Gargi Movie Review: Strong performances, all-round craft excellence make this an affecting film
A clever script elevated by invested performances, a compelling soundtrack, and an assured director at the helm of a powerful and important film
One of my favourite aspects of Gargi is its interest in keeping things real and intimate. It’s a film that doesn’t want to be cinematically manipulative. This is even said in as many words when a senior lawyer mocks the inexperienced lawyer, Indrans (Kaali Venkat): “Idhu enna cinema court nu nenachiya?” And that’s why Sai Pallavi, playing Gargi, becomes so important. She’s real; she dresses and looks and walks and talks her part. You’re probably thinking that it’s what actors should be expected to do—look and be their part—and yet, in the era of women being pressured to look flawless, films like Gargi and their protagonists offer the hope that cinema isn’t entirely disconnected from reality, that characters aren't entirely disconnected from people. This realism also comes through in how the lower middle-class Gargi responds, when she’s thrown, without warning, into a situation she has no inkling about. She sums up what most of us would feel when having to deal with swarming lawyers and police officers: “Naan ippo enna pannanum?” The realism is also in the film's smaller moments... like in the why of Gargi’s home suffering a power cut, but the lovely touch of director Gautham Ramachandran lies in how when the power returns, it serves to symbolise a positive development in Gargi’s situation.
Director: Gautham Ramachandran
Cast: Sai Pallavi, Kaali Venkat, Saravanan
There’s realism in how the courtroom scenes are presented as well. There's a particular emphasis on documentation—an aspect so important and yet so ignored in cinema for an obvious reason: Documentation doesn’t lend itself to dramatic tension. Director Gautham Ramachandran tries to resolve this by having the text jump out of the paper onto the screen, even as amateur lawyer Indrans tries to make sense of the legalese. It’s a smart filmmaking choice to make the mundane seem interesting. Gargi, in fact, is an example of quality cinematic craft. See how it uses slow-motion shots to have you sink into Gargi’s mind. Take, for example, the scene of her father (RS Sivaji) being escorted away from court, even as an angry mob looks to get its revenge. The scene hints at a potential murder and there’s plenty of tension, but the focus is not on what could happen to Gargi’s father, but on how Gargi is responding to the situation. Govind Vasantha’s atmospheric score helps a lot too. His well-known love for violins comes to the fore often, but it’s his use of all those audio distortions to communicate Gargi’s mental unrest that I particularly enjoyed.
The script is clever, in how it presents a straightforward, even if horrendous, crime. This isn’t about a victim tracking down perpetrators. This isn’t even about Gargi working out the answers on behalf of the victim. The uniqueness of Gargi, the film, is how it shifts the focus from the conventional victim to a different sort of victim, one related to an accused. Through this choice, the film explores many biases—of the legal system, of Gargi, and why, of us too. Did her father commit a crime? Do we know? Would it matter if we did, for, as Indrans says, “It’s not about what you know, but what you can prove.” It’s a film that constantly strays away from usual tropes associated with such stories—the catharsis of seeing the bad guys get destroyed, the sorrow of seeing the victim’s face, the self-righteousness of the woman protagonist tearing the men a new one… Gargi, the film, is named so because it’s interested mainly in capturing the transformation of its eponymous protagonist.
And boy, do the invested performances help. Sai Pallavi and Kaali Venkat are great and share an easy sibling-like camaraderie that endears them to us. Saravanan, playing the victim’s father, is terrific too, especially in those scenes in which he communicates a mixture of rage, helplessness, and humiliation. “Ava enna appa-va paakalai, aambalayaa paakaraa” is a great line, yes, but Saravanan sells it with such anguish that it’s impossible not to well up. He gets another beautiful scene that has him walking into a home with a knife. I could tell what was coming, but good performances have a way of providing pleasure, even when you know what’s coming.
The writing is careful not to make Indrans a male saviour figure—a common pitfall, including in the recent Jai Bhim. If the film slips a bit, it’s during those awkward attempts at humour between Gargi and Indrans. Perhaps those were born out of the temptation of having an actor like Kaali Venkat who's good at humour? Another awkward choice is naming a ‘good’ policeman character Bennix Jayaraj. Given the horrors of the Bennicks-Jayaraj case and the images of police brutality, it feels like a misstep to attribute the names to a policeman, even if the intention is perhaps to show that one dutiful policeman might have made the difference. This same policeman character is shown to offer a weapon to the victim’s father, serving as an accessory to potential violence—which does complicate the discourse on how good the said policeman is, in the first place.
Nevertheless, these are minor misgivings in this film about many underdogs. Gargi stands by many such people. It stands by its transwoman judge, who is at the receiving end of sly digs. It stands by its stuttering amateur lawyer, who, when stressed, struggles to make an argument. And above all, it stands by its women. You see this never more than when the film doesn’t end with Gargi seeing her father’s case through to a resolution. It ends with her own transformation.