My mother uses this phrase once in a while, when she learns of some ‘transgressive’ behaviour on my part – something that could range from drinking to travelling alone to not wearing markers of marriage to not praying to God – “You’ve drifted too far away from me, from home”. Recently, she mentioned that she wanted me to be the same happy, ‘innocent’ person I was before I left home for university.
Over time, I realised that ‘home’ meant not just the physical and emotional space occupied by my parents, but also a set of practices or strictures, mostly dictated by parents, related to gender roles, religion, sex, marriage, friendships and ‘appropriate’ behaviour.
This is probably also why the word ‘home’, for me, refers to my parents’ place to this day, even as I’ve been living away for well over a decade and have set up my own space several times with friends, and most recently, with my marital partner. Can one ever escape this sense of home?
“What do you think of this guy?” a young woman asks another, as they sit on the pavement on a Chennai road drinking coconut water. “Yeah, he’s nice,” says the other woman, checking him out. Her friend whispers something in her ear, to which she says “No way! I won’t do such things before I get married. What if I get pregnant or something?”
Aruvi (‘waterfall’) is a Tamil film that released in December 2017 to wide critical acclaim. For its female protagonist, home, specifically her father, becomes the singular space that prompts her to question and engage with sexuality and other issues such as capitalism and religion.
Eponymous Aruvi is the average urban, middle class 90s child. In all of two songs coming in quick succession, the director packs in practically everything that my friends or I, as 90s kids from Chennai, would identify with: Shaktiman, TV antenna, fat Whisper sanitary pads, salwar-kameez-dupatta school uniforms, plaits folded up with ribbons, kajal from a dabba, and birthday parties in garish clothes.
Aruvi is fun; she likes to laugh, show off, dress up and play pranks. She is very close to her father – he quits smoking without a thought (but not without a last puff) when she asks him to, he gives her permission to go out for a party even when her mother says no, he lavishes affection and attention on her. Aruvi, for her part, is a diligent daughter: while in school, she has grand ideas of how she should be ‘proposed’ to (“a card that only has the words ‘Love you Aruvi’”), but threatens a boy that she will complain to her father when he proposes to her. As she grows, she begins to test the waters, but stays firmly within self-imposed boundaries – she will never drink, for instance, or consider sex before marriage, because she doesn’t want to upset her father.
Aruvi is the quintessential ‘innocent’ young woman, a loved member of a small, closely-knit family. In a simple yet evocative scene, young Aruvi, whose family has just moved from a small town – their house surrounded by vast, empty lands – to a cluttered Chennai apartment, tells her father she doesn’t like her new house at all. Her father smiles and hugs her close, perhaps to say that they may have moved houses, but Aruvi’s home is, after all, intact. In the next few scenes, we see Aruvi bloom into adolescence, enjoying every bit of her life in the city.
In this loving nest of a home, all hell breaks loose when her family believes that she has committed a ‘grave sin’and throws her out of home, saying they can’t be associated with ‘such’ a person. It isn’t really clear what has happened – is she pregnant? How and when did that happen? What options does she have to respond to this situation? Why doesn’t her loving family – or at the very least her father, her pillar of strength – support her?
In her days/months/years out of her home, Aruvi goes to many people for solace: her close friend, whose father lets her stay in their house; Emily, a transwoman; her employer at a tailoring shop; a religious leader, who promises her relief. Emily truly helps Aruvi in adjusting to her new reality. Both are outcasts: Aruvi, thrown out of her home by parents,and Emily, possibly disowned for her gender identity. The two outcasts build a home together away from the homes that have rejected them, shopping for vegetables, cooking, walking hand in hand on Chennai’s streets and beaches, and helping each other out in times of financial or emotional crisis. With Emily by her side, Aruvi slowly makes peace with her life outside of her familial home: she begins to smoke and drink, experiments with pot, and takes her hard-earned money to go on a trip to a waterfall with Emily. She learns to move on and live life on her own terms, outside of the boundaries imposed by her erstwhile home. This friendship, something that may not have been possible or accepted if Aruvi still lived with her parents, is one of the most heartwarming friendships that I’ve seen on screen. Emily’s gender identity has no role in their relationship; Aruvi cherishes Emily for who she is – a loyal person, ready to stand by her through thick or thin.
The big reveal about Aruvi’s ‘situation’ comes when she states that she is HIV positive – this is the transgression that was bad enough for her family to disown her, for ‘home’ to vanish from Aruvi’s life over the course of a few days.There is only a minor allusion to how Aruvi may have contracted the virus, but it doesn’t seem to matter to her; HIV is only a part of Aruvi’s many problems. Three men that she relied on for support abuse her. Her brother refuses the money that she managed to get with great difficulty for her father’s surgery – managed, we learn later, by agreeing to give sexual favours to her employer. Outside of her familial home, it seems, the woman is no longer ‘innocent’ or ‘good’, and she deserves everything that comes her way, be it getting cheated or being sexually assaulted. After all, the woman who leaves home has strayed, and is therefore open game for all kinds of exploitation. In this seemingly virtuous cycle, she is ineligible to ‘return’ home too; as Aruvi’s brother asks her when she gives him money for their father’s surgery, “Are you trying to come back to us by offering money? We’ve moved on without you.”
Faced with one challenge after another, though, Aruvi doesn’t choose to wallow in pity; she wants payback. She goes on to a TV show that seeks to bring justice by bringing the warring parties together on the show’s set, moderated by a morally high-handed Tamil Brahmin woman who switches from compassion on screen to irritation off screen with ease. Aruvi seeks answers from the three men who raped her, and rants against the corporate rat race, badly-made movies, advertising, commercialization of hospitals, god men, consumerism, reality TV, and so on.
Despite all this rage – or so the director wants to say – Aruvi is still ‘innocent’. We don’t know how she got HIV. By the end of the film, and possibly her life, she’s scared; she wants her father. She’s forgiven the men who abused her (rather easily, I thought – how good-hearted is a woman expected to be? Or is that simply who Aruvi is?) She just wants to be home. The last sequence of the film shows her family and friends coming to meet her in the hills she’s escaped to, away from everyone she knows. Her father’s presence is the deal-breaker for her, and he is the first person she hugs in her frail state. She gets a card from a man with a simple “Love you, Aruvi”, like she’d always wanted. The film ends with a frame of Aruvi beaming a wide smile. She is finally back home.
One is left to wonder what Aruvi makes of this metaphoric return home – a home that has now grown to include a new set of friends from the TV show, even her abusers. Does her family only visit her because she reiterates she didn’t ‘do anything wrong’ and is only a victim of circumstances? What would have happened had Aruvi contracted the infection after unprotected sex with someone or by sharing a needle? In proving her goodness and ‘innocence’, hasn’t Aruvi accepted the mores of the same home that threw her out? Is such a ‘home’ worth it? Aruvi is a fantastic film for exploring gender, gender roles and societal norms that are often never represented in a nuanced way, much less so with a relatable female lead. All the same, I wonder if Aruvi would have been the same had she smoked, enjoyed wine or had sex before marriage, while still living with her parents.