Warning: Spoiler alert! If you intend to watch the movie, I recommend you stop reading with this passage. It is better to watch it tabula rasa as I did. If you need a reason to watch it, I’ll give away that it’s a unique woman-centric film which takes on badass themes and exposes the hypocrisy and cruelty of society in a way which is equally endearing and disturbing. Read on hear what it got right, what it got wrong, and whether it could be called feminist.
When Aruvi came out in late 2017, it sent shockwaves. The film would without a doubt touch its viewers, as it took them through heavy themes, including living with HIV AIDS, rape, ostracization, violence, and a hostage at gunpoint situation. It was well-received by cinema-goers and movie critics alike. To top it all, almost every member of the cast and the crew, even the director was a debutante. The most loveable character was a trans woman, Emily, played by a trans woman, Anjali Varathan. Aditi Balan, who played the character of Aruvi was an advocate before signing for the film.
Aruvi is an ordinary girl, who was raised lovingly. For no apparent reason, her family ostracizes her and throws her out of her own home. She finds shelter in her friend Jessy’s home. Jessy’s father Joseph rapes her.
Then we find her living in a hostel with a trans woman, Emily. They find a tailoring job with the help of an NGO. Aruvi’s brother calls her and tells her that their father is need of cardiac bypass surgery. She approaches her boss Arulmani and asks him for 1 lakh rupees. He gives her the money, but demands sex in return.
Aruvi then goes to a temple and attends pranic healing sessions under a swami, who goes on to hypnotize and rape her.
Emily approaches a confrontational reality show with Aruvi’s story. The next morning, Aruvi and her rapists are shooting for the show. Instead of lodging a police complaint against her rapists, Aruvi demands an apology. She reveals that she is HIV+.
There are two major things Aruvi got right. First, it unambiguously criticised the unjustifiable alienation and ostracisation the HIV+ are subjected to. Second, it represented the trans community in a refreshingly positive light.
Medical professionals enter the set with testing equipment. The director finds out that the rapists are not HIV+, but withholds this information from them in order to increase the show’s ratings. After a scathing monologue in which Aruvi criticizes a society which respects wealth alone, TV show host Shobha cuts her short with a commercial break and asks her to leave the set.
Aruvi pulls out her grandfather’s gun. The reality TV set becomes a theatre of cruelty, as she holds the crew hostage. The situation becomes absurdly lighter as she forces them to play games, demands a long list of items for dinner, and clicks selfies, after which Aruvi surrenders to the police waiting outside. She is sent to a medical camp.
Aruvi’s condition deteriorates considerably. She runs away from the camp and goes to a mountain, to live alone. She sends a video to her family, friends, and the television crew, in which she expresses a wish to see them all once again. They all go on a bus and meet her one last time.
What It Got Right
Upon my first viewing, I was quite taken by Aruvi’s delightful middle-class aesthetic. Watching the scenes of her childhood unfold, I remembered my own. The storytelling, with its Chekovian attention to detail, fascinated me. The soundtrack tugged at my heartstrings. The second half through extremely problematic (more on that to come), still moved me to tears, thanks to Aditi Balan’s performance.
There are two major things Aruvi got right. First, it unambiguously criticized the unjustifiable alienation and ostracization the HIV+ are subjected to. Second, it represented the trans- community in a refreshingly positive light. Emily is compassionate, funny, and extremely loyal. Her sexuality is playfully highlighted as well, as she articulates desire.
The hypocrisy of society, though unconvincing in parts, was convincing as a whole. The fakeness of the reality show world was depicted well. The story took interesting, unpredictable turns in the transition to a hostage at gunpoint situation. Aruvi displays remarkable agency during this unsettling episode. The sensationalizing tendencies of the media are critiqued, and we find a glimpse of police brutality. The instances of sexism leave one disgusted, as one is encouraged to reflect on the pathetic-ness of the human condition.
So What Went Wrong?
Primarily, what went wrong was that this, a movie which so close to being feminist, was produced for a patriarchal audience. Upon further reflection, I found myself agreeing with the term director Arun Prabhu coined to describe this masterpiece – “a new-age masala movie”. It was evident that despite visual authenticity, Aruvi was far from realistic. The society it criticizes is a caricature, which, for the most part, consists of characters who are far too predictable and conditioned. The closure it offers seems patched together for audiences who do not take rape seriously. Why would a rape survivor, not only forgive, but also chill with her rapists, twice?
Also read: Understanding Rape Culture 101
It is quite disheartening that after offering so much, the one thing Aruvi does not offer is the one thing Aruvi asks for – an apology from her rapists. Not even one of her rapists is disgusted with themselves for what they did. Joseph, who comes close, still blames the rape on drinks and circumstances, failing to see himself for what he is – a pervert. In instances like this, Aruvi tolerates, even normalizes rape culture. It also arguably normalizes suicide, as Aruvi’s own father, in a dialogue says that if she was indeed “innocent”, she would have committed suicide.
Whatever critique of capitalism it offers is packaged into one monologue, which is cut short before Aruvi has said everything she wanted to say.
And yet, despite all Aruvi has been through, in her final Facebook video message, she expresses a desire for the very kind of family she criticized in her anti-capitalist monologue. The video in general goes against everything she had stood for so far.
Aruvi takes disturbing instances of transmisogyny and turns them into comic scenes. When Emily first approached the studio, they tried to shoo her away. They barely let her speak. All she could tell them was that there were three rapists. A studio boy Subhash kept wondering aloud in subsequent scenes how a trans woman could be raped so many times. This heteronormative narrative is extremely flawed because, in reality, members of the trans- community are quite vulnerable to being subjected to many forms of gender-based violence, including rape. Also, Emily is thrashed mercilessly on screen by Arulmani. While the trans- community is represented positively, the stigma against them inherent in society is not criticized enough.
Aruvi also represents the reality show host Shobha in a manner that is visibly misogynistic. It portrays her as superficial, frivolous, and insensitive.
For these reasons, I cannot consider Aruvi feminist.
As a feminist, I find this film frustratingly disappointing in retrospect. Watching Aruvi for the second time was a reminder of what it could have been, yet chose not to be. Ultimately, it too succumbs to consumerism. Whatever critique of capitalism it offers is packaged into one monologue, which is cut short before Aruvi has said everything she wanted to say.
Though Aruvi has major issues which cannot be brushed aside, one must not forget its positive contributions. Aruvi gave many R+ persons the courage to come out and speak about their condition to their dear ones. It has made people more empathetic towards the R+.
Featured Image Source: The Indian Express