Directed by Meera Menon
Written by Amy Fox, Sarah Megan Thomas and Alysia Reiner
Starring Anna Gunn, James Purefoy, Sarah Megan Thomas and Alysia Reiner
Classification 14A; 100 minutes
Angry Indian Goddesses
Directed by Pan Nalin
Written by Pan Nalin, Subhadra Mahajan, Dilip Shankar and Arsala Qureishi
Starring Sarah-Jane Dias, Amrit Maghera and Sandhya Mridul
Classification 14A; 115 minutes
In the steamy Indian state of Goa, five unconventional women gather to celebrate a friend's forthcoming wedding. They talk, they dance and they joyously refute the patriarchal culture that oppresses and harasses them. Meanwhile, in the gleaming towers of Wall Street, three grasping professional women prove they are the equal of men through relentless ambition, deception and betrayal. I think you can guess which place I'd rather be.
Both the Indian feminist buddy picture Angry Indian Goddesses and the Hollywood financial thriller Equity are movies that strive to bring real female stories into mainstream cinema – and both have a hunch that to do that, they are going to have to bend conventional formulas. But, inspired by the raucous, genre-blending energy of Bollywood itself, Angry Indian Goddesses achieves the task with a great deal more conviction and elan, while Equity offers only a muddy vision of what women might achieve once they have broken the rules of both finance and filmmaking.
Angry Indian Goddesses opens with a sequence of vignettes that will have many women cheering as it introduces each character in circumstances where she comically repulses grotesque sexism. On an important commercial shoot, photographer Frieda (Sarah-Jane Dias) denounces the client's skin-whitening product while aspiring Bollywood actress Jo (Amrit Maghera) rips off her falsies and throws them in the director's face and the bored Delhi housewife Pammy (Pavleen Gujral) drops weights on the toes of two obnoxious guys at the gym. Is director Pan Nalin – the man who co-wrote the script with a team of two women and two men – going to tick his way through a list of the social circumstances surrounding Indian women's notorious sexual harassment? Yes, absolutely, with much delight and, it turns out, much sorrow, too.
The lively group of friends, which also includes driven businesswoman Su (Sandhya Mridul) and struggling pop singer Mad (Anushka Manchanda), all get together in Frieda's sprawling Goan country house to enact what initially feels like a conventional friendship movie with each woman conveniently representing a different trait, lifestyle or subplot. The ensemble is strong, the energy is high and Nalin and his team are moving toward a series of minor emotional resolutions – one woman comes out of the closet; the busy Su realizes she is neglecting her young daughter; the sorrowful housekeeper Lakshmi (Rajshri Deshpande) is convinced she must give up a long-held grievance – when the movie takes a melodramatic and decidedly political turn into tragedy. It works, partly because the Indian cinema, accustomed to epics encompassing musical, comedy and tragedy, has a sprawling sensibility and partly because the script, for all its sunshine and sentiment, has actually built to its startling conclusion.
On the other hand, over at the Wall Street investment bank, a rather similar shocker ending (albeit much more cynical) feels largely unearned in a film that hovers somewhat awkwardly between the demands of a fast-paced financial thriller and the desire of an all-female creative team to produce a more realistic workplace drama. Starring Anna Gunn and two of its own screenwriters, Sarah Megan Thomas and Alysia Reiner, Equity is often an admirable film but it isn't always an entertaining one.
The most obviously admirable thing about it is that its three central characters are female – and they aren't just replacements for male characters. In a crucial early scene, superstar underwriter Naomi Bishop (that's Gunn) explains her secret to a roomful of aspiring young professional women: she likes money – and, she adds, she's glad that it's finally okay for a woman to say that.
So, female greed is apparently all the rage on Wall Street, but some other womanly things remain strictly taboo: Naomi's junior partner Erin, played by Thomas, spends much of the movie hiding a pregnancy that may get in the way of a promotion and quietly managing the lecherous attentions of the high-tech brat whose company she and Naomi are about to take public.
The third woman is Reiner's character Samantha, a sharp investigator from the Attorney-General's office who is secretly building a file on Naomi's colleague and lover, Michael (James Purefoy), suspected by the authorities of insider trading.
The plot revolves around Michael's nefarious attempts to climb over the wall that separates the trading and underwriting sides of the investment bank where he and Naomi work and get the dope on her high-tech IPO, but it's slow to start as director Meera Menon spends her time establishing the women's various situations. Erin has a husband, Samantha has a wife and Naomi has a fish.
None of them are particularly likeable figures; this is no joyous gathering of supportive girlfriends, which does take us into some tricky critical territory. There is no reason why fictional women – or real ones for that matter – should always be judged on their amiability. I don't recall that the men in The Big Short or The Wolf of Wall Street were particularly nice.
The trouble here, however, is that these flawed women, dynamic though they may be, aren't very interesting. Indeed, the devious men – Purefoy's cunningly seductive Michael and Samuel Roukin's deliciously obnoxious Silicon Valley slimeball – are more obviously intriguing while the female characters prove neither wicked enough to be villains nor large enough to be heroes.
The key problem is the figure of Naomi, clawing her way to the top and desperate to stay there. Gunn plays her as mightily determined and potentially abrasive – there's a strong scene foreshadowing her eventual defeat where she yells at her staff because there aren't enough chocolate chips in her cookie – but the actor isn't given much space to explain why we should care whether Naomi gets what Naomi wants.
Well, we all want more money, but if Naomi's fierce drive is familiar, it's hardly compelling as Menon keeps parking Gunn in the midst of oversized metaphors, viciously punching the bag at the gym or challenging her hard-ass boss with a smooth move on the Jenga blocks, a desk toy that somebody borrowed from The Big Short.
Meanwhile, Thomas and Reiner put in some strong work suggesting the avidity beneath their characters' pleasant exteriors, but in both cases their eventual corruption is so sudden it's not credible as the movie builds to a dark, anti-climax that suddenly defeats audience's expectations of the genre. It's another admirable move, but not a successful one.
Watching Equity and Angry Indian Goddesses, it's easy enough to agree with the filmmakers' ambitions, but only one of these movies has a beating heart.
Equity opens Aug. 12 in Toronto and Montreal; Angry Indian Goddesses is playing now in Vancouver, and opens Aug. 26 in Toronto.