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‘Gargi’ is special for two reasons: It is bankrolled by a woman and led by Sai Pallavi

'Gargi', streaming on SonyLiv, initiates an important conversation about what happens when a family sides with the abuser instead of the survivor.

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Sai Pallavi is paving a path of her own. And her latest release, Gargi, which is now streaming on SonyLiv, is a testament to that. The Tamil movie, directed by Gautham Ramachandran, is a story of child sexual violence and bringing the perpetrators to law.

The Premam star has been consciously choosing scripts that compel her to push her boundaries. Watching Sai Pallavi play a devadasi woman in Shyam Singha Roy (2021), a woman falling in love with a Naxalite leader in Virata Parvam (2022), and a daughter fighting for justice in Gargi shows she has not taken her audience for granted. She considers them to be mature and able to understand nuance. Gargi is special for two reasons: It is bankrolled by a woman (actor Aishwarya Lekshmi) and led by a woman, Sai Pallavi.

The film initiates important conversations about what happens when a family sides with the abuser instead of the survivor, and the psychology behind it. Gargi serves as a grim reminder of the 2018 Ayanavaram incident that happened in Chennai. In an apartment, a young girl was raped by 17 men for over six months on several occasions from January to July that year. In the post-MeToo era, Gargi manages to break the years and years of cinematic conditioning that has normalised sexual predators moving around freely in family settings with social acceptance.

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A rape and the fight for truth

Gargi (Sai Pallavi) works as a school teacher, hailing from a lower-middle-class family, who is struggling to make ends meet. The everydayness of life is captured beautifully in the shots where Gargi’s routine is shown in an unpretentious and plain way, like how life actually is. She has a suitor and the man is “decent” enough to not ask for a dowry.

Everything is going well until one night when Gargi’s father Brahmanandam (RS Shivaji) doesn’t return home. He works as a security guard at a gated community. Life turns upside down that night for Gargi when she finds out that her father has been arrested with five others for allegedly raping a child at the place where he works. Gargi goes out at night believing she can fix things before dawn. But the law takes its own course. She returns home in vain. The next morning, Brahmanandam’s face is splashed across newspapers.

Gargi is kicked out of her teaching job at the school and family is boycotted. But she trusts her father and wants to prove that he is falsely implicated in the case. As all doors close on Gargi, Indrans (Kaali Venkat), a part-time lawyer and pharmacist, steps in to help.

The screenplay of the movie is tightly written – never at any place does the audience feels a drag. Govind Vasantha’s music makes the scenes more emotive and adds drama. The movie’s producer, Aishwarya Lekshmi, also plays a small role in the movie, that of a journalist forced to listen to TRPs instead of logic.

One of the places where the movie hits it out of the park is the casting of S Sudha, a transgender person, as a transgender judge in the movie. One of the fewest and rarest moments in Tamil cinema in which a transgender woman is shown to be in a position of power and authority. When she asserted her identity and agency in her reply to the misogyny of the Public Prosecutor (Kavithalaya Krishnan), the audience in the Chennai theatre erupted in applause, signaling a positive change in society.

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Gargi gets a lot right

What was utterly discomforting and traumatic to watch in the movie was the prolonged shots of abuse and rape. Though the gruesome incident is shown through silhouettes of men taking off their clothes, committing the crime, and leaving the spot, it is shot in painful slow-motion. This becomes extremely voyeuristic and requires a trigger warning.

The policeman (Prathap) in the movie is surprisingly shown to have a human side and is named Bennicks Jayaraj, after the father-son duo – Bennicks and Jayaraj – who died a brutal custodial death at the Sathankulam Police Station in Tuticorin district in June 2020.

Gargi, which sets out on an ambitious pursuit to call out sexual predators within families unfortunately ends up reinforcing the stereotype of working-class people being sexual predators and abusers. This, even though, most reports point to the fact that people who sexually abuse children are friends, family members, partners, and community members. Most children who are sexually abused know their abusers.

After Gargi ensures that justice is delivered, what looked contrived was the victim and her family visiting the perpetrator’s family and becoming good “friends”. But, Gargi, as a movie, achieves the goal of getting across the message, “Sometimes you have to do the right thing even if you lose.”

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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