Aruvi [2017] – A Biting Social Satire that Doubles Up as Intriguing Character Study

Sometimes the narrative tactic of withholding key information or spewing mid-way twists may seem entirely extraneous; an attempt to impart pseudo-ingenuity to the otherwise banal script. The reversals or twists should always arise out of the recognition of something that could have been interpreted before, but was not. And, good twists always happen to reveal a hidden and veritable layer of personality of the central character we failed to adjudge earlier; an organic role reversal that perfectly thwarts the audience expectations. Arun Prabhu’s much-expected satirical drama Aruvi (aka Waterfall or Stream) does benefit a lot from one such wonderful half-way twist that provokes a new insight on the film’s themes (without just being clever for the sake of it) and its titular character. Marvelously edited, ambitiously directed, Aruvi is a part dark satirical comedy and part character study of an ostracized young woman. It uses familiar conceits of Tamil/Indian mainstream cinema (like flashback narrative, vigilantism, etc) but somehow manages to push beyond the limitations of its familiar design. And, thanks to fine emotional core and pitch-perfect central performance from Aditi Balan, Aruvi despite all its bumpy narrative transitions and far-fetchedness, bestows a wholly engrossing movie experience.

The first time we see twenty-something Aruvi (Aditi Balan) she sits in a police station with a bloody face. The interrogators and media make it sound like she is the mastermind of a terrorist group. But then a poetic montage tracks down simple life of the free-spirited girl, from childhood to adulthood. As a child she grows up with her beloved parents in an idyllic, eco-friendly place that’s as pure as her inner spirit. Later, her father (a policeman) is transferred to the concrete jungles of Chennai; a confined atmosphere that’s eventually hinted to slowly defile Aruvi’s elan. In this sense, the protagonist comes off as personification of the persistently expanding degeneracy in the urban society. The vignettes tracing Aruvi’s adulthood is etched with playful and naturalistic details. These mundane and intimate moments in the life of middle-class adolescent gets closer to the character’s psyche without much fuss. And also, this distinct female gaze that’s spread throughout these vignettes may not actually seem ground-breaking, but certainly a rare thing in Tamil cinema which nauseatingly exhibits the virility of its so-called ‘stars’.

After such impeccably orchestrated scenes, the narrative takes a left turn as Aruvi due to unfortunate circumstances is forced to move out of her home. She takes refuge in squalid quarters and befriends Emily, an affectionate transgender. How this friendship came to be and the reason for Aruvi’s sudden ostracism isn’t immediately clear (although we think we know the reason for her parents’ outrage). Nevertheless, Aruvi and Emily share a beautiful friendship which gracefully distracts us from the deliberate lapses in the narrative. And it’s another rare thing to have a well-developed character like Emily, who would normally be reduced to a mere punchline. There’s less accentuation on the Emily’s gender and focuses more on the character’s compassionate gestures. But Aruvi do face some tough choices in her excruciating life. It all leads to the narrative’s central set-piece: a ridiculous reality show that wears its social consciousness out of convenience (and for TRP ratings), not out of strong conviction. Aruvi gains entry into the reality show whose apathetic director sniffs out a sensation out of her 'victim' story. But he, like the audience, doesn’t know the whole dimension of her story and it’s revealed in a quite spectacular manner.  

The film does suffer a little due to its erratic tone and few narrative missteps. The rage-filled first-half is replaced by a far more empathetic and emotional second-half. Initially, the characters within the reality-show set-up are portrayed in a caricaturized manner, as a means to highlight Aruvi’s righteous fury. The entire pre-interval portion exposing stark reality of the reality-show fairly indicates how high-minded ideals are conveniently turned into marketable, consumerist products. For the show’s director, everything from feminism to genuine exhibition of rage is a chance to escalate the ratings. So, most of these characters running the show, comes off as monsters hiding behind false exhibition of social consciousness. Interestingly, the second-half channels out a humanized perspective on these people, allowing them to evolve from their one-dimensional portrayal. The insensitive boy who cracks jokes on transgender or the politically well-connected brute express wholly different variety of emotions that’s unexpected from them. But then these emotional transitions don’t often go off smoothly and not always convincing. The light-hearted scenes in the early parts of second-half generate huge laughs, but it’s not very memorable or as deep as the other parts of the narrative.

Writer/director Arun Prabhu flawlessly balances the dark humor of the reality-show situation and righteous fury of protagonist, but such stream-lined approach is slightly missed out in the bluntly comedic and overtly emotional second-half. Moreover, the whole police-pursuit and media exaggeration of the situation doesn’t add anything new to the narrative (since Aruvi’s fate is revealed earlier, there’s not much suspense in the prolonged police operation). However, I didn’t feel Aruvi’s extended monologue that censures upon society’s rigid definition of ‘happy life’ as entirely preachy. Considering the manner the character is pushed around, the furious speech doesn’t seem artificial or unnecessary. And, there’s also some interesting dimensions in the prolonged emotional sequences towards the end. For the whole narrative, Aruvi peels off the indifferent and contrived perspectives of the characters. In one earlier instance, she dismisses the assistant director Peter’s idea for a script as ‘sappy’. Later, the ludicrous idea actually brings unexpected magic into the unadorned, hard reality of her lonely life (although it plucks too much at our heartstrings to get there).

For all its imperfections, Aruvi works thanks to Aditi Balan’s uniformly brilliant performance and Arun Prabhu’s ambitious writing. Recent Tamil films like Maangaram, Lens, 8 Thottakal, Kurangu Bommai, and Aramm – all released this year and works of first-time film-makers – slightly suffers from inconsistent film-form and character developments. Nevertheless, these new crop of film-makers are bold enough to tackle some of the burning issues of the highly industrialized and corrupted contemporary Tamil society. Although they employ some unsubtle or generic narrative tactics, these socially conscious dramas convey the generally repressed societal rage to regular theater-goers oft trained to watch moronic masala entertainments. Aruvi, the fresh addition to this growing list of intriguing Tamil social dramas, may not be the definitive masterpiece we are waiting for, but it impressively lends a distinct voice to the collective public outrage. Director Arun Prabhu, like his fellow debutant film-makers, excels when his compassionate gaze falls upon the outcasts and the preferably unheard souls of the social fabric or when the rage is channeled in eloquent, filmic terms. In such instances, he pushes out the boundaries of what constitutes Tamil mainstream cinema. Anyway, it’s not often we see the casual weekend moviegoers cheering and rooting for a socially and emotionally afflicted female protagonist. Eventually, in a film industry that’s overrun by relentlessly narcissistic star actors, hack directors, clueless producers, and distribution monopolies, it’s truly a welcome sight to behold content plus character-driven dramas like Aruvi (132 minutes). 


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