India (2019) Dir. Rathna Kumar
Everyone likes a good laugh – except Daily Mail readers as they are humourless, soulless creatures – but there are limits to how far a joke can be taken before it stops being funny and becomes dangerous. Whilst having fun shouldn’t be censured, jokers should at least take responsibility when it backfires on them or the results can be dire.
Kamini (Amala Paul) is a spirited presenter on a local TV prank show who refuses to take life seriously. On the day of her birthday, her TV station #TAG TV is leaving its current premises for new ones, with the final broadcast being a live new bulletin, but newsreader Jenny (Ramya Subramanian) disappears ten minutes before going to air so Kamini steps in as replacement.
That night, Kamini, Jenny and four male colleagues decide to celebrate Kamini’s birthday inside the old building for old time’s sake, with booze and rice dishes laced with magic mushrooms. Kamini passes out in the toilets and when she awakes the next morning, she finds herself naked and alone, with the building completely. With her clothes nowhere to be found Kamini has to find a get home without being seen.
Of all the pressing questions plaguing mankind, one is never asked – why are Bollywood films so needlessly long? Aadai clocks in 131 minutes but could easily have told its story in 90 minutes, although a precedent has been set as director Rathna Kumar’s debut film is 16 minutes longer, suggesting numbing audience bums is part of his MO.
Aadai, which translates from Tamil to “dress”, opens with a historical animated prologue about a government’s “breast tax” on lower caste women, forcing them to go topless or pay extra to cover up. A woman named Nangeli resisted the tax, cutting off her breasts in protest and dying from blood loss. Her body was burned and her husband committed suicide by jumping into her funeral pyre, eventually causing the tax to be dropped.
It is not until the final act that the relevance of this tale becomes clear, and even then, the ham-fisted way it is applied to the story means some viewers might even miss it. And this really highlights one of the problems with this film, its desire to say something and be entertaining at the same time, but isn’t quite able to strike the right balance. The moral eventually revealed is completely topical and utterly relevant but delivered with the subtlety of a nuclear explosion.
Before this though, we spend a hefty chunk of the time in the company of Kamini and friends. First, we are caught in a nightmare scenario of a man being chased by a psycho clown which turns out to be a prank in action, just one of many puerile and irresponsible tricks they pull on the unsuspecting public. Candid Camera this isn’t and it is remarkable nobody has lamped them for it.
Kamini’s traditional mother Lakshmi (Sriranjini) doesn’t approve of the way her daughter lives her life, wanting her to be like Jenny, wear a sari and present the news instead of hooning about with the pranks, then maybe marry and settle down. Kamini is a modern girl with no desires to be a housewife and a strong feminist attitude she is prepared to live and die by.
Unfortunately, this laissez faire approach to life is Kamini’s biggest undoing. It might make her the life of the party but her sense of responsibility towards her actions and respect for other people is dubious at best. When Jenny disappears before the broadcast it seemed like a timely disaster by Kamini admits to setting it up so she could prove she was a good as Jenny and please her mother.
When Kamini finds herself in dire straits after the party, there is little attempt to distract the audience from suspecting she is a victim of a revenge prank, and Jenny is the prime suspect after their fight the night before. It all makes perfect sense but could it really be that obvious? Admittedly, we are in for a surprise in that regard and it is a nicely done twist, but the reveal descends into a piece of soapbox pontificating that needs to be said, if only the circumstances were less contrived.
Tonally, things are rather confused, flitting between comedy, drama, and suspense on a whim, handling all three well individual not collectively. Much of the comedy comes from the capers of the prankster team, as well as Kamini’s desperation to avoid being seen naked, which also provides the drama and suspense as various people make their way into the building.
Censorship in India is evidently very strict. Whilst Kamini is naked for half the film, you don’t see anything – with her modesty covered by shadows, lens flares, and being shot from behind obstructions, and similarly strategic artistic angles – yet there was a big fuss about this when the film came out. Also, whenever people are seen drinking or smoking, warning messages appear on the screen about the dangers of these.
Amala Paul relays Kamini’s unique spirit, vivacity, and resolve, keeping her just on the right side of not being totally unlikeable through her behaviour. The journey to maturity is well charted, the most interesting aspect being how well Paul transitions from comedy to horror and making a convincing account for herself in both.
Rathna Kumar has a keen eye for artistry and creativity in the visuals. The best work is found in keeping the nudity hidden via a variety of ingenious uses for everyday objects, reflections, and lighting, illustrating a challenge he was keen to meet. The photography is top notch, perhaps the film’s strongest feature alongside Paul’s performance.
Enjoying Aadai is easy if you can dismiss the extraneous padding, but as that is 50% of the film, this will be more of a chore than it should be, which is a shame, as there is a good film here…somewhere.