Director: Pan Nalin
Starring: Sarah-Jane Dias, Amrit Maghera, Anushka Manchanda, Sandhya Mridul, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Rajshri Deshpande, Pavleen Gujral
Promoted as the Indian Bridesmaids or Sex and the City, Pan Nalin’s Angry Indian Goddesses is India’s first female buddy movie, but it uses its light and fun premise to make some biting observations about life as a woman in India.
Photographer Frieda (Sarah-Jane Dias) invites her six closest friends to stay with her for the weekend in her house in Goa and surprises them with the news that she is getting married. These friends come from all walks of life: Madhureeta (Anushka Manchanda) is a singer, Pamela (Pavleen Gujral) is a housewife, Joanna (Amrit Maghera) an aspiring Bollywood actress, Suranjana (Sandhya Mridul) is a powerful corporate executive, Lakshmi (Rajshri Deshpande) is a maid, and Nargis (Tannishtha Chatterjee) an activist. Everyone brings their own issues and experiences to the house, and as they talk, laugh, celebrate and help Frieda prepare for her big day different truths come out. But through all of this one question remains: who is the groom?
Angry Indian Goddesses explodes out of the gates with fantastic energy, setting an early ‘girl power’ tone as it introduces us to the different characters through a montage in which they each stand up to different forms of misogyny encountered in their lives. Despite an element of caricature to each of them, these characters feel like real women. Fleshed out by a sparkling ensemble cast, each character gets their own significant moments and character arc. Such empowered and independent women are a rarity in mainstream Indian cinema which tends to restrict its female characters to love interests, damsels in distress and trophies, a tendency that is highlighted in our introduction to Anglo-Indian actress Joanna as she argues with a Bollywood director who wants nothing more out of her than to wiggle and look sexy.
Through their talking and sharing, the goddesses unpack the experience of being a woman in contemporary India, with all that that involves: marriage pressures including arranged marriages, sexual harassment, family expectations. But this is only one of the topics that Nalin’s film chooses to examine. They also take time to touch on the caste system, homosexuality, discrimination on skin complexion, and more. Each of the goddesses has their own baggage, their own stories that they bring, and the result is that what on the surface is a fun, light, friendship comedy begins to feel a bit overburdened with issues and ultimately offers little resolution of their individual storylines. But we forgive this because we just enjoy spending time with these women.
I’m not usually one for spoilers in a review, but the final act of Angry Indian Goddesses demands discussion. So if you want to stay spoiler free skip the rest of this paragraph. With about 20 minutes left in the film it takes a startling turn. While the girls are out for dinner at a beachside restaurant one of their party goes for a walk alone and her body is discovered gang-raped and left for dead in the sand. In their grief the rest of the women are confronted by a police officer who seems more concerned with what the victim was wearing, why she was out on the beach alone, and why these women were out drinking and partying than in the potential perpetrators of the crime. This is where the true anger of our goddesses emerges. It is the culmination of the film’s exploration of the lived experience of women in India, a nation that has a horrific record of sexual assaults. We hear in the film that a woman is raped every 20 minutes in India. It is a shocking change of gears at a point when you think the film is building towards its happy resolution and as such it really throws you. But after leaving the cinema I couldn’t stop thinking about it. In the moment I found myself annoyed as the light hearted film I had been enjoying so much was ripped away from me. But this narrative hand-break turn is actually the most affecting way to explore the issue of rape. Rape is not something that is foreshadowed, something that gets built up to. Most of the time it is something unforeseen which in an instant can ruin lives. The abruptness and incongruity of this narrative turn gives the viewer just a hint of the feeling of total upheaval that a sexual attack brings.
What starts out as a light, energetic and yet undeniably subversive comedy shifts gear completely by the end of its two hours to being a serious film with a serious message. Despite some flaws (overcrowding of ideas, a clichéd ‘I am Spartacus’ moment in the climax) Angry Indian Goddesses is undoubtedly brave and should prove accessible and engaging for Western audiences.
Review by Duncan McLean
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