men who murder her family; here too, it’s about a woman who charges at men, specifically those who won’t let her — or other women — live the way they want. Refreshingly, she’s got no traumatic past that’s made her this way. The shaping of her character is quite in keeping with the strengths of the Bigg Boss Oviyaa we became familiar with and liked (her Bigg Boss punchline doesn’t work though). Rita speaks her mind, and laughs uninhibitedly, and Oviyaa doesn’t really get too exposed in the emotional scenes either, because there’s not a great deal of them. She’s generally dealing with other people’s sob stories, and sometimes, wants nothing more than to escape them. Sometimes, she’s leading them on to fight a group of gangsters. It rings artificial, and their victory rings even more so, but the director’s going for a metaphor. The audience jeered, and that made me not mind the scene so much.
Rita’s ostensible objective in this film is to free her female friends from the shackles of their respective problems they seem to have resigned to. Thamarai has resigned to having a husband who won’t pay heed to her advice. Kajal has resigned to her job of child-rearing, at the expense of physical intimacy with her spouse. Suganya has resigned to the failure of her relationship. This is a film that’s designed to encourage women to act; a film not made with great finesse, but one that I still took a liking to. It’s a film that tries to push individual happiness to the fore. In one revealing scene, Rita advises another: “Don’t give up on your happiness for someone else.” It may ring selfish and may seem like a put-off, but if society’s burdened you with the expectation of selflessness, perhaps it’s important to remind women not to forget to look out for themselves.
Much like in our other recent adult comedies, I didn’t much care for the sex jokes in this film. I didn’t find them to be offensive, no, but just not particularly clever or funny. I suppose I’m a bit too old to find it funny that female genitals could be equated to bungalows, or that male organs can be referred to as remote controls. It just seems like a lot of juvenile talk. But I found myself cutting these female characters more slack, mainly because they have likely been raised, told that these conversations are taboo. It’s probably why they are all constantly engaged in nervous giggles and laughter.
There’s a fair bit of gender role reversal in this film. Rita does a lot of what are typically thought to be ‘male tasks’. She opens beer bottles with her mouth, she is aggressive and at one point, breaks a bottle and threatens to stab someone, she teaches women how to smoke cigarettes, she has a contact at a TASMAC wine shop, she’s good with bikes, she drinks beer and brandy (not vodka and gin, as women are generally shown drinking)… you get the gist. Meanwhile, in a scene, a man cooks and takes care of the baby while the women sit around to drink. Another man’s constantly imploring his wife to stop drinking. Yet another is resigned to a marriage, but is too meek to do anything about it. If you feel irked by a scene in this film, I think you should ask yourself if you’d react differently, were the genders switched. If the answer is yes, probe yourself further.
There’s plenty of kissing in this adult-certified film; I’m mentioning this in relief, for it’s time we grew up and stopped making a big deal of it. I wish they’d also not muted the dialogues, and tried to engage in the unproductive task of protecting adults from… adult talk. I’m also quite relieved that the two stalker-types in this film aren’t rewarded for their efforts. At the end, one of them asks, “Enakku mattum yen ushaaraaga maatengudhu?” Playing a cameo, STR — whose percussion-heavy loud music in this film I didn’t much care for — retorts with a dull response. I wish he’d said, “Nee ‘ushaar’ nu laam pesara varaikkum, unakku yaarume kadaikka maataanga.” After all, it’s this sort of commodification that quite riles up Rita, who doesn’t want to be thought of as property that can be owned or controlled. It’s why she seems to be against getting married, as her boyfriend suggests that only when they are married can he truly feel that she ‘belongs’ to him.
On occasion, Rita’s self-love threatens to seem like unhealthy narcissism. When she breaks up with a man, for instance, you feel she could have been softer with the blow. “I love myself! I don’t ever want to change!” she says. I’d argue though that a willingness to change is a crucial trait, gender notwithstanding; one that needs to be celebrated in a film that’s looking to change mindsets. 90ML may not be made with finesse, have great performances, or be driven by tasteful music, but I’m glad that someone saw, during all the fretting and fuming over dull adult comedies being made in Tamil cinema, that by the simple trick of switching genders, we could have an interesting film on hand.