Before we get to the actual review, let us give a shout out to director Chella Ayyavu and producer-actor Vishnu Vishal, not necessarily for making Gatta Kusthi but for giving Aishwarya Lekshmi her own She Baashha (like She Hulk).
Aishwarya Lekshmi’s Keerthi is a State-level wrestler. Let’s say she is quite “unconventional” as a woman: she is outspoken, has short hair, is always dressed in modern clothes (which is T-shirt and track pants), and worse dreams of wrestling for the country — isn’t she quite unconventional for a Tamil cinema heroine? She has dreams. She speaks her mind.
Keeping with Tamil cinema’s tradition, Keerthi gets a “hero(ic) introduction” where she gets her opponent down to the ground and performs her submission move inside the ring. It’s a win for Keerthi. At home, she loses though. She returns home to see a groom’s family waiting for her — if you are reminded of Mouna Ragam, you are spoiled by Tamil cinema. The boy’s family rejects her obviously — not because she is tomboyish, the boy’s mother says, “Post marriage, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law fights are natural. I don’t want to be slammed by her.” You roll on the floor, laughing.
Keerthi is a champion in the ring; she is only seen by her gender outside. She is, in fact, what Tamil cinema heroes have always been: a saviour. When Keerthi’s sister gets harassed by a group of boys in her college, she beats them to a pulp and even gets a Master-like fight scene inside a bus. Men are afraid of Keerthi for her “toxic masculinity”. Oh, the irony! Naturally, men reject Keerthi for several reasons; their ego being at the top.
Enter Veera (Vishnu Vishal, who is really good when he takes a step back in those comedic portions. He comes across as pretentious in the mass scenes). Like the name suggests, he is the archetype of an ideal male who wants his wife-to-be submissive and timid. While that being the priority, he rejects women for the second and most important condition: he wants an archetypical gramathu ponnu with a single, long plait, and an education background not more than Class VIII. You know where this is going.
Keerthi’s family hides the fact that she is a graduate, doesn’t have long hair, and is a wrestler, to Veera and his family. They enter into a marriage. And after a bumpy start (Keerthi’s father catches his chest. He gets a heart attack. The next scene he is in a hospital. Seriously? In 2022?), we get a hilarious movie that only gets tiring when it takes itself and the audience too seriously.
Speaking of which, my major grouse with Gatta Kusthi is the audience to which it caters to. And there are two clear fractions in this case: the soap opera-watching audience that will hoot and cheer at the wife-beater and domestic abuse jokes, and the multiplex-going urban group that thinks ‘Singapenney’ is a feminist anthem and believes Bigil is a women empowerment film. Gatta Kusthi, when it speaks to the former category, is quite enjoyable despite normalising a few dangerous ideas and traditions. But when it switches into the ‘Singappeney’ zone, it becomes a boring lecture.
But back to She Baashha. When these two forces (Keerthi and Veera) meet, there is friction. This “friction” is caused because of the people they move with. Veera’s uncle (played by Karunas) advises him on the wedding night to keep the wife in check and perhaps give her a slap once a while. Keerthi is influenced by the wives who are at the receiving end of the slaps. “If they hit you once, you should give back twice,” one woman tells her. Shouldn’t you guys be rushing to R2 police station, filing a domestic abuse complaint, we, on our part, wonder. But this is not that kind of a film.
You know what will happen if Veera touches Keerthi (not like that, you naughty people). We wait for the transformation scene. And when the submissive Manickam turns into a menacing Baashha, we get a terrific interval scene with Keerthi transforming as well. I got my money back just for this.
This is a film that turns toxic masculinity on its head by having a woman leading from the front. This is a film where a woman washes and rinses her own wig to keep the marriage afloat! But again, this is also a movie that becomes a bit of a drag when it goes into the philosophy of marriage and gender politics. The last quarter doesn’t come together; Veera and Keerthi decide to fight it out in the ring. Whatever little pleasure we enjoyed so far begins to peter out.
Gatta Kusthi has references to Aamir Khan’s Dangal, but it puts a delightful spin on Sultan. In the Salman Khan-starrer, we see Sultan fighting himself in a bid to win back his wife (played by Anushka Sharma). A former wrestler herself, we see marriage and motherhood being detrimental in Anushka’s dreams, eventually forcing her to quit wrestling.
Chella Ayyavu makes a great point about the politics of gender in sports. For most men, sports is all about winning the opponent to prove themselves. But for women, they first have to win over their family, to even step into the arena. Gatta Kusthi, in a way, is a counterpoint to what Sultan was. Just for that, it is a winning comedy.
Gatta Kusthi is currently running in theatres