Home Entertainment ‘The Adamant Girl’ Review: P.S. Vinothraj Delivers a Radical Exploration of Gendered...

‘The Adamant Girl’ Review: P.S. Vinothraj Delivers a Radical Exploration of Gendered Traditions

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Farcical and viscerally upsetting in equal measure, P.S. Vinothraj’s “The Adamant Girl” masterfully exposes the nature of superstition by zeroing in on gendered expectations. A story of a betrothed woman being shepherded by her fiancé’s family between sites of religious ritual, the rural Tamil-language drama plays like an extension of “Pebbles,” Vinothraj’s remarkable 2021 debut in which an abusive, alcoholic husband and his young son traverse a harsh terrain on foot to retrieve his fleeing wife. This time, the men have cars and motorcycles, while the woman has little recourse but to silently bear the brunt of their beliefs, in a movie that makes deft use of the dynamic between bodies and their environments.

Vinothraj sets the stage by following his characters in lengthy, unbroken shots, observing their movement — or lack thereof, in some cases. He creates a sense of mood and texture around them even before they speak as he tracks them from behind. His central character, Meena (Anna Ben), remains still and silent for most of the film, as though she were in a fugue state, while her brusque fiancé, Pandi (Soori Muthuchamy), gurgles imposing dialogue despite his painfully hoarse voice. Meena chooses to be silent. Pandi insists on being heard.

Pandi, his parents and his two wedded sisters believe Meena’s reluctance to marry him is rooted in some kind of spiritual possession. The exact circumstances of her refusal aren’t specified up front, though they have caste-centric implications when revealed. Vinothraj, in his exploration of gender, tosses a wide net over rural Indian society, analyzing numerous different family dynamics, including that of Meena’s own parents, who bite their tongues and go along with their in-laws’ planned exorcism scheme.

The plot is simple on its surface. Pandi’s family seeks to take Meena to a holy site for a prayer offering, followed by another trip immediately after to a revered, shamanic “seer” for whom they bring a sacrificial rooster. Although Meena doesn’t speak — in fact, she makes an effort to barely emote or react — Vinothraj’s unyielding focus on her eyes and her subtle reactions creates a world of interiority, which few of the characters in her vicinity choose to see. The camera goes where society’s general consciousness, and its moral compass, do not.

Shots of the rooster tied to stone, unable to escape, are swiftly followed by reaction shots of Meena’s unwavering gaze. She doesn’t “react” in the traditional sense, but the camera and editing work in tandem to illuminate her thoughts as she identifies with the helpless fowl. Meena sits in a rickshaw with the family’s women while the men chaperone them on motorbikes — a mechanical reflection of a wedding procession, stripped of all joy and color. Through visual suggestion, “The Adamant Girl” seems to ask at every turn: Beneath all the pomp and circumstance, is misogyny just incidental to deep-seated Indian tradition? Or is it a fixture?

Vinothraj depicts both the sudden intimacy of violence within the family unit as well as its futility from afar, highlighting male impotence rather than dominance. Each sequence is carefully crafted, but it emerges as though it has a mind of its own. The camera goes to great lengths to capture physical and emotional spaces that seem to exist only in private, within Meena’s fantasies of freedom and reprieve. The film’s focus on ritual is often tongue-in-cheek, from extended sequences of actual traditions geared toward forcing Meena to marry Pandi, to more mechanical goings-on, like the repetitive tradition of rope-starting the rickety rickshaw. Like all traditions, it’s one that works until it won’t.

Through Meena’s gaze, Vinothraj also captures a dynamic view of water and other liquids — a recurring visual motif that binds the film — from plastic water bottles used to refill the bikes with petrol, to bodies of water roaming free, to water used within the aforementioned rituals, and even used forcefully to wake the rooster when it seemingly passes out from the heat. Liquid is fluid; its meaning is pliable, even when applied to the rigidity of ritual. It takes different shapes, while Meena is forced to fit a singular box. None of these thoughts are expressed in words, but thanks to Ben’s impeccable performance, Meena brings even these complex ideas to life through her silent despondency and her yearning for human decency.

The wry humor of “The Adamant Girl” goes hand in hand with its unflinching depictions of masculine insecurity and its harmful outcomes. The film is as funny as it is unsettling, but it’s ultimately liberating, albeit in roundabout ways. It builds to a stunning climax in which nothing out of the ordinary happens, but the mundane, the familiar and the wholly expected are subverted aesthetically. The camera, in this moment, suddenly embodies the very feelings of paralyzing entrapment it has been so carefully observing thus far. It’s a jolt to the system.