Director Gautham Ramachandran’s movie Gargi opens with a telling portrayal of the times we live in. A news channel reports arrests in connection with the brutal gang rape of a child in a certain part of Chennai. The characters watching the news in an elementary school staff room, talk about the incident for a few moments before getting on with their lives. Gargi (Sai Pallavi), one of the teachers, ponders about it for a moment, before returning home. With a street-side view of the city and its residents, we see how they have learned to live with the dangers around them.
The proceedings in Gargi unfold organically, and this is one of the many fascinating aspects that make it a compelling watch. When she learns of a cop situation in a certain “Shanti Apartments” where the incident took place, Gargi drops everything and runs. Only then, do we learn that her father, Brahmananda, is a security guard in that community.
In another scene, we see an inordinate amount of rice thrown into a grinder located on her patio. Later, we are told that Gargi’s mother prepares and sells batter in the neighborhood. The family’s move from another town to the city is also explained nicely in a Q&A with a cop.
In most movies, we see artificial characters and jarring situations thrown in to tell us the backstory. Here, we become bystanders to Gargi and her surroundings, slowly learning about her, the family, and their troubles. It is like we have become her newest neighbors.
Fitting Metaphors, Tight Screenplay
The film also uses some metaphors that work brilliantly. Brahmananda is a security guard, entrusted with the safety of the community. So, when he becomes an accused in the assault on a child in the community, it raises fundamental questions surrounding the safety of the homes we live in: Are we dealing with enemies within?
In a different scene, Gargi is woken from her sleep by a breaking window on the morning after her father’s arrest. Viewed metaphorically, her life has been shattered and is laid bare for all to see now.
The screen writing is exceptional, considering how the movie avoids the frills or gimmicks that accompany one about the rape of a minor. There is almost no blood or gore in the movie, and yet, has some of the most powerful scenes portraying child sexual abuse. When a middle-aged character touches a young girl’s arms, it makes us squirm in our seats; when we see him get perilously close to her standing on a stool, it sends a chill through our spine. Using color (or the lack of it), the makers bring out the depth of the fear and trauma of a girl barely in her teens.
Sights and Sounds
For an investigative drama thriller, Gargi also uses light and sounds in an unconventional fashion. The film is shot mostly in broad daylight, with very few scenes shot in the dark. A different director may have used numerous manipulative night-time shots to up the tension, but Gautham Ramachandran does not, making us feel the emotion rather than settle for cheap thrills.
Gargi is only his second movie, and Ramachandran demonstrates maturity in filmmaking. Using what appears to be sync sound (i.e., no dubbing), the film’s sounds have an earthy feel. There is a real everyday hum that you can hear through the length of the movie.
Chalk and Cheese
The screenwriting is aided by an excellent cast. Sai Pallavi is fantastic as Gargi, and shines throughout the movie. For instance, in the police station, where she learns of her father’s arrest, she first reacts with disbelief, then shock, and then about 20 seconds later, she breaks down.
Gargi is a middle-class girl frustrated with having to prove her father’s innocence, and Sai Pallavi does full justice to the role with an aptly underplayed performance. She is matched wonderfully well by Kaali Venkat, playing the role of first-time lawyer Indrans Kaliyaperumal, who takes up this case in an all-or-nothing move. Having been a struggling assistant lawyer, he has nothing to lose.
Gargi on the other hand, has everything to lose. The two make a great combination—not just as their respective characters, but as actors too. For a movie handling an intense subject, there is some delightful humor involving Indrans, resembling that friend or cousin of ours, who almost always needs something to bite or sip, even in the direst of situations.
Small Movie, Big Messaging
Gargi also makes some bold statements on other social evils. Through an unmissable character delivering the most-rousing one-liner in the entire movie, we realize that the time for the third gender to seek parity is behind us. They are now ready to wield positions of power. The movie also makes a heartfelt statement on the plight of security guards in apartments in urban India. Wilting under the sun and running errands not mentioned in the rule book, a sip of alcohol for them at the end of the day is almost forgiven.
While Gargi may have an indie film-like feel, it remains unwaveringly focused on its strong central message about how children continue to be a vulnerable section of society. While most of us see them as angels, there are some that view their imperfections (whether it is a weakness in Math, or a fondness of a pet) as vulnerabilities, and continue to mercilessly prey on them.