A man with two moustaches, birds and tortoises who talk, a frog that wants its back to be licked before it’ll give you directions, and a robust Lilliput subplot. Fantasy-adventure Tamil movie Puli’s strengths don’t lie in its women characters. Instead, the movie’s development of a comedic fantasy genre is what sets it apart from the recent spate of South Indian (historical) fantasy films.
The Lilliputian king is called Korkai Newton, the queen is Fleming Sundari, and their daughter – the one truly feminist figure in the film – is Einstein Kamakshi. (Equating Alexander Fleming, who discovered antibiotics, with Newton and Einstein was a masterstroke.) Kamakshi (played by Vidyullekha Raman) is fondly called Kama.
If Kama had been the protagonist of the story, Puli would have been a very different film – about a curvy woman who uses her brains every step of the way, has a calm, drama-free romance, and a fantastic sense of fashion (she wears a dress of butterfly wings).
Instead, she is six inches high (which itself doesn’t allow her outside the subplot, because whoever heard of little people having fully developed stories of their own?), the subject of much bilingual wordplay (her two companions are called Alpha and Beta, which makes the trio, deliciously, “Alpha-Beta-Kama”), and doesn’t get much screen time.
But apart from Kama, none of the female characters in Puli are the kind of woman we’d want to be in everyday life. For where would a movie be without its womanflesh? And so we have two white-as-white plastic-looking women – Pavazhamalli (Shruti Haasan) and Manthagini (Hansika Motwani) – each of whom has a two-second conversation with her respective mother about a male family member.
Since we couldn’t get much of Kama, I am ever so grateful for Sridevi’s post-interval role. Without her, Puli would have been irredeemably lost. She plays the terrifying evil queen Yavanarani – as she says, “Yamanikke rani (Yama’s queen)”. I’ll be honest: after I watched the movie and went home, I put on all the lights in the house and sat huddled under a blanket, on red alert in case Yavanarani turned up. (I finally fell asleep at 4am, despite my best efforts. I’m going to regret putting this down in writing, but I suspect that was her doing.)
With a slight widening of her eyes, Sridevi can have me screaming with terror, so let’s not even think about what she could do with her entire face. How I wish there would be a spin-off movie in which Einstein Kamakshi faces off with Yavanarani! I’d happily lick a frog’s back to see that.