Cast: Nadiya Moidu , Nithya Menen ,Parvathy Thiruvothu, Padmapriya, Sayanora Phillip, Archana Padmini, Amruta Subhash
Director: Anjali Menon
Rating: 4 Stars (out of 5)
Six pregnant women from varied backgrounds and of different dispositions enrol in a prenatal class and sort out their anxieties and misgivings without making heavy weather of it in Wonder Women, an English-language film written and directed by Anjali Menon. At once breezy and insightful, it thrives on its restraint and the control it brings to bear upon its well-spaced dramatic eruptions.
Buoyed by fine performances from a bunch of perfectly cast actors, Wonder Women, out on SonyLIV, is primarily about a group of women talking pregnancy and looking for a way not to let their own apprehensions or their partners' expectations queer the process. But it isn't merely about moms in the making. The script also factors in a calibrated commentary on the social and mental dimensions of the act of child-bearing. That lends the film an additional dimension.
The few days that the six ladies spend at a centre not only prepares them for childbirth but also serves to alter (or strengthen) their perspective on their identity as women and rights as individuals. Never didactic or prescriptive, Wonder Women is about disparate individuals tiding over their worries and looking for joy and fulfilment.
Wonder Women, produced by Ronnie Screwvala's RSVP and Ashi Dua Sara's Flying Unicorn Entertainment, packs into its compact 80 minutes diverse and illuminating responses to the emotional, psychological and physical ramifications of pregnancy. Each woman attending the sessions has her own set of problems, but as they make progress and open up with each other they learn to find common ground.
The characters are sharply written. Even the ones that seem to be somewhat lacking in terms of detailing - inevitable in a film this short and sweet - do not get crowded out of the story.
Two of the key actors in the cast - Parvathy Thiruvothu and Nithya Menen - have worked with the director before with similarly impressive results. The duo is at the top of their game, breathing life into Wonder Women by fleshing out two temperamentally opposed women who propel a large part of the tale.
Amruta Subhash, playing a small-town Marathi woman who is slightly older and more vulnerable than the rest of the group, adds depth to a film in which the acting benchmark is already impressively high thanks to the presence of veteran Nadhiya Moidu (brilliant in the role of the woman who runs the pregnancy class) and Padmapriya (aptly expressive as one of the expectant women seeking the former's guidance).
The cast is completed by Archana Padmini and Sayanora Philip (the playback singer debuts as an actor here), both of whom hold their own in a vivid smorgasbord of experiences that add up to a feel-good drama. What is particular noteworthy is that Wonder Women does not have to resort to facile strokes or try too hard to achieve its avowed end.
The beautifully orchestrated story of women disowning what hinders and embracing what liberates has nary a false stroke. The lively and tender film is pleasingly non-judgmental. Among the characters it throws into its narrative crucible are Mini (Parvathy Thiruvothu), a reticent but assertive woman on the verge of becoming a single mother in the midst of a legal wrangle; Saya (Sayanora Philip), an unmarried singer who is carrying her boyfriend's child; Jaya Sawant (Amruta Subhash), a woman grappling with a complicated pregnancy and a host of uncertainties; and Veni (Padmapriya), a lawyer who has put her professional ambitions on hold for marriage and motherhood.
Also in the mix are Bengaluru entrepreneur Nora Joseph (Nithya Menen), an Architecture course dropout who plans to open an art cafe with her husband, and Gracy (Archana Padmini), who works at Sumana, the prenatal conditioning centre, and is the only one among the registrants who has been a mother before.
Wonder Women steers clear of the sententious in its approach to the multiple issues that confront the six ladies as they prepare to usher in a new phase of their lives. Without wasting any footage or verbiage, Anjali Menon's unpretentious screenplay and self-aware directorial style lend the film infectious cheeriness and warmth while it tackles complex matters with commendable lightness of touch.
Through their words and actions, each of the expectant women as well as Nandita (Nadhiya Moidu), who runs the class and tells the participants that they are real superheroes because they possess the power to create and nurture life, reveal conflicting emotions as they ready themselves for a watershed.
Fears and doubts surface as they deal with their partners. The film frequently moves out of the precincts of Sumana to throw light on aspects of the lives of the seven women that help us understand them (and in most cases, their partners too) better.
Wonder Women is a treat to watch as much for the vibrant performances as for the way in which it skilfully weaves the various strands into an uplifting tale of discovery and bonding that goes way beyond the mere fact that these six women are expecting and are about to have their lives changed for good.
As Nandita points out to the sorority of six that they are different from each and yet bound by what they are currently going through. "Information is Queen," she says as a doctor begins to share essential medical knowledge that would come in handy for the girls in the weeks ahead.
It isn't only with each other that the women have to engage, but also obviously with the men in their lives. In a female-centric film, the men are perforce secondary players. But none of them is insignificant, certainly not Saya's musician-boyfriend Jojo (Praveen Premnath) and Jaya's restive husband Umesh (Sandesh Kulkarni), who are always by the side of their women as the latter attend Nandita's sessions. Sumana staffer Gracy's security guard-partner Kannan (Ajayan Adat), a man of limited means, also gets his share of the focus.
Wonder Women has an easy flow until a final burst of drama is triggered by a turn of events that feels like an emergency, forcing the women into quick thinking and urgent action. The tone of the film changes at this juncture, but it does not come across as something that is out of place.
There are occasional moments of tensile energy in the film, especially stemming from the delicate and shifting dynamics between Veni and her mother-in-law (Radha Gomati), an outburst late in the film that pits Nora against Mini, and a touching heart-to-heart that Jaya has with her husband.
Wonder Women, sensitive, strikingly crafted and disarmingly simple, is Anjali Menon's fourth film. It is reminiscent of her three previous films - Manjadikuru, Bangalore Days and Koode - as well as her segment in the Kerala Cafe; anthology in many ways, not the least of which is her grasp on the medium. That, coupled with the wonderful performances, makes Wonder Women a wondrous little gem.