Ponmagal Vandhal movie review: Jyotika doesn't punch hard but sincerely delivers clarion call to believe women's stories

In spite of Jyotika — who plays the lead in Ponmagal Vandhal — being a lawyer, the film is not a legal thriller. It is not a police procedural either; the cops never follow any procedure. It is not an investigation; we do not tail a detective; instead, we follow a narrator. The film can be accurately described only as a courtroom drama: A significant part of it happens in the courtroom, and it relies heavily on drama.
Ponmagal Vandhal movie review

Jyotika plays Venba, a lawyer reopening a 15-year-old case. Bagyaraj is her supportive father, ‘Petition' Pethuraj. Together, they spend 15 years to prepare this particular case, which Venba is determined has to be her first. This case unravels over the course of two hours one thread at a time.

To appreciate Jyotika’s filmography, one must buy into her pursuit. During promotions for the film, she has been repeatedly saying that the 'message' in the film is what attracted her to it. And that she wants to make films that her children are proud of. Naturally, her films come with a lot of editorialising. Ponmagal Vandhal is no different.

So much so that in the film, there is little by means of legal cleverness. Almost all evidence is eyewitness testimony, which get quickly disputed and disregarded. Much of the investigation is presented as narratives: News anchors describe a good part of the happenings, investigating cop explains to the lawyer what happened, the victim’s mother tells her backstory in court, and Venba herself narrates most of the story. In fact, in a scene where she is supposed to bait the antagonist into a confession, she goes, “Avar sollamaataaru, naan solren” (He will not tell you, I shall), and continues her narration. Her case feels weak, resting on the trustworthiness of the victim rather than the strength of the prosecution’s case.

This is a metaphor for the film itself. By choosing a theme that is heart-wrenching, director JJ Fredrick relies heavily on its own ability to persuade the audience rather than on the tautness of his writing. This does not mean he takes it lightly — he does not. He presents the darkness of child sexual abuse without seeking to shock or titillate.

For instance, when the bodies of young girls are dug up, we do not see their decaying faces, but the barfing of an onlooker. There is a scene where a mother — still drenched in her abused child’s blood — is sitting next to her, patting her to sleep. The daughter suddenly wakes up, shaken by a bad dream, screaming in fear. This is written and performed with such a delicate hand that it would remain an image difficult to shake off even long after the film is over. The film does have moments like these, but it also includes shots of a man unbuckling his belt, while talking about a child’s rape. Could the film not have been just as solid without this?

Jyotika plays the role of Venba with stoicism in her posture, and melancholy in her eyes. But her part in the flashback and the makeup for it, even with the explanation offered, seems irresponsible, if not straight-out wrong. Bagyaraj fits perfectly in his role as an ally. The awkward ways in which he tries to make people laugh make him part-irritating, part-endearing. But there is no doubt he is utterly moving as the father swinging between hope, fear, worry, and despair for his daughter.

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It is not a coincidence that most lead characters bring a little bit of their past — as an actor and person — into Ponmagal Vandhal. Parthiban, as the opposing advocate, brings his trademark disdain, but the restraint written into the character makes their conflict damp. Prathap Pothen sings 'En Iniya Pon Nilaave’ — the actor’s most popular Tamil song — to himself, in a somewhat inorganic scene that tries to establish his character. Jyotika herself is introduced on a bike, as though it was left over from her role in Magalir Mattum (2017), but we never see her riding after that.

In a sense, Ponmagal Vandhal fits perfectly into Jyotika’s pursuit: Every film is a milestone in her single-minded journey of women’s empowerment. This milestone is one of empathy. Ponmagal Vandhal is the story of Venba who put herself in the shoes of another woman. But it is also a clarion call for all of us to believe women’s stories.

Ponmagal Vandhal is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video India.

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