Rani Padmini: An Underwatched Gem

Even if you’re someone who follows Malayalam cinema, there’s a 50% chance that you might not have heard of this film. It’s okay. Go to Wikipedia and check out who’s in it and behind it, and come back here.

*blowing raspberries, waiting for you to come back*

Hahahaha. I know right? Ashiq Abu, Syam Pushkaran, Manju Warrier, Rima Kallingal. And Dileesh Pothen, Soubin Shahir, and Sreenath Bhasi in supporting roles! 

Now here’s the fun part. This film is not the best work of any of the above-mentioned people. Ashiq Abu who’d already directed a far superior 22FK, went on to do the epic Virus. Syam Pushkaran who had already written Salt N Pepper, went on to give us cult hits – Maheshinte Prathikaaram and Kumbalangi Nights. Every actor in the film has only gotten bigger and better since. And yet, back in 2015 they all came together and made a film that’s sweet and memorable for the ages. 

Plot

The story follows two ladies – Rani (Rima Kallingal), a tomboy with a city upbringing, and Padmini (Manju Warrier), a naadan (typical Malayali) girl from a rural household – who meet en route to Manali. Rani is going there to temporarily escape a bunch of goons, while Padmini plans to confront Giri (Jinu Joseph), her Himalayan Rally-driver husband after a certain unsettling act of his.

So what makes this film an endearing watch?

1. Good Characterization And Performances

I like how Syam Pushkaran’s women talk. From Shweta Menon in Salt N Pepper to Anna Ben in Kumbalangi Nights, they come with a certain believability. And Rani and Padmini are no different. 

Their combination scenes work because of the stark contrast in their personalities. This contrast is established right in the introduction song featuring their childhood selves. There’s an interesting montage where something as simple as a hair flip is seen in two completely different circumstances. We see Rani headbanging to (probably) a rock song, cut to Padmini rotating her head vigorously during a thumbi thullal ritual. Rani grows up to be a badass tomboy. Elsewhere, Padmini is brought up to be an “adakkavum odhukkavum ulla kutty” (cultured lady). 

But their characters are not limited to the stereotype that comes with “badass tomboy” and “traditional housewife” tags. Rani loves her family, and I really liked her equation with her grandmother (they call each other Ramesh and Suresh). And Padmini, who is educated, begins to go to work against her mother-in-law’s wishes, so there is a rebel shade to her too.

The biggest irony is that the people stopping these two women from pursuing their dreams, are themselves women – Padmini’s towering matriarch of a mother-in-law and Rani’s mother, who openly regrets having a girl child. So the film also hints at a generational shift in the way women think and act; while the older generation has been hardwired to stick to norms, the younger generation, irrespective of upbringing, shows tendencies of thinking differently.

Padmini is one of the better performances of Manju Warrier post her comeback. Her comic timing with Rima works big-time on multiple occasions. Off the top of my head, there are at least five laugh-out-loud moments on screen. Rima suffers from a relatively underwritten character, but she makes the most out of it.  A special mention to Jinu Joseph who convincingly plays the confused husband torn between his love for mother and his love for his wife. Everyone else in the cast is part of smaller subplots that connect the dots from Manali to Leh.

2. It’s The Only True Blue Girl Bonding Film We Have

Not that women in Malayalam cinema have always been one-dimensional. There have been the occasional well-written female characters, but then there’s not a lot of work that explores woman-woman relationships, especially female friendships. Right from the first encounter, Rani and Padmini have an interesting dynamic. Over the course of the film, it slowly veers from the obvious Malayali-Malayali connect to the broader woman-woman connect.

There are ways to test female representation in films. Some of you might have heard of the Bechdel test, which cites three criteria for good representation: the film 1) should have two women 2) who talk to each other 3) about something other than a man. You may be shocked to know that most Indian films fail the Bechdel test.

And by the way, there’s no necessity that every film with women leads needs to pass this. The recent 90 ML (Tamil film) also had women leads – in fact, five of them – but they had nothing else to talk about other than the men in their lives.

Anyway, Rani and Padmini moonwalk past this test. They don’t just sit and talk about their love lives. They are partly on the run so a lot of the conversation is situational. And whenever they stop someplace and let their hair down, they are more interested in bonding over their quirks, telling each other stories; that of ants and ‘hot’ village-women, for instance. (The latter tale, recounted by Padmini, takes a surprising turn and I’m not going to spoil it for you!)

3. The Abu Factor

Ashiq Abu has proven to be one of the most genre-fluid filmmakers we have. I’m not surprised that he’s helmed this movie because he is one of the few truly feminist filmmakers around. Many of his films have underlying feminism. In 22 Female Kottayam, he got Tessa (Rima Kallingal) to do the “unthinkable”: cut off the male oppressor’s genitals. In Mayanadhi, he got Appu (Aishwarya Lakshmi) to say the unthinkable to her lover: “Sex is not a promise”. In Rani Padmini, he tones it down a notch and lets his characters have fun. And he gives them wings to fly (in one scene, quite literally). There’s not a single scene or dialogue in the film that force-feeds his ideologies; he plays it out very subtly and to great effect. 

And then there are some tiny specks of cinematic gold-dust that he’s conceived. For example, Rani wraps up her ‘ant story’ by saying that it’s impossible to live without causing harm to even an ant, which kind of foreshadows the events of the next morning. Rani has taken off with Padmini’s bag of jewellery (thereby causing her ‘harm’), probably suggesting that the story is her little way of justifying her flawed actions every time. Another beautiful touch was during the trekking sequence. When Padmini realizes the trek is going to belong, she instinctively lets out a “Swamiye!” that is succeeded by a “Saranam Ayyappa!” from Sreenath Bhasi’s character as he puts on his Taqiyya (Islamic skullcap). 

Oh, and did I mention that DOP Madhu Neelakandan’s frames are like paintings in the Manali portions? 

Relax, I’m Unbiased

I’ll be lying if I said that Rani Padmini is a perfect film. I do have issues with the pacing of the film in the second half, and the whole gangster subplot which kind of tramples over Rani’s house crisis that’s later never addressed in the film. I do have issues with the casting: Vijay Raaz as the head of goons could probably have made those odd comedy bits work. This current fellow just isn’t funny beyond a point.

And above everything, I have an issue with the debatable climax.

(Spoiler Alert)

The whole trip is a means to an end, and we know the story is going to culminate in Padmini’s confrontation with her husband. There’s so much buildup to this, that the final conversation seems like a damp squib. Throughout the film, we see how Padmini enjoys the freedom that’s suddenly upon her, and at the end, she forgives her husband for the insensitive ‘divorce blackmail’ that he was consciously a part of, and reconciles with him? Whaaat?

But maybe this ending was purposely designed, to show that in today’s society it’s almost impossible for a woman to stay free forever; that someday she needs to go back to the ways the rest of the world works in. This is also reaffirmed by the epilogue sequence where we learn that Rani is now an “eye model” for advertisements and Padmini has a kid with Giri.

(Spoiler Ends)

TO SUM IT UP...

I don’t think the film bombed at the box office just because of the flaws I mentioned. I think it’s primarily because Kerala wasn’t ready to receive a film with zero male stars as leads. I was just imagining, if this same setting – contrasting personalities meeting on a trip to Manali, rally racing, a comic gangster subplot – was tweaked to become, say a Kunchako Boban-Biju Menon buddy film, it would’ve probably worked. The elements for a winner are definitely there. And every genre grows when ‘that one film’ clicks. Rani Padmini could very well have been that one film that proved the scope of women-centric cinema, but it didn’t click. Because well, no one watched it.

However, four years have passed since then. Parvathy Thiruvothu has already taken the scene by storm with her strong portrayal of women characters, and it’s nice to see Rock, Paper, Scissors – a girl buddy comedy web series by Karikku – garner millions of views on YouTube. Maybe this is a start. Maybe things are going to crop up in the near future. I personally would love to see an out-and-out Malayalam chick flick, Bridesmaids-style. Mollywood, are you listening?

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