Starring: Sarah-Jane Dias, Sandhya Mridul, Rajshiri Deshpande, Amrit Maghera, Tannishtha Chatterjee
Directed by Pan Nalin
Angry Indian Goddesses starts as a hilarious and biting feminist comedy about a group of friends gathering together for a wedding in modern day India, but it turns into something darker and sadder in the final act. Director Pan Nalin expertly manages the two extremes to create something as vital and memorable as it is emotionally stirring and entertaining.
Successful and sought after photographer Frieda (Sarah-Jane Dias) has called together lifelong friends from different backgrounds to attend her wedding at her place in Goa. She’s very secretive about the person she’s about to marry, which annoys most of the party guests, but many use the get-together as a way to reconnect, get to know each other better, and express their frustrations towards a patriarchal society in a safe space.
Jo (Amrit Maghera), an actress from Mumbai, has grown tired of damsel-in-distress roles that ask for her to scream, shake her booty, and do little actual acting. Similarly, singer-songwriter Mad (Anushka Manchanda) is sick of getting heckled for daring to perform soul bearing material in front of loutish drunks who only want to hear pop ditties delivered by a pretty girl. Hard charging businesswoman Su (Sandhya Mridul) thinks she’s losing control over the multinational company she helped to build, and her anxieties are worsened by the arrival of Nargis (Tannishtha Chatterjee) to the party, a political activist who has successfully shut down a potentially lucrative and job saving opportunity for Su’s company. Even Jo’s housemaid, Lakshmi (Rajshiri Deshpande) finds herself in a bad headspace following the release of her brother’s murderer from prison.
There’s a certain degree of predictability to Nalin’s work here. The set-up isn’t a particularly original one, having been done countless times in countless countries since the 1960s. The big reveal about who Frieda wants to marry also isn’t particularly hard to spot before the start of the second act. The personalities and viewpoints are different, but the traditional story structure remains largely the same.
But what Angry Indian Goddesses lacks early on in terms of originality and novelty it makes up for in rawer emotions and pointed observations about an Indian culture that needs to take a serious inward look at equality issues. The women have excellent reasons across the board to be angry, both at the outside world and, at times, each other. There’s always a certain amount of excitement to be gained from watching impassioned people with slightly different ideologies engaging in conversations and discourse, and Nalin (Samsara, Valley of Flowers) and co-writer Arsala Qureishi make these moments come across as realistically and unforced as possible. What could have easily felt like a stage play instead feels more neo-realist in its approach.
The cast, made up predominantly of newcomers following a lengthy casting search, also acclimate themselves perfectly to their roles. For something like Angry Indian Goddesses to work – both dramatically and thematically – the women involved have to come across as either intellectual or emotional equals, and the camaraderie between the characters feels effortless.
These elements are necessary for the major tonal shift Angry Indian Goddesses takes going into the final third of the film. Once the more lighthearted twists are out of the way, Nalin and his cast turn the film into something close to a grand tragedy, and one that speaks to major human rights issues that have plagued India for decades, yet no one seems very keen to act on or talk about. The fun stops abruptly, and perceptive viewers can vaguely see where the story might be headed thanks to some clunky foreshadowing earlier on, but nothing can prepare the audience for just how serious the film will become.
Instead of feeling out of place, it sends Angry Indian Goddesses on an emotionally wrenching high note once it reaches its conclusion. I don’t want to spoil it, but there’s something tragically necessary about where the film leads. That’s not to say that Nalin’s work is akin to a crowd pleaser with a healthy dose of social justice medicine laced inside it, but that it’s a crowd pleaser that could act as a genuine call to action. It’s easy to see why this was the runner up for the audience award at TIFF last year, and it’s certainly deserving of such status.
Angry Indian Goddesses opens in Toronto, Ottawa, and Waterloo on Friday, August 26, 2016.
Check out the trailer for Angry Indian Goddesses: