Like Coen brothers’ Fargo that begins with a specious “based on a true story” text, Gautham Ramachandran begins his Gargi—a similar one word title that refers to the protagonist played by Sai Pallavi—with a list of “inspired by” phrases that includes “movies that I’ve watched”, “movies that I’ve never watched”, “movies that never got made”, “movies that got made but never released” and more. You get the picture, it’s a mix of things the filmmaker means. Also doesn’t. But Gargi and its story could very well carry the original text from Fargo (in case we missed it Gautham adds a blackboard in the court that reads “started with Fargo” for no reason) for the plot, the events in the film are almost everyday news material.
A nine-year-old girl is gang raped by five men in an apartment. Four of them were immediately arrested but the fifth one is nabbed just as the film begins. It is Gargi’s father Brahmanandam (RS Sivaji) who happens to be the building security guard. Gargi stands firm that this is a trial by media, and she’ll fight the case because she believes her father is innocent. Just like pregnant Marge Gunderson, Gargi is mostly alone in her quest with a little help from an inexperienced lawyer Indrans Kaliyaperumal (Kaali Venkat)—a name that flips Rajinikanth’s Kaliyaperumal Indran when the character is more of a Chandran from Thillu Mullu.
The first half of Gargi (written by Gautham and Hariharan Raju) is significant. It lays the foundation for where our sympathies lie despite the unnerving crime and identity of the accused. This is done through visuals that dial up the tension and establish the quagmire that Gargi’s family finds themselves in. Gautham resorts to more Spielberg than Coens. The film is a series of oners, short in length but long on impact. We get a single take through the outdoors of the courthouse (cinematography by Sraiyanti and Premkrishna Akkattu); an attack on the accused is being planned and Gautham takes us through the perpetrators’ actions, the crowds protesting and the police controlling them leading to Gargi walking in alone in a wide-angle lens closeup.
A few more single takes occur in Gargi’s modest home now populated by her mother and little sister. It’s a claustrophobic space made even smaller by the pall that sets in over the family and their household thanks to the media and ensuing ostracization. We follow Gargi from room to room as she switches off the lights and closes all the doors. A broken window glass is the only way in for the outside light. Gargi is present in almost every frame and Gautham makes sure she stands alone in most of them. It takes us closer to the character, her personal travails and inner turmoil suddenly compounded by the public eye. We get momentous flashbacks of a young Gargi which, among other things, enlightens us about an orange dress that she berates her sister for wearing.
At its best moments Gargi is a story about class war. The crime was committed in an upper-class apartment, four walls that isolate a good life and seemingly insulated from all societal ills. We don’t see the same kind of public outcry or media swarms for the other four accused who belonged in that building. The security guards and house helps do jobs beyond their call of duty. Nobody bats even an eyelid at them, not even school children but all the owners’ regular lives would fall apart if not for the sweat of these working-class men and women. We already know the class location of Gargi and her family. They migrated to Chennai for a better life and so did Indrans, the only lawyer enthusiastic enough if underqualified to take the case. He and Gargi leave no stone unturned in their investigation, ultimately trying to talk to people in the apartment.
They are driven away right at the gate by the guard as well as a flat owner, the latter attired in a t-shirt that screams a winking, modified version of the popular Nayakan line—naalu perukku nalladhuna edhuvum thappu illa (no deed is wrong if it leads to something good for the people). In sharp contrast, the survivor’s father played by Saravanan walks straight into Gargi’s compound in a fit of rage with a weapon in hand. There is no security guard, Gargi and Indrans remain calm for they understand his rage.
In another character name flip the policeman investigating the case is named Bennix Jayraj, a family man with a newborn daughter (everyone in the film has a daughter including the judge) who is as much a pawn in the system as any other. Aishwarya Lekshmi plays a particular brand of upper-class liberal journalist we see around us, one that deserves criticism for hurried judgement calls, but the character is drawn in broad strokes making it a parody.
Casting Sai Pallavi and Kaali Venkat is its own masterstroke in this film that’s more about the journey than finding an accused or absolving someone of a crime. They both possess a certain vulnerable demeanour in their face and body language while projecting an inner unshakeable resolve. She’s a schoolteacher who takes free tuition classes for those who cannot afford fees. He is a junior to an established lawyer who constantly undermines him. And he has nothing to lose. We’ve seen Kaali Venkat play little roles like this before but in Gargi it is written to perfection. They are both about doing the right thing and living by that Nayakan line. That’s more than what can be said of those who wear it on a t-shirt.