Vasanthi movie review: When the writing of the woman is the weak spot in a ‘woman-centric’ film

Vasanthi movie review: When the writing of the woman is the weak spot in a ‘woman-centric’ film

Vasanthi movie review: When the writing of the woman is the weak spot in a ‘woman-centric’ film

Language: Malayalam

There has been some criticism in recent years that the Kerala State Film Awards tend to favour commercial appeal over artistic merit. That accusation certainly cannot be levelled at the 2020 edition of the awards where Shinos and Sajas Rahman’s Vasanthi bagged the Best Film, Best Original Screenplay and Best Character Actress trophies. Vasanthi, which is yet to be released in theatres or on a streaming platform, is an experimental venture about the men who pass through the eponymous heroine’s life. 

Re-read that sentence please. Because yes, despite purportedly being woman-centric, despite taking its title from the female protagonist’s name and despite the Rahmans’ evident good intentions, Vasanthi is “about the men” more than the woman. 

If anything then, this film – that is being screened at the ongoing International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) – ought to spark off a debate on whether artistic inclinations should be allowed to override deficiencies in storytelling while choosing award winners and whether commercial appeal or box-office success are a disqualification. No doubt there are elements to like in Vasanthi: Swasika’s riveting screen presence, for one, and the initially appealing structure that weaves the lead player’s personal experiences into a theatrical production in which she acts. But in a year in which works of genius like Kumbalangi Nights, Unda and Jallikattu won in other categories, it defies explanation that Vasanthi won the top honour.

The credits note that the film is “inspired from thoughts dramatized in the play Porvai Porthiya Udalgal by Indira Parthasarathy”. The Rahmans, who wrote, directed and edited Vasanthi, have said it is not an adaptation and that it “evolved from thoughts we had after translating Indira Parthasarathy’s play”. Vasanthi opens with a stage performance during which an actor (Swasika) recounts the story of how a dead man came to be in her house. She soon walks off the stage and into the actual world of the character she is playing, a sex worker called Vasanthi. 

The film takes us back and forth between the play and Vasanthi’s memories of the many men she encountered after she left her mother’s home. At first, this construction generates curiosity about whether Vasanthi is an actor enacting a role or a real person telling us her story. There is also a sweetness and poignance in the portrayal of the heroine as an innocent child (Malavika Malgosh). By the second half the gnawing feeling settles in though that the Rahmans set out to make a film on a woman but could not get into her mind. The script is more successful in the characterisation of some of the men she meets: a thief (Shabareesh), his accomplice (Siju Wilson, who is also the producer) and two members of the public (Vinod Thomas and Sivaji Guruvaayoor) who interact with her during the play. That said, the men are all fitted into a template: each one seems harmless, but turns out to be a jerk, if not a beast.

A narrative about the multiple men who move in and move out of a woman’s life over time is not novel in itself, but two factors do give Vasanthi an early edge over most other films on this plane: in every single instance, the man is removed from the proceedings because she chooses to dump him; and the format of her leaving a stage and entering reality, then re-entering the stage, causes the real world and the play to merge in a fashion that is intriguing for a while. These gains become incrementally less valuable as the lack of heft in the writing of Vasanthi herself emerges, such that the film gradually becomes an example of presentation overshadowing content. 

The Rahmans’ preoccupation with their play-within-a-film format is underlined by their decision to flash on screen this most memorable of quotes from Shakespeare’s repertoire – “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances” – twice, once in the beginning and then in the end. The second time is overkill. Hey, we got the point, gentlemen. 

The writing struggles to give Vasanthi interiority. We learn little about her beyond the narration of events in her voice. The cycle of exploitation in her journey, the pattern of wilfully walking into frying pan after frying pan, mirrors the behaviour of many real victims of abuse, but it is hard to feel anything for her because at all times we seem to be watching her from the outside, never glimpsing her inner being. 

The script seems to suggest that Vasanthi has agency, she also mentions that she has had an education, yet in an episode in which she is not being physically abused and she could have struck out on her own in a bid to financially support herself, she sits around at home waiting for her male lover to find a job. It is clear from a conversation she has with him that she is not keen on sex work yet the film seems to take an old-world view that a woman in her position has no other option. 

The Rahman brothers have packed their film with men, leaving little space for any woman beyond Vasanthi herself. The motivations of her own mother and of another mother who warns the leading lady against her son are both left unexplored. Vasanthi invites an audience member on stage during her play – here too she zeroes in on a man. It is as if a balance is sought to be struck by populating the plot with male supporting parts because the central figure is a woman – compensation that men-centric cinema (read: a majority of all cinema) never feels the need to offer. 

Swasika’s striking personality carries her through the film, her inner fire particularly blazing in that wild dance she does as Vasanthi draws to a close. Playing a supporting character who is created with far greater apparent understanding of his psyche, Siju Wilson leaves a lasting impression. 

Vasanthi is the second Malayalam film screened at IFFK this year centred around a female character it fails to flesh out. The other is Vaanku which, to be fair, is thematically superior to this one. Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam, another film at IFFK, features a woman written through a very male gaze, but at least she is given depth – she is a jerk in the way men see women as jerks, but the whyness of it is at least elaborated upon. 

Swasika is a walking, talking boatload of charisma, and Abilash Sankar’s frames are designed to emphasise her natural beauty, but there is only so much an artiste can do without a script to back her. When the writing of the woman in a ‘woman-centric’ project is its weak spot, the rest is like getting a bonus while being denied your salary. 

Rating: 2.25 (out of 5 stars)

Vasanthi won the Best Film and Swasika the Best Character Actress trophy at the Kerala State Film Awards 2020. It is being screened at the ongoing International Film Festival of Kerala 2021.