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The Adamant Girl (Kottukkaali)

Young Indian woman becomes completely silent after learning about her arranged marriage - quietly poignant and gently humorous drama premieres in the Forum section of the 74th Berlin International Film Festival

QUICK AND DIRTY: LIVE FROM BERLIN

Somewhere in deep rural India, Meena (Anna Ben) is due to marry the good-looking Pandi (played by Soori Muthuchamy, a Kollywood heartthrob). But she’s in love with someone else, and has gone entirely catatonic in an apparent gesture of protest. She does not utter a word and barely moves. Pandi’s neck is painted white and his voice is deep and raucous, as if he was recovering from a horrific curse or malady (this presumably has a more specific meaning of which I’m not aware). Both families set off on a road trip from hell on rickshaw and a motorbike in order to reach an elusive “Seer” who will exorcise Meena and restore the peace and tranquility for these very traditional people.

Meena’s silence gradually reveals itself to be an asset rather than a vulnerability. The families are consistently squabbling and haggling. This sometimes escalates into full blown violence. The males are particularly rowdy, and never shy away from using their xfists as a currency. Meena remains firm in her wordlessness. She demonstrates her strength precisely by refusing to engage in these petty arguments. Not even her doting mother can convince her to snap out of the mysterious state, which both families interpret as possession. A woman who refuses to play the rules of the patriarchy surely must be controlled by evil spirits. It is urgent that order is restored by forcing Meena to conform to the obedient wife stereotype.

This 100-minute Indian film includes some cringey and also some hilarious scenes. A fruit fly gets trapped inside Pandi’s eye, and the removal procedure includes a woman sticking her tongue inside his eye (the action is captured in extreme close-up). The rickshaw has to be reversed back on long narrow road, before the desperate, screaming males are forced to lift the vehicle, while Meena sits peacefully inside. A charging bull blocks their passage, and none of the men are able to confront it; it takes a girl aged roughly eight to move the animal. And the two families desperately attempt to save the life of a dying rooster with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and refreshing water sprays; they intend to sacrifice the animal during the exorcism.

Long handheld sequences give the film a very spontaneous and dynamic touch, aligned with the road movie atmosphere. These are contrasted against various static face-offs: between the families and the bull, with the rooster, and also between human beings. There are many confrontations taking place: Meena versus the patriarchy, hapless animals versus silly humans, reason versus superstition, feminism versus tradition. This is a film about the new overcoming the old.

This is not a film without flaws. The uneven plot meanders aimlessly in the first half an hour of the film, before the narrative arc becomes more discernible. Unfledged and redundant secondary characters also hampers the story. Indian families are indeed notably big, but this doesn’t mean every single relative is needed here. A clumsily abrupt ending elicits neither neither reflection nor affection. In other words, a funny and peculiar little dramedy about female empowerment, that could have done with a little more polishing.

The Adamant Girl has just premiered in the Forum section of the 74th Berlin International Film Festival.


By Victor Fraga - 16-02-2024

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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