Arun Prabu Purushothaman’s Aruvi is a perfect example of the problems and possibilities of the contemporary Tamil film. It is more or less beyond doubt that Tamil cinema is the most exciting of all Indian cinemas at the moment (and for some time now) in its audacious subjects, its lack of hesitancy to treat those subjects unfashionably and the innovative use of various technical aspects of the cinematic form. Yet a lot of its films are flawed by old societal patterns that persist even in these new films and Aruvi is an exemplar of that malady.
If the first half of the film sets up the perfect foil for the spoilt femininity in which the narrator grows – she moves from pampered and spoilt brat to ostracised vermin – the second half destroys the possibilities that emerge from the psychic effects of that breach.
If the characteristic (Tamil cinema is full of them) long speech that Aruvi delivers just before the interval, in which she pretty much takes down the bourgeois, heterosexual, familial fantasy, exposing the lies and greed that undergird it, the second half shows her pathetically crawling right back into it.
The idea that Aruvi is a feminist is destroyed in the second half but even as just a complex character - not every strong female character has to be a feminist - any consistency is forgotten in the rather conventional need to offer closure to the viewers. Why couldn’t the viewers have been left with the destabilising shock they had at the interval even at the end?
As if the undercutting that Aruvi offers of her own critique – crying for her father (the man who threw her on to the streets without so much as looking back) or smiling coyly at the possibility of a boyfriend/husband who loves her (when enough men have showed her what love really is) is not enough, the film makes it worse by having her rapists chill out with her both in the TV studio (even after one has tried to kill her minutes ago) and at the end and even the terrorism-paranoid Indian state official who slaps her silly because he can’t deal with her exposé of his own silliness sends her a congratulatory note (some delusion about the Indian state there!).
It would be okay if this were just lazy unthinking writing and plot development (the film-makers – director and crew - are after all just out of film school) but it is much worse. After audaciously throwing down the gauntlet, the film-makers quite seriously try to mop up the mess with it and send the middle class home feeling placated.
Luckily, a metal glove can’t clean up much or too well. The sensitive viewer of Aruvi can take home a bit of what has destabilised her/him and work with it. And there are quite a few delicious moments to work with. Whether it is Aruvi’s realisation of her utter selfishness and callous treatment of her aravani friend Emily, the levelling otherness of people dying of HIV/AIDS in a government shelter, the memory of her haughtiness in not offering a sanitary pad to a schoolmate who’d stained her skirt, moments stay with the viewer that do not allow for easy and tidy resolution.
Aruvi is a flawed and human character but the second half insists, as Tamil cinema has to do with women, that she is a saint. She had never had sex but got infected with HIV through a random accident, she really wanted money for her father’s operation before she used it to take off for a holiday, she really is a sweet little girl who was abandoned and really just needs the love she earlier had back to restore her.
A busful of it is provided, filled with her parents who abandoned her to her rapists and violators to a potential boyfriend and all is well with the world. She is produced as total victim offered totalising reparation.
Aruvi the flawed, spoilt brat is far more interesting but Tamil cinema and society cannot stomach her. The nectar of nurtured femininity becomes the poison that makes her the venomous Aruvi but her anger cannot stay with us. Her shattered sense of the world is not allowed to stay shattered when indeed there is no possibility of it being restored. It must melt into her dying forgiveness of all and everyone’s forgiveness of her. It must turn into a patchwork sky of stars.
By association, Emily, also read as a Tamil woman, must not be allowed more than a reference to her stubborn self that allows her to fight AIDS and the world. She is also reduced to a blubbering wreck rooting for Aruvi.
Aruvi’s imminent death is also a tired cliché. The woman who questions patriarchy must die. If you are not the good girl whose feminism, like Jyothika’s in the remake of Magalir Mattum, only extends to organising women’s reunions while ensconced in the lovely husband-marriage dream yourself, then you must die. Tamil society will not tolerate you.
It is sad that even young filmmakers are unable to free themselves from the sickening sexism of Tamil (read Indian) society but it is reassuring that at least they offer us glimpses of what a truly radical Tamil (and Indian) cinema might look like if real risks were taken.
More columns by Ashley Tellis:
Pissing in the wind against the Notinmyname campaign
What Justice Karnan case reveals about the Judiciary
Shah Bano to Shayara Bano: Religious laws fail women
Should 'gruesome' images be shared? Yes.
The great infection: No reason to celebrate Kanhaiya's release
Why our culture did not allow Rohith to live
Juvenile Bill: We want punishment, but no solutions
Chennai and the politics of shit
Ashley Tellis is a freelance academic and writer