Ponmagal Vandhal (பொன்மகள் வந்தாள்)
India (2020) Dir. J. J. Fredrick
The issue of rape and sexual abuse in India is a thorny one, with attacks on young girls also a growing problem. Now they are doing something about it, but corruption within the country’s patriarchal society remains a block in erasing this heinous crime.
In 2004 in the rural village of Ooty, a woman named Jothi is filmed allegedly shooting two young men dead, then is later killed herself when trying to escape from the police after a child kidnapping/abuse scandal is exposed. 15 years later, Ooty resident Petition Pethuraj (K. Bhagyaraj) gets the case reopened after new evidence suggests Jothi was innocent.
Appearing for the defence is Pethuraj’s daughter Venba (Jyothika), immediately exposing flaws in key testimonies from the original case. The father of one of the boys killed by Jothi, noted philanthropist Varatharajan (Thiyagarajan) is unhappy the case is reopened and hires prominent lawyer Rajarathnam (R. Parthiban) to act as the prosecution and discredit Venba.
One of the problems facing first time directors is going big with your debut film, where even having total confidence in your skills to pull it off may not be enough. J.J Fredrick clearly has that confidence but not the experience to hit the highs he aspires to in this weighty courtroom drama that needs a more seasoned hand to deliver the killer punch the topic deserves.
Ponmagal Vandhal, translating into English as The Golden Girl has Arrived, tackles a very serious and sadly prevalent subject in a country where the religious and societal mores are notorious for punishing the victims over the perpetrators. It also covers other social issues with a progressive eye – discrimination, media bias, class divides, and corruption – which Fredrick addresses head on, but falls prey to Bollywood convention resulting in a slightly diluted melodrama.
Beginning the film with a montage of the huge media coverage of the case, including the grainy camcorder footage of the shooting, and the uniform narrative that North Indian Jothi was preying on Ooty girls to torture and abuse, offers little doubt we are witnessing a story of gruesome deviance and inherent evil. It’s a divisive start but sets the scene well and ensures the audience is on board with believing these to be the facts.
What follows is confusing, as Pethuraj is introduced and depicted as being a bit of a local busybody, bringing cases against people for the smallest of reasons and coming out on top. This is played for comedy and doesn’t ingratiate Pethuraj to us at all, therefore his calling for the Jothi case to be reopened is both random and contrived, as is the approval from the judge (Pratap K. Pothan).
Venba has to endure public outrage for being the defending council for a convicted child abductor and murderer, which she takes in good grace as her belief in the truth is her driving force for doing this. But why is she so invested? Well, that would be a spoiler, one courtesy of a huge plot twist at the halfway mark, though one that gradually reveals itself moments before if you pay attention.
Similarly, Varatharajan getting Rajarathnam involved becomes clear over time but again, one can see where things are heading before we get there. The problem is that Fredrick reveals the level of corruption and false information of 15 years ago a little too early instead of hinting at them, allowing clumsy plot holes to appear, such as Rajarathnam’s absurd behaviour in court.
Every piece of evidence Venba provides, no matter how compelling or plausible they are, Rajarathnam shuts them down as lies because trial by media 15 years ago is gospel. So, it was, but surely any court with an ounce of integrity is beholden to listen to Venba’s counter evidence without prejudice? Rajarathnam continues with this tact even after he learns the truth of the police cover up and easily disputable stories about Jothi, so what will it take for him to do the right thing and concede?
Fredrick now plays both the sexist and class card to give Venba all the emotional ammunition to sway favour, but even the clearly moved judge is not immune to such manipulation and still needs facts, not tears, to reach a verdict. Then, a juror tweets “#jusiceforjothi”; social media is ablaze with pro-Venba posts along with a shift in public opinion towards the previously maligned Jothi.
Now this is about a strong woman standing up for her gender and literally taking it to the man! Admittedly, Fredrick has written some powerful monologues for Jyothika to deliver, and ignoring the occasional lapse into mawkish daytime drama acting mode, she hits the right notes with her poise, heartfelt emotion, and conviction behind every line, much of which might be didactic but also needs to be said.
Less discussed is the discrimination of Jothi from being from North India, something that I’m sure international audiences would need a little backstory for, as this was also a key factor in the original demonising of Jothi. The class/caste system is manifest through the entitlement and political influence of Varatharajan, and the façade of his public image as a charitable saviour.
Given this is a Tamil Bollywood production, the presentation is visually appealing as you might expect, resplendent with rich colours and attentive camerawork to bring them out, employing a range of different ideas to propagate the ambiguity over the truth of the events on that fateful night. This works in creating a “movie within a movie” like feel, the musical distractions less so, which could have been cut to reduce the unnecessary 123-minute runtime.
It is hard to fault the intention behind Ponmagal Vandhal as both a courtroom drama and a topical social parable, if only it wasn’t hampered by its bloated, over ambitious, often unfocused execution. Solid debut with a great story and lots to say, but Fredrick might need to make a few more films before going for a prestige movie again.
Currently available on Amazon Prime.