'Angry Indian Goddesses': IFFLA Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Plenty of anger, but not much resolution.

Pan Nalin’s ensemble dramedy follows a group of Indian women who confront frequent discrimination and harassment with courage and humor.

Incidents related to violence and discrimination against women in India continue to generate news headlines, prompting vehement reactions from numerous segments of society. Angry Indian Goddesses constitutes veteran indie filmmaker Pan Nalin’s focused response -— an indictment of chauvinistic attitudes and behavior that doesn’t need cultural translation to convey its outraged perspective. Described as “India’s first female buddy-movie,” Nalin’s feature was an award-winner at both the 2015 Toronto and Rome film festivals and has already opened in more than 60 countries, although an eventual U.S. art house release might face a degree of resistance to the pic’s melodramatic plot machinations.

Nalin signals his agenda from the outset, depicting his ensemble of female protagonists in a variety of situations that demonstrate their second-class social status. Shifting gears to the picturesque southwest coastal enclave of Goa, he follows commercial photographer Frieda (Sarah-Jane Dias), who’s gathering five women friends at her family home, with her cousin Jo (Amrit Maghera), a struggling Bollywood actress, prominent among them. Mad (musician Anushka Manchanda) is a soulful but unsuccessful singer-songwriter, while Su (Sandhya Mridul) is a hard-driving business executive who shows up with her young daughter. Only beautiful Pam (Pavleen Gujral) lacks a career, stuck in an arranged marriage with a wealthy but neglectful husband. She's the antithesis of fiery community activist Nargis (Tannishtha Chatterjee), whose current human-rights campaign just happens to oppose a mining project masterminded by Su’s corporation.

What Frieda hasn’t told them all is that she’s been holding back news of her secret wedding plans until everyone has arrived in Goa. Her unexpected announcement sets off a flurry of questions and speculation, but Frieda isn’t going to be revealing her intended’s identity until the time is right. Meanwhile, the women entertain themselves with impromptu song and dance sessions accompanied by Mad’s guitar, leisurely group meals at funky local eateries and daytrip outings to the beach during nearly a week of relaxation and celebration. Once Frieda finally discloses her wedding plans, however, the revelation is so surprising that some of the women question her judgment, setting off a chain of events that will critically test their bonds of friendship and loyalty.

Nalin has logged a varied career that includes both features and documentaries that have often focused on Buddhist themes, but Angry Indian Goddesses is a determined dive into the secular realm in pursuit of its timely topic. Setting an agenda that emphasizes respect for women’s rights induces a degree of moralizing that inevitably shapes the narrative, not entirely for the better. An emphasis on the women’s reactions to a variety of discriminatory situations starts to resemble a checklist approach, ticking off situations that cover career challenges, marriage dilemmas and personal relationships. A counter-tendency to glamorize scenes of the women bonding with one another results in rather predictable scripting that eventually becomes freighted with an excess of emotionality.

Nalin assembles an appealing ensemble that relies more on the breadth of the cast than the depth of each individual actor’s experience, establishing a comfortable sense of onscreen camaraderie. A traditional Portuguese-style home and beautiful island locations attractively frame the filmmaker’s informal stylistic approach, highlighting the naturalistic setting and performances.

Venue: Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles
Production companies: Jungle Book Entertainment, One Two Films, Protein Entertainment
Cast: Sarah-Jane Dias, Rajshri Deshpande, Sandhya Mridul, Amrit Maghera, Pavleen Gujral, Anushka Manchanda, Tannishtha Chatterjee
Director-writer: Pan Nalin
Producers: Gaurav Dhingra, Pan Nalin
Executive producer: Nandish Domlur
Director of photography: Swapnil S. Sonawane
Production designer: Aradhana Seth
Costume designer: Ashima Belapurkar 
Editor: Shreyas Beltangdy
Music: Cyril Morin

Not rated, 115 minutes

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