After one of Farhana’sseveral nail-biting stretches, an emotionally tired Farhana (Aishwarya Rajesh), travelling back home in a metro, falls on the lap of a random old woman and begins to weep. Another stranger, a woman, noticing this and the attention it garners across the compartment, moves a little towards Farhana, covering her from the unsolicited eyeballs. At a time when lovers of cinema are taking to social media to celebrate men characters written by women — which we truly can’t get enough of — it’s nice to notice a male filmmaker add such nifty and endearing sequences we rarely see in women-fronted films. Director Nelson Venkatesan, who did the same with his debut film Oru Naal Koothu, after a brilliant sophomore in the form of SJ Suryah’s Monster, is back on his tried-and-tested grounds to give us Farhana, a fascinating drama that touches upon several topics.
In Farhana, Nelson narrates the story of a Muslim woman from a conservative family who “allow” her to work because of their dire financial situation. When she learns of a different team within the call centre she works at that provides better incentives, she signs up for it only to realise that it’s a value-added service that’s used by sex-starved men hoping to satiate their cravings by talking to women. Initially appalled by the idea, Farhana comes to terms with it thanks to the positive impact her salary has on her family and finding a friend in a caller with whom she develops a strong bond. Like a bird out of her cage, Farhana flies high only to later realise that not all branches she rests on are trees that provide solace and that some could be vicious traps. There’s more to it than meets the eye and when Farhana bypasses her company protocols and tries to meet the stranger on the call, hell breaks loose.
Macroscopically, Farhana is an extremely simple and straightforward story. But it’s the treatment and performances from its cherry-picked cast that make the film deserve a place on a higher pedestal. Akin to the lines from AC/DC’s ‘Back In Black’ track that the film starts with, Farhana is about the titular character taking control of her life and rising up to the occasion. The poetic choices and returning to similar scenarios that have a different result without spoon-feeding the parallels are Farhana’s biggest strengths. There are the obvious cues like the scene where Farhana longingly looks at working women carrying large handbags that she eventually gets for herself. And then, there are the not-so-obvious ones like not having a phone for herself or not being allowed to pick up the landline calls at her house only for her to buy one thanks to a job that involves phone calls. The film is a repository of such expositions that never feels excessive. My favourite must be a shot of Farhana, hurrying to meet someone, looking at a clock with a tube of Moov ointment next to it.
The poetic touches hit a crescendo when Farhana virtually acquaints Dhayalan (Selvaraghavan) and their conversation, though quite indulgent after a while, makes a case for the need for a soul that’s just there for us, to listen to our blabbers and share our secrets and vulnerabilities with. These sequences, despite being a tad excessive, aid in transitioning the drama into a thriller that it ends up becoming towards the end. What doesn’t work in favour of the film is the simple storyline stretched to the length of a film and this is more visible after the introduction of Dhayalan. But Farhana makes up for it with how well it stays true to the world it creates. Despite showcasing the struggles of a woman from an orthodox family, the film intentionally never questions the religious aspects that turn into expectations women are still forced to live up to. In fact, Farhana, despite her situation, upholds the tenets of Islam. Over the course of the film, we see her adhering to the pillars of her faith such as Shahada (profession of faith), Salah (prayer), Zakat (almsgiving) and Sawm (fasting during the holy month of Ramadan). Farhana wears her identity on her sleeve like the purdah she tucks herself into.
Farhana’s biggest pillar is Aishwarya who, as Farhana, in one of her best roles in recent times, shows her resilience in her actions rather than words. Jithan Ramesh as Karim, a progressive and caring husband with his own set of insecurities, is a pleasant surprise while Kitty, as Farhana’s father Ajeez Bhai, scores as the patriarchal patriarch of the family; after Bombay, the veteran once again hits it out of the park as a Muslim man who values his faith as much as his family. Selva amazes us by being an extension of the characters from the films he directed in his earlier days. Behind the camera, it’s Justin Prabhakaran’s background score and dialogues by Nelson, Shankar Dass and Manushyaputhiran that add flavour to the film. The film is laced with interesting lines, like the one Nithya (Anumol) says that’s on the lines of how an average Indian man’s sex life is mostly inside his head,or the one where Karim, who runs a footwear store, explains the difference between falling and touching someone’s legs inside and outside the shop.
Farhana might not be a perfect film but its heart is in the right place. Like the meaning behind the name, Farhana is a joyous ride that skips the preachy and loud path towards sharing its message and prefers to say it as a breezy whisper.
Farhana is currently running in theatres