Note: spoilers ahead.
Let’s start with the basics: Ponmagal Vandhal (The Golden Daughter Has Arrived) is a movie about women, but tailored to all audiences. It deals with a fairly sensitive, emotionally-drives matter: child sexual abuse. And it attempts to do so through the legal system. Jyotika plays Venbu, an Ooty-based lawyer who, along with her father and ally, ‘Petition’ Pethuraj (played by Bhagyaraj), reoped a 15 year old case in court. The case: a woman entitled ‘Psycho Jyothi’ by the media was accused of and killed for the alleged kidnapping and torturing of children. The supporting cast include R Parthiepan, who is Venbu’s opposing lawyer, Pratap Pothen as the earnest judge, and Thiagarajan, a powerful businessman and essentially the ‘villain’ of the film.
The story concept is ambitious and it’s obvious that only a new, young director could make a film as fresh to the Tamil audience as this one. JJ Fredericks wrote and directed Ponmagal Vandhal, Suriya produced it under his banner, 2D Entertainment, and Govind Vasantha was the music director for the movie. Due to the pandemic and lockdown, the film released on Amazon Prime on 29 May 2020.
To begin with, JJ Fredericks wrote an incredibly airtight story. ‘Psycho Jyothi’ was convicted and shot by the Ooty cops in 2004, and even though the case was reopened 15 years later, the details have not been forgotten. Venbu and Pethuraj are confident about the case that they are arguing, and simultaneously the filmmakers are confident about the movie’s details depicted to us. What happened that fateful day 15 years ago is told and retold to the audience, but, as she is so often commanded to bring ‘evidence’ to court, Venbu brings evidence to back all her claims. Her evidence tells the story of how Jyothi, whose husband was victim to an honour killing, ran away to Jaipur to protect her daughter, returned to Tamil Nadu because Pethuraj assured her safety. When her daughter was kidnapped and raped, Jyothi found her and other girls in an abandoned warehouse, only to be accused of torturing children and being shot by the cops. Why? Because the powerful businessman Vardarajan’s son was the one who raped the kidnapped children.
The movie is definitely not a legal battle, and I’m pretty sure it follows no legal protocol, either. It is definitely what it claims to be: a courtroom drama. And a really exciting one, at that. Just when you think Venbu’s about to lose, when you think you can predict the course of legal action, the film throws such a plot twist at you, that you thank the interval that comes in just so you can continue reeling awhile. It doesn’t end at the interval; the rest of the film is a series of plot twists, but each of them make perfect sense to the main narrative. Parthiben’s character, Rajarathinam, is a lawyer bought by the rich and powerful, and he too undergoes a series of plot twists himself, changing the case entirely for the audience. One thing I can say with great confidence is that Ponmagal Vandhal had me engaged throughout the 120 minutes. I was hooked right from start to the end, and highly entertained by the twists and turns that even showed up at the very climax of the film. It made Venbu’s character complex, the legal battle far more interesting, and the story’s drama heightened.
Speaking of Venbu, her character is a kickass one who needs special mention. Jyotika gets to play two characters, a mother and a lawyer who has also been a victim to child abuse, and does so with great earnest. It is exciting to watch a woman play a role that would naturally be played by a man in Indian cinema: the bike-racing, self-righteous lawyer, and have two characters to play in a film! Venbu brings evidence for her arguments, but also subverts the monotonous drab of courtroom battles by stating that emotions are in fact valid in law, that women who feel emotion aren’t simply doing ‘drama,’ and that justice can be served if hearts are also won. Most importantly, she brings light to the grotesque nature of child abuse; a matter rarely explored in Indian cinema.
The story, besides being self-confident, is also jarring. Fredericks doesn’t shy away from showing the audience shocking moments: children’s bodies in ruins and covered in blood, mothers wailing in distraught, a sub-inspector vomiting at the sight of the bodies, and even a man unbuckling his pants in front of a young girl. They aren’t too gory, but they are very real and moves the audience. Apart from the jarring visuals, the cinematic appeal of Ooty is made obvious through the film,all thanks to cinematographer, Ramji. Beautiful, serene shots of the landscape and mist are soothing to the eyes. Nighttime in Ooty is strikingly beautiful, with warm yellow fires burning in the dark, still night. Ooty’s natural beauty is juxtaposed with gunshots, heinous crimes and bloodied dresses: displaying how the worst of humanity is present even in the most serene of places. Govid Vasantha’s music is minimalistic but sufficient for this movie that can have no jovial song-and-dance like other mainstream films. The background score is dramatic and apt for both the private, home spaces, and the courtroom spaces. It is never too loud, or too much, and never overbearing over the actors’ intense dialogues. And the use of violin is subtle while also staying true to the emotion of each scene. I recommend you listen to the soundtrack ASAP.
What Doesn’t Work
For all its sensitivity and intensity, Ponmagal Vandhal uses stock characters to drive some unnecessarily melodramatic scenes. The men are stereotypical and predictable; it’s inevitable that Vaardarajan is purely evil and condones his son’s crimes because ‘he is simply a boy, after all’. It’s obvious that all the men in court, especially Rajarathinam, constantly belittle her while she arises stronger, more mature. And Venbu’s stoicism in court borders on comical; her expression often appears arrogant and smirking, which then changes into shock, and then disappointment.
The courtroom battle is almost unbelievable at times. Some scenes drag on a bit, and Venbu’s character of the do-gooder who is always right and kind and generous with everybody, sort of makes her unbelievable too. Of course, it is a good change from the men who always play heroes like these, but in Ponmagal Vandhal we see Jyotika as:
1) Caring, selfless mother
2) Bold, fiery lawyer
There is no in-between.
Apart from her 2-dimensional role, another problem I had with Venbu’s demeanour in court was the use of her abuse to win the case. Of course, she does say that she cannot win the case with evidence, but as a victim of sexual abuse, she must say what really happened that day. Yet, doing that both made her both victimize and glorify herself in court. When she goes on to say that most victims of child sexual abue don’t have the guts to come and fight the way she’s doing, she places herself on a pedestal in a reductive manner. Women don’t only have to be victims or mothers, you know. Perhaps if the melodrama lessened, or if Fredericks wrote the story such that Venbu had more evidence or better arguments, we’d respect her ethics as a lawyer more, and believe her professionalism more as well.
All in all…
…Ponmagal Vandhal wins because it leaves the audience asking questions about how legal cases are fought for in the first place. Is it enough to rely solely on evidences of papers and forms, especially when those are easily alterable, and most often altered by people in power? Is it right to join the media bandwagon and call criminals names like ‘Psycho Jyothi’? Does racism against North Indians actually exist in Tamil Nadu? To what extent are men exempted from crime, and women blamed in their place? And, most importantly, why aren’t victims’ voices and stories enough to be provided as evidence in a court of law? Their stories cannot be altered or fabricated. Why isn’t emotion enough to counter facts? Do these questions in fact point to the gaping holes in our legal systems?
It is the ending of Ponmagal Vandhal that gives hope to us all. Rajarathinam asks Venbu why she pushed through to fight for justice for a woman she didn’t even know; who wasn’t even her mother? Her answer is simple: because everyone deserves justice, and she believes that only the truth will win in court.
I wish that I could have watched Ponmagal Vandhal in theatres. It has all the oohs and aahs made for a theatrical experience: when Venbu rips through Ooty on her bike, when she belittles the misogynistic Vardarajan in court, when Jyothi kills the child-kidnappers, and finally, when justice is served. Sure, it may be criticised for being over-the-top at times and melodramatic, but it definitely is far less than most mainstream Tamil films. Some amount of drama is needed. It is a Kollywood movie, after all!
I give Ponmagal Vandhal 3/5 because of its originality, its compact, tight-lipped story, and how it leaves the audience asking themselves tough questions that haven’t been asked before.