How many female “buddy” films from India can you name?
Angry Indian Goddesses is a valiant attempt at breaking into the Sex and the City buddy film format, with ambitious narrative choices and a truly important subject matter. The film doesn’t quite do the genre justice, though, falling short in several key areas that leave it feeling more like a hodgepodge ode to female bonding than a cohesive story.
Pan Nalin’s feature tells the story of a group of old pals coming together from across India to reunite for their friend Frieda’s wedding. The catch? Nobody knows Frieda is getting married, nor to whom. Frieda tricks her friends into coming and only announces her engagement as all the women arrive at her home. It takes several more days of character development and dramatic narrative for us to discover that Frieda’s betrothed is another woman.
The succeeds in showcasing women in multidimensional roles. Frieda (Sarah-Jane Dias) plays the protagonist who comes out to her unsuspecting friends, and whose father has shunned her after learning she’s a lesbian. We are also introduced to Frieda’s coterie, each on their own journeys—one seeking success as a Bollywood actress who is only cast in damsel roles, one trying to launch her music career after being rejected by her label, one who spends her days ignoring her daughter while conducting business deals over the phone, one who acquiesced to an arranged marriage and regrets it, and one who is on an 8 year mission to avenge her brother’s death by killing his murderer.
The title refers to Kali, the Hindu goddess of war and revenge, representing the powerful spirit of anger and vindication in all women. It is the summit event of a wedding that catalyzes the growth of each of these women, allowing them to find freedom from the oppressive men in their lives and become stronger in the presence of supportive friends.
The film’s aspirations are weighed down by technical problems that distract the audience from the plot development. Clumsy, overly dramatic storytelling leaves the film feeling like an art school project rather than a silver screen feature. Mismatched English subtitles paired with incongruent spoken English lines were an easily solved problem that went uncorrected, and shoddy camera angling leads to cluttered scenes and blocked faces, impeding the excellent performances from most of the actresses in the film.
However, the high-quality camera resolution and beautiful featured songs indicate that the production team did have some healthy funding and good working relationships with creative talent like Anushka Manchanda, whose rendering of the character Madhurita was as honest and forthcoming as the songs she recorded for the soundtrack.
What starts as a dramatic comedy about these women finding themselves takes an abrupt, graphically violent turn. This narrative shift is shocking and thus grabs the viewer’s attention, but comes far too late in the movie to feel compatible with the story, instead leaving the viewer to wonder if they are watching an entirely new film.
Though the feature suffers from clunky editing choices, distracting cinematography, and a significant writing problem, the messages remain moving and justified. Angry Indian Goddesses delivers striking critiques of toxic masculinity, Indian caste disparity, light skin bias, arranged marriage, misogyny, rape culture, corporate abuse of indigenous peoples, a broken criminal justice system, and a poignant statement about Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes homosexuality nationwide.
Male characters in the film fill a shallow spectrum spanning from murderous rapists to over-possessive chauvinists, to silent sex objects at best. Perhaps this reductive approach to writing the men in the film was an intentional way to highlight what male writers, directors, and producers have done with female characters throughout the history of cinema, relegating women to one-dimensional roles as concubines, quiet daughters, obedient wives, fussy mothers, victims, busty sidekicks, and chattel. This reversal provides an interesting twist in the film’s casting and narrative direction, which further highlights the personal tragedies and triumphs each of the main characters experience individually and as a collective. Aside from the fact that men unceasingly treat women like property in this film, the depiction of authentic bonding and conflict between female characters is a Bechdel Test champion.
Perhaps Nalin’s next film will be edited more tactfully and wrought more simply, but the performances are still something to be proud of for the emotive, professional cast of actresses who brought these characters to life.
Angry Indian Goddesses screens at Pacific Place this Saturday, 10/22, for TWIST: Seattle Queer Film Festival. You can buy your tickets here.