SIFF 2016: Angry Indian Goddesses (Pan Nalin, 2015)

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Contemporary Hindi cinema is not the most hospitable place for women’s stories. Bollywood largely casts them as doting mothers or arm candy for buff heroes. Angry Indian Goddesses begins with an actress (Amrit Maghera) being told by a director to make sure her hips and butt are shaking while she’s struggling against her captors. She blows up at him, declares Bollywood to be fake, and storms off. So, the film explicitly positions itself as a realistic alternative to this brand of escapist cinema which sees women only as sex objects, and a society that mistreats them at every turn. The other opening vignettes show the other main characters lashing out at their oppressors as well.

Billed as India’s first all-out female buddy film, Angry Indian Goddesses concerns the relationship between a group of friends gathering at a bungalow in Goa in order to celebrate the wedding of Freida (Sarah-Jane Dias) to a mystery suitor. This allows for director Pan Nalin to let a host of personalities bounce off each other and let things flow from there. Indeed, it is a pleasure to see these talented actresses inhabit the screen together, free of the pressures of the roles they might have in a normal Bollywood production. It’s a shame that this is such a rare sight.

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Unfortunately, the actresses and their fine work are mostly let down by a film that aims to cram in just about every single possible issue it can into its 115 minutes. Here’s a laundry list of issues the film includes or makes reference to: rape, suicide, homosexuality, arranged marriages, the caste system, fairness creams, harassment, vigilante justice, and more. It simply overwhelms the film.

The ending consists of a series of strange tonal switches: an act of sexual violence disrupts the fabric of the film: our characters become visions of Kali, the Hindu goddess who destroys evil forces; a series of handheld shaky cam images, barely illuminated by flashlights, are punctuated by shocking images of violence; a defiant action against male authority (symbolized by the police) seems like it comes out of another movie altogether. The gentle togetherness of the film’s earlier moments, when the characters were simply allowed to exist together, seems completely forgotten by the film’s final moments. Perhaps this is the point. After incidents such as the 2012 Delhi gang rape case, the only recourse for women to protect themselves is a radical act. But this ending simply registers as unconvincing: it’s a rather obvious attempt to manufacture drama.

So, Angry Indian Goddesses is a movie whose strengths are mostly in the lighthearted atmosphere it conjures up when its characters simply share space and talk to each other; the feeling of solidarity and strength are marvelous. But the film forces the issue, and its later developments aren’t supported by the work done earlier.

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