On the face of it, they couldn’t be further apart in exposition, scope, or even their target audience. If I wasn’t constrained by the anomaly of the expression – for, I’ve tasted both, but never attempted to write with one of them – they’d be legends of chalk-and-cheese. And yet both arrived circa 2017, and both in their own ways, shook up the watching audience.
Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins and written by Allan Heinberg, as we all know now, shattered the DC world and that of superheroes forever. It was, by Zeus, helmed by a woman, and that wasn’t the reason it re-pressed box-office records worldwide. It carried with it, a hitherto unseen and unfelt emotional space in caped crusades, that brought a whiff of genuine romance even as it split wide open global issues, that though it keenly observed during the flagging days of World War I, are more relevant than ever. Opening in a flashback to the wondrous and stunning locales of the mystical and hidden island of Themyscira, the inhabitants being the all-women Amazonian warriors, created by Zeus to save mankind – the only scenes where the director and cinematographer Matthew Jensen paint the screen with mind-bogglingly breathtaking colors and hues – we see the relationship between ruling Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen, all power and caring mother at once) and her only daughter – also the only child on the island – Diana, wanting to pick up the battle cloak and dagger from an early age; to her mother’s vehement and vigorous denial, the child is trained by her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright, masterfully intense) to become even a more whiplash of a warrior than herself. And once the Queen mother realizes there’s no stopping her defiant daughter and sister, she lets you into a tantalizing line that tells you there’s more to be revealed about Diana. But that’s later for you to discover in the movie. The lives of the amazing Amazonian women are upended when a fighter plane crashes near their island, and a grown-up Diana (Gal Gadot) rescuing its sole pilot, American pilot Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). That’s also when, in perhaps one of the most invigorating and eye-widening action sequences in the movie, that Diana realizes that Zeus’ son, Ares, is out there in the world unknown to her tribe, and is somehow behind the catastrophic war; she also realizes, as the island is attacked by a German unit in pursuit of Trevor, of how hopeless her island’s weaponry can be, against the modern blitzkrieg of hot lead and powerful thermodynamics. Her adventure takes her out to the big, bad world with Trevor, and she runs in with the German psychopath-cum-General Erich Ludendorff (a marvelous Danny Huston) and his chemical-mania of a chemist Dr. Isabel Maru (a superbly evil turn by Elena Anaya) also known as Dr. Poison, which so nicely fills in her job description as well. There’s other characters who support Diana/Wonder Woman as she, with Trevor takes on the evil forces, with a little help from friends including the British cabinet minister, Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis, shining as always), Trevor’s secretary Etta Candy (Lucy Davis), and a band of fighters that Trevor gets together for the mission.
In Aruvi (Waterfalls), the titular lead character, played by Aditi Balan, has no such luck with regards to friends or kin. This story is told in flashback too, but keeps cutting to the ominous present, where she and perhaps her only thick-and-thin friend Emily (Anjali Varadhan, singeingly fantastic) are being interrogated by police officer Shakeel Waqaab (Mohammed Ali Baig, very suave, extremely believable, but inflecting at times as if he’d rather be on an episode of CSI), and as you hear Aruvi’s story, you realize that much like Diana, she’s had a sheltered childhood, but not one of fantasy, but an everyday life, where she’s the apple of her father’s eye – Thirunavukkarasu in a magnificently etched and enacted supporting role – and has a regular love-and-tiff relationship with her younger brother. All this changes, and as far as you’re concerned, it happens in a scene that stuns, as you see Aruvi’s life upend, as you did Diana’s – only here, there’s no Trevor to lend a helping hand nor a mother to lend a supportive farewell, and a sullied Aruvi is kicked out of the house, despite her pained protestations. Director Arun Prabu Purushothaman doesn’t have the big bucks backing for this project, nor does he require the green bundles to tell the story he wrote – it’s in the turning of the blunt knife that he enjoys your discomfiture, not in the anesthetized comfort of a newly forged blade. In between cutting from a swift montage of the ever-burgeoning intrigue of the present and an increasingly chilling look at the past that got his lead character here, the director spares no wound and cut, and just as suddenly, the movie parkours from a social drama to black comedy to a visceral look at society’s unstoppable spinning of hypocrisy and exploitation. Backed by an ensemble of character actors who do wonders onscreen (as they do in Wonder Woman) – here, Arnold Mathew (playing Aruvi’s brother), Lakshmi Gopalswami (the TV host of Solvathellam Sathyam), Pradeep Anthony, Bala and others – Aruvi works best when it’s ripping off the skin of societal hypocrisy, zipping into a TED-like talk of happiness, and a cathartic revelation for a character in the TV studio. Where it does get weak is when the director spins the bottle of story much too long, giving himself and his Aruvi this indulgence that both might never get again. As in Wonder Woman, where the bar scenes and comedy tend to act as a plateau for the main mission.
Both movies also look, in their own lens-mounted ways, of the troubling times we live in. The focal point of these projects is women. And both of them are Wonder Women in the way they grittily pack a punch back at the world. Both characters step out into these worlds they haven’t seen earlier, much less prepared to take head on. But both realize very quickly that taking the bullshit by the horns is a much more messier and complex affair than they could have imagined or planned for. In a world designed by men, for men, and of men, in a sense both Diana and Aruvi are Amazonian warriors, their battles very cleanly defined by themselves even if circumstances have forced them to do so, their weapon of choice the best possible that their times have to offer. In Wonder Woman does Diana realize that the world’s such a big truckload of mess that even superheroes can’t quite resolve the mosaic of power struggles and the manic ambition of a few, or just one. Aruvi on the other hand does her best to take control of these very manipulative and destructive forces of reality shows and news mites that feed into speculation, metastasizing into false news, triggering meaningless late-night TV debates, making experts of all who care to appear on TV and indulge in shouting matches.
Both women succeed, if you can call it that, but pay a very heavy price for their success. If there ever was Pyrrhic victory, it is these two who bear the burden of it. From the principles of naiveté to steely determination for justice, these super women bear crosses that they’re forever nailed to. Aruvi also makes you think of palliative care, of how important it is for everyone, without fail, to have loved ones around them, as they make that one final journey, however painful the director makes it for you to watch.
And both movies work superbly well within the ground rules of engagement they lay for themselves – Wonder Woman is eventually a commercial explosion of entertainment, not pretending to be otherwise; Aruvi is more than a waterfall – it’s a flood of a wincing, progressively-tough-to-watch indie, not attempting to be anything else. And yet, both have power that they grant their women to achieve, and for that, both are extremely gratifying cinematic experiences.
The movies boast of fine lead performances – Gal Gadot is impeccable, walking the line of a radiant, magical superwoman, stumbling along to find the magic of love and the callousness of mankind, even while executing some truly fine action pieces. Aditi Balan as Aruvi is astoundingly splenetic, clawing at your soul with what has to be one of the finest debut performances ever. She’s magical too, in her own way, but more the dark, haunting variety.
The music score for Wonder Woman by Rupert Gregson-Williams is a typical blockbuster music sheet, and there, you won’t find anything alluring, except maybe for Hans Zimmer’s grungy theme. Composers Bindhu Malini and Vedanth Bharadwaj, however, aren’t bound by any such considerations for Aruvi. Much like the break-out woman the movie portrays, their background score, especially, is a winner. Utterly unpredictable, rocking between Carnatic music and the unexpected pleasure of a bass, using trumpets to segue into hip-hop jazz, the musicians add their own layer of pleasurable unpredictability to the story.
And there’s another difference between the two movies. Wonder Woman, despite all the painful losses, gets a sequel. Aruvi, despite winning at life and because of it, doesn’t. But it is the pyrotechnics of the fantasy of one that make it easier to watch the inevitable poignancy of the other. And it is in the balancing out and propelling of these two stories, not in their canceling each other, that makes movie watching such a beautiful, uplifting, and powerful experience.
Director Arun Prabhu Purushothaman Running Time 2h 10 min
Writer Arun Prabhu Purushothaman
Stars Aditi Balan, Pradeep Anthony, Arnold, Mohammed Ali Baig, Thirunavukkarasu
Wonder Woman data powered by IMDb
Director Patty Jenkins Running Time 2h 21 min
Writer Allan Heinberg
Stars Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston
Genres Action, Adventure, Fantasy