“Angry Indian Goddesses” is a feminist dramedy with a lesbian storyline

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Fair warning: there probably isn’t a more spoilery review of the film Angry Indian Goddesses out there. For the purposes of this site, we kind of have to give away the film’s big “surprise” plot point. I say “surprise” a bit mockingly because the film’s inclusion in LGBT film festivals, the news that the Indian censor board was all over it and the fact that it boasts an all-female cast pretty much spell out that there’s a queer lady or two in this flick. Fortunately for us, one of these characters is the film’s lead. Not so great, however, is director Pan Nalin’s decision to bite off what was ultimately more than he could chew.

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Angry Indian Goddesses has been marketed as India’s “first female buddy comedy” and has actually done really well with festival audiences. But its second half proves that calling it a dramedy with a heavy emphasis on the drama is a more accurate description. Sadly, this boldly feminist film falls apart in many ways by trying to take on too much, too fast.

But on to why queer women, in particular, should pay attention to this film.

At the center of the film is Frieda (Sarah Jane Dias), a photographer fed up with the superficiality of the campaigns she works on. Well, it’s incredibly timely that she picks this exact moment to invite her friends and cousin down to her family home in Goa. Indeed, in one way or another, the men in all these women’s work and/or personal lives manage to continually belittle and sexualize them, or just hold them back in general. That’s something that these women from all over India, some of whom have never even met, all have in common.

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So why has Frieda invited them down? It turns out she’s getting married, although no one knows who she’s engaged to. And she’s not spilling the beans. Even her cousin Jo (Amrit Maghera), who brings about the reveal by showing up with a wedding dress, is in the dark. Weird…

If you’re like me, you’ve already started analyzing all the women to figure out who the queer one is and now you’re very suspicious. Then comes another big clue in the news that Frieda’s father isn’t coming to the wedding.

Yet another clue? When an activist-type no one but Frieda knows shows up much later than the others. Nargis (Tannishtha Chatterjee) seems lovely. At least everyone but Su (Sandhya Mridul) seems to think so. You see, Nargis is currently fighting a land development deal that Su’s company is trying to push through. Frieda–I don’t think you completely thought this one out.

So this beach get-together is essentially just a really long bachelorette party. In fact, you’ll see a lot of the same tropes found in American chick flicks: eating the cucumber meant for your face at the spa, faking an orgasm for laughs, doing tons of shots at the club, etc. Some of these scenes can be a bit over the top at times, but the cast’s chemistry and the real sense of friendship amongst these characters makes most of these moments believable.

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It’s not all fun and games though. As I mentioned before, this film is very obvious about its feminist message. There’s a great scene where these women passionately speak about the injustices and abuses women in India face, during which they straight up call for equality. FYI: a lot of the lines in this film were improvised and this is a moment where that works really well. But it’s unfortunate that instead of dissecting some of the issues brought up during this scene, Nalin charges on. This happens time and time again.

At least that gets us to the coming out scene, which is delightfully creative. Because Frieda’s friends and cousin choose to press her on the identity of her beloved exactly when she’s in the midst of her monthly vow of silence, she has to play a game of charades with them to reveal the answer. It’s probably the easiest way she could do this, even though you can tell it’s still a struggle for her. After a false start, the women finally realize she’s miming coming out of the closet.

In spite of her fears, they all take it well, which is truly a nice surprise. What they’re immediately concerned with is who the other bride is. When Frieda admits she’s in the room, Pammy (Pavleen Gujral) thinks it must be their musician friend Mad (Anushka Manchanda), which I found hilarious because I got that vibe from her too. But although Mad admits Frieda is “very hot,” it’s not her (though she does volunteer to show Pammy how Frieda and Nargis have sex after she actually asks). And to everyone’s relief, it’s not the housemaid Lakshmi (Rajshri Deshpande) either. Yeah, that’s a caste system burn right there.

Eventually, the lightbulb goes off and they realize it’s Nargis. I hope that, like me, they stopped to think about how nice it was of their friend’s fiancée to spend the last couple of days getting to know them. Though I also wonder if, like me, Su thinks it’s odd that Frieda asked her to walk her down the aisle and give her away to her biggest enemy.

Of course, the obvious question remains: same-sex marriage is not legal in India and homophobia is still a big problem, so how are they going to do this? The answer is a private ceremony witnessed by all these lovely ladies.

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Now while I love how genuinely happy Frieda’s friends seem for her, I can’t help but feel we’ve been robbed of the joys of seeing Frieda and Nargis being together. I understand toning things down until the big reveal, but even afterward all we get is a quick “I love you” and about 30 seconds of what I assume is the lead up to sex but is shot in really low lighting. They do exchange a few other pecks here and there, but it’s hard to comment on their chemistry because they get so little one-on-one screen time.

Perhaps the second half of the film would have been better spent exploring these two as a couple, or even just further exploring the various friendships, especially since many of them are new ones. Instead, Nalin chose to highlight one of the most hot button topics in India right now: gang rape.

Besides changing the tone of the film (which is not necessarily always a bad thing), the whole episode and aftermath are handled too frantically to do the issue justice. It really is a shame, but that’s the story of Angry Indian Goddesses: it has the best of intentions but fails to deliver on its immeasurable goals.

Still, it remains a unique film and certainly does right by female friendships. It also showed a lot of respect for the lesbian relationship purposely at its center. For these reasons and other enjoyable moments, Angry Indian Goddesses might be a good pick if you sit well with mixed feelings.

Angry Indian Goddesses is playing at the Torino Gay & Lesbian Film Festival on May 4 and 5. Visit the film’s Facebook page to keep up with future screenings.

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