Yashoda Movie Review: The ideas are there, but the execution isn’t
Fascinating ideas don't translate into exciting storytelling in this Samantha-led actioner
I feel compelled to be kinder towards films that feature women protagonists. We don’t get enough of them, and it’s empowering and cathartic to see women kick a**. Samantha is at the centre of Yashoda and plays a character straight out of the hero playbook. There are fight sequences, there’s a rousing reveal, there’s sister sentiment, there’s a leader angle… And yet, it’s not a protagonist a man could have played. For one, pregnancy is at the thick of things, and it adds flavour that the protagonist, Yashoda, is going through it herself, as she uncovers a horrific conspiracy that exploits women victims. At the end, in fact, there’s something about these women joining to fight back—but it's just cursory symbolism, with no one except Samantha’s Yashoda ever doing much to help themselves. However, it’s still fascinating to behold the joys of ‘testosterone cinema’ playing out with a heroine, instead of a hero—and it helps that Samantha sells the action choreography really well. There’s genuine urgency about her movement, there’s a method to her fighting, and when adversaries collapse around her, you buy that they have been outfought. The action blocks are perhaps the brightest point of Yashoda.
Cast: Samantha, Unni Mukundan, Varalaxmi Sarathkumar, Rao Ramesh, Murali Sharma
It's a film with many curious ideas. There’s the exploration of surrogacy and a half-hearted attempt to capture the lives of consenting women. There’s a medical facility—no, a high-tech prison—complete with regular audio announcements of the schedule of patients—no, “inmates”. The whole design of the place reminded me of Black Mirror. There’s a fascinating idea about the lengths a woman goes to, to preserve her beauty, and some commentary about what ‘real beauty’ is. There’s even some espionage and sleuthing. And yet, it’s impossible to shake off the realisation that Yashoda should have been a far, far superior film, given the weight of these ideas. A big problem is how unconvincingly these ideas are fleshed out. For instance, Yashoda is shown to forge a deep bond with other inmates, but it happens over unconvincing bits-and-pieces of flaky camaraderie. For the longest time, the screenplay feels disjointed with two separate tracks, with the second, especially—about cops played by Murali Sharma and Sampath, investigating a murder—lacking any real purpose and charm, serving only to distract from the events featuring Samantha.
The big horrific reveals in the second half don’t affect as they should, even if the film does get marginally more interesting when the Madhubala (Varalaxmi) flashback plays out. But even here, pay attention to how a beauty pageant is weakly conceived and executed, and how Madhubala’s character gets introduced, as she throws a stray line about us seeking beauty in even deities. The brightest point in this flashback is when Varalaxmi’s Madhubala, Rao Ramesh’s politician (the actor is a hoot, as always), and Unni Mukundan’s nerd-stalker have a three-way conflict—and the bizarre, exaggerated way in which it plays out results in some campy fun.
While the film—on the surface—is about surrogacy and how women are exploited (a rather nuanced topic a simplistic film like this doesn’t have the stomach for), its portrayal of certain types of women is rather revealing, I think. Let’s leave aside the bad choice to have Samantha look as made-up for a role that’s supposed to be grounded, even if not thoroughly impoverished. There’s an early scene between Yashoda and her friends, as each woman reveals their reason for agreeing to be a surrogate mother. While many talk of poverty and suffering, one woman—with short, coloured hair and a rather ‘modern’ demeanour—speaks of wanting to afford an iPhone. I thought, “Fair enough, it’s your body, your rules.” Well, a twist in the film betrays its view about such women—and let’s say it’s not exactly progressive. Pay close attention to the ‘good woman’ in this film, Yashoda’s friend, and you’ll see that she’s all dressed up as a traditional woman, with long-plaited hair, bindi... You get the idea. There’s a queer character in the film, the head of a fashion brand, and the film doesn’t do itself any favours with how it portrays this person either. The villain—Madhubala—is one who gets an abortion and doesn’t become a ‘mother’. All of this made me wonder whether Yashoda is conceived as a film meant to valourise pregnancies, meant to reaffirm the dated idea that it’s motherhood that makes a woman. An end scene of childbirth, another previous scene of a woman sharing a story about her husband’s inability to produce a child… All of this makes you wonder.
And of course, when a film and its protagonist are named Yashoda—the foster mother of Krishna—the significance is rather straightforward. And yet, this film, more than once, drums in this idea, even referencing Krishna’s birth at one point. It doesn’t seem to think you’ll get it otherwise. Perhaps if Yashoda had respected us better, we might have ended up with a more nuanced take on the subject of surrogacy and a film that might perhaps have been more deserving of Samantha’s action exploits.