“Angry Indian Goddesses” may indeed be India’s first female buddy pic, as the promo material proclaims, chockablock with grrl power and energized by a game cast riding roughshod over Bollywood damsels-in-distress stereotypes. If only helmer/chief scripter Pan Nalin had stuck to the amusingly anarchic outrage of the opening sequence, he would have delivered a liberatingly subversive comedy. Instead, he made an Issue movie — or rather, an Every Issue movie, and so overloads his jaunty wagon with weighty of-the-moment topics that it splinters into dozens of pieces. That won’t stop Western auds from embracing the film’s progressive values: “Goddesses” received Rome’s People’s Choice tribute, and European sales were brisk following the film’s Toronto premiere. A Stateside indie release is also likely.
How many causes does Nalin cram in? Gender inequality, women as objectified sex objects, gay-straight friendships, big business vs. tribal rights, India’s horrific rape problem, caste differences, skin-color prejudice, lax justice — and that doesn’t exhaust the list. Topping it all off, in a final scene designed to raise a lump in the throat, the pic suddenly becomes an apologia for vigilantism. That might not be where the director meant to go, but the message is unmistakable; so much for being progressive.
Expectations are high in the first half, especially after a gangbusters opening that edits together the stories of six women combating misogyny. Shutterbug Frieda (Sarah-Jane Dias) gets fed up with how she’s treated on a photo shoot, so she hightails it to her family’s ramshackle house in Goa, where she invites four friends to spend a bachelorette week before her upcoming wedding. The announcement of her nuptials takes everyone by surprise, and Frieda adds to their curiosity by refusing to say who she’s marrying.
The invitees are: high-powered biz exec Suranjana (Sandhya Mridul), with young daughter Maya (Nia Dhime) in tow; half-English, half-Indian aspiring starlet Joanna (Amrit Maghera); Pamela (Pavleen Gujral), a model bourgeois wife in an arranged marriage; and indie rocker Madhureeta (Anushka Manchanda), who’s stressing out because her last album didn’t sell so well. Helping to look after them all is the maid Laxmi (Rajshri Deshpande), a forthright character harboring a traumatic past.
At this point it’s enjoyable watching these six women whoop it up, reveling in their all-femme environment as they bitch about life, offer mutual support, and unashamedly ogle the shirtless hunk next door (model Anuj Choudhry). They’re all caricatures in a way, but no more so than the protags of “Bridesmaids,” and their independence is unquestionably empowering when compared with the usual portrayals of women in mainstream Indian cinema (with notable exceptions, such as Vikas Bahl’s superior “Queen”). Frieda’s activist friend Nargis (Tannishtha Chatterjee) turns up, causing significant tension since she’s spearheading a campaign against Suranjana’s company, but it’s agreed to put such issues aside and celebrate Frieda’s happiness, even as they still wonder who she’s marrying. All seems to be heading to a happy conclusion until a gun is found in the house.
Nalin has several features and documentaries under his belt, but the way he crams so many issues into “Angry Indian Goddesses” leaves one thinking he must be a novice. It’s a shame, as some of the frank discussions about sexual harassment and the pressures of “respectability” would have sufficed to give the film the social-activist seal of approval. At least there’s one guy, Madhureeta’s b.f., Zain (Arjun Mathur), included to ensure that not every male is either a sex object or a misogynistic a-hole.
Thankfully, the cast are a talented and spirited bunch, enjoying the opportunity to let loose with grievances while reveling in the togetherness of female-centric safety. Several are long-limbed actresses/models, others stage and screen vets, while the warm, edgy-voiced Manchanda, a bestselling indie thrush with personality galore, gets the opportunity to prove her acting and singing talents. Too bad Shreyas Beltangdy’s over-eager editing keeps undercutting the performances, interrupting the actors just when they’re building a scene.