Holy crap. A blockbuster feminist horror flick that puts a modern spin on a very traditional parable with a well-spent FX budget? Somebody scrape me up from the floor with a spoon!
[Warning: major spoilers ahead]
There is a sub-genre of South Indian, especially Tamil and Telugu, movies that’s devoted to Devi worship. B-movies in the vein of Jai Santoshi Maa, their enduring popularity across decades of movie making suggests a fan base as devoted as the eternally suffering female devotee whose invariably cruel fate at the hands of dastardly villains provokes the Goddess to go fully postal. Starring faded A-listers and unknowns alike, these are typically simple parables about Good vs. Evil, often featuring obscure incarnations of Devi, in which the Goddess Herself walks the earth slaying villains in ever more gory ways involving tridents, spears, animal claws and forces of nature. They’re neither high art nor particularly good cinema, but if you want to see a woman beat up some bad guys for a change, then this is your chicken soup.
2009’s gigantic Telugu blockbuster Arundhati, written by Ramana Chintapally and directed by Kodi Ramakrishna (a man with more than a passing acquaintance with Devi movies), is perhaps one of the cleverest twists on this genre. I’d say the cleverest period but this isn’t a genre that I really follow nor do I know my Telugu cinema well enough to make ringing statements of that sort – but of the ones I have seen, I’d say this is the one that kicks the most ass.
We start out with a super excited family eagerly awaiting the marriage of their cherished daughter, Arundhati (Anushka Shetty). The first girl child to be born in three generations, the family is unanimous – Arundhati is spun of a solid block of awesome. Why? Because she’s clearly Jejamma reborn.
Jejamma, they explain, was Arundhati the Original, the matriarch of the family who passed away a long time ago. Right before she died, she asked the family to be on the lookout for the next girl born to them because that would be her, come to live amongst them once more. So when the stork brought them a little girl after a very long wait, they promptly named her Arundhati and accorded her every respect and all the love that they would have given Arundhati I.
As you can expect, with that much adulation lying around the family home, Arundhati II is a bit of a righteous princess – although it’s hard to argue with her when she’s asking people to please not beat the demons out of mentally disturbed people. It’s not her fault that she doesn’t know she’s living in a horror flick where that’s the only thing to do with mental patients.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. So, Arundhati II is getting married and matters are joyous. But something is really weird about it because just as the entire family is getting jiggy at her engagement, the camera zooms in to her bellybutton and a creepy voice sing-songs, “Bomalli!” Muahahaha.
The scene then shifts to a couple in a car on the way to a place called Gadwal, carrying Arundhati’s wedding invitation to her family. The next moment they’re in a suspiciously timed accident in the middle of nowhere and need to call for help. The only place around is a fabulous palace that seems curiously deserted. Ignoring the crazy old man who jumps in front of them (now there’s a man who knows he’s in a horror movie!) to cryptically yell about giving in to illusions, they knock on the door and greeted by the most evil looking broad you’ve ever seen. Just in case the make-up wasn’t a clue, she contorts her body, squints down her nose and invites them to step over the threshold in a sinister voice. Obviously the couple walk in, thinking what a nice old lady she is. Almost immediately the nice old lady zooms about the massive lobby and registers a strong protest at the thought of Arundhati getting married. And thus all hell breaks loose.
By the time Arundhati II has figured out what this means, gaining the services of a Muslim fakir (Sayaji Shinde) directly descended from the religious harmony sequence of a Manmohan Desai film and her great-grandmother’s handmaiden (the ever fabulous Manorama) in the process, it’s too late. She’s in deep doodoo. Turns out that being the living, breathing incarnation of Jejamma is more of a booby prize than the glittering crown everyone assumed it would be.
You see, back in the day, Arundhati’s great-great grandfather was the king of Gadwal (or the owner of what I assume must be the Gadwal agricultural corporation – the subtitles, which are way better than any Hindi ones I’ve seen, are a little confusing on this point). His one big mistake was inbreeding: he married off his elder daughter, a docile young female who all but has DOOM tattooed on her forehead, to her first cousin, Pashupati (Sonu Sood), the son of his scheming, power-hungry sister a.k.a. the scary old lady who haunts the fort in the present day.
The subtitles present Pashupati as a “womanizer” but the word they really wanted was “rapist”. He rides his trusty steed all over the countryside, ravishing young village women and making off with whosoever he pleases. The king is well aware of his degenerate habits but further displays his brilliant decision making skills by refusing to punish his son-in-law.
This does not sit well with his younger daughter, a kick-ass little kid who’s clearly being groomed to inherit the kingdom. She fights with swords, she paints, she learns to dance, she is awesome, she is Arundhati. It is not clear how much she knows about her brother-in-law until reality intrudes forcefully on her one day when he rapes and kills her blind dance teacher (and not necessarily in that order). In an amazing bit of writing, the blind teacher stumbles about, terrified, unable to see her attacker while a helpless Arundhati makes herself watch through the slats in the door, refusing to budge as her sister tries to shield her childhood.
Arundhati is witnessing the destruction of beauty and grace, the death of the security she has always imagined to be hers; and just as her teacher taught her the importance of listening just moments ago, her agonizing death has taught Arundhati to face that which must be faced.
Shortly thereafter, her sister stops mooing about her sad lot in life and kills herself. Arundhati immediately takes charge and exiles her aunt while offering carte blanche to the populace of the kingdom where Pashupathi is concerned. So they beat him to pieces and throw him down a ravine to die.
Here is where Arundhati plays with the traditional Devi script – instead of the elder daughter’s sacrifice bringing the local deity to life as would be the traditional way to handle it, little Arundhati’s actions on the day of her sister’s suicide turns her into a living personification of said deity, Jejamma.
Jejamma turns out to be quite a young lady. She is about ten times better as a ruler than her miserable old dad and much more good-looking besides. She’s more of a man than any hulking giant who stepped in front of her and her people love her so much, it gives them great pleasure to watch her bathe. If ever a character was made to be The Final Girl, Jejamma is it. In fact, she’s an advanced model.
As Donato Totaro writes on the subject:
But when this happens, as in Barbara Creed’s the monstrous-feminine, the ‘vagina-dentata,’ is still only an externalized reflection of male anxiety and fear of the female (Alien (R. Scott, 1979), The Brood (D. Cronenberg, 1979), The Exorcist (W. Friedkin, 1973), Carrie (B. De Palma, 1976), and I Spit on Your Grave) (Meir Zarchi, 1979). And I do not know of too many women who would take great pleasure in such an identification, as either a masochist or castrator. The deeper problem resides in the built-in patriarchy of depending on a Freudian psychoanalytical model, where an active or powerful woman is nothing but a ‘masculinized’ woman (or a closet lesbian). Isabel Cristina Pinedo acknowledges this problem and writes, “If a woman can not be aggressive and still be a woman, then female agency is a pipe dream. But if the surviving female can be aggressive and be really a woman, then she subverts this binary notion of gender that buttresses male dominance.”
By choosing to underpin their horror film with the trappings of a Devi movie but subverting it by retaining the humanity of the lead, Arundhati makes no bones about the power of female agency.
Meanwhile, back in Gadwal, just as they were celebrating the prospect of life under a just and good ruler, Pashupati returns from the dead! With mega tantric powers gleaned under the tutelage of flesh eating Agoras who most regrettably chose not to eat him. And if you think he was a horrible rapist/murderer before he went off to live with ESP-enabled cannibals, you ought to see him now.
But Jejamma isn’t called a Goddess for her looks alone and with a little help from Zhang Yimou and her family priest, she soon pins him down. Like, literally. In ways you’re better of witnessing than me spoiling. A whole bunch of unapologetically gruesome things later, leavened with a close up of her pissed-off face which is just freaking gorgeous, Jejamma’s only option to save her people from the evil powers of Pashupathi is to kill herself.
This must be the year of the Smurf, because the advice comes from a freaky bunch of blue tribal people. I don’t know why they’re blue or why they look like recent escapees from the Avatar set, but I love it. Jejamma leaves a cryptic journal for her future self, tells her family to keep an eye out for her and then sets off to the jungle. Where her tribal friends bash in her head with coconuts and then burn her at the stake.
So. Did I mention this is not for the faint of heart? Actually, it depends – some might even find it a little on the tame side. For instance, Pashupathi is a metaphorical octopus but he’s missing actual tentacles. Too bad because I think Ramakrishna would have done a great job with them. What a pleasure it was to see a movie that actually had a clue about what to do with its special effects budget instead of blowing it all on giant pink furries, for example.
Back in the present day, much murder and mayhem ensue from these revelations. The idea of sacrifice for the greater good is explored to the fullest – Arundhati’s final strike against the shade of her brother-in-law utilizes a dagger/sword fashioned out of Jejamma’s very bones. She didn’t just die a terrible death to finally defeat Pashupathi, she chose to have her very corpse turned into a weapon.
Even more amazingly, Arundhati suggests that violence doesn’t choose its consequences based on intentions. Pashupathi and Jejamma both have to pay for their actions, irrespective of where they stand on the good/evil index. An ancient idea that’s seldom expressed, much less as elegantly and simply as it is here when a shaken Jejamma walks to the fort to hear her brother-in-law’s spirit vow vengeance on her for her treatment of him.
Next up, Magadheera – Telugu cinema is clearly where it’s at, baby!
With many thanks to the P-PCC for the recommendation.