So, last night I took the next Malayalam DVD off my library stack, and there were no subtitles! Even though the box promised them! So, yay! That was easy, and I’m down to only 4 left.
And then I took the next-next DVD off the stack, and it was an artsy looking 80s movie called Aalkkoottathil Thaniye. I wasn’t looking forward to it, but the point of requesting every single Malayalam film from the library and then watching them in a random order is to make me watch a wide variety of films, even if I don’t think I will like them. So I watched it, and turns out, it was great! I finally “get” Mohan Lal!
If you have been reading all of my Malayalam posts, you know that I already saw Mohan Lal in Adiverukal and Vanaprastham. But those weren’t really MOHAN LAL parts. Adiverukal was a multi-starrer, and more about the big action scenes and the political message than the acting. And in Vanaprastham, he actually disappeared into the role, and was just playing a character, not MOHAN LAL.
But in this, even though he just shows up for 4 scenes, he takes the screen and makes you love him in a way that only a real Superstar can. That’s one thing that definitely carries between all the Indian film industries, no matter the language, that they have Stars like no other place else has Stars. More over, even with only 4 scenes, his character is made the moral center of the plot, because they know he has the charisma and the gravitas and the everything to make it work. He was charming and modern and a little drunk, but also firm in his opinions and what he thought was right, in a way that kind of sneaks up on you.
Plotwise, and this kind of encapsulates the difference between Malayalam and Hindi film plots in a nutshell, Aalkkoottathil Thaniye is the first ten minutes of Trishul, stretched out into 2 hours plus. While Trishul knocks out all the character interactions and emotional damage in ten minutes, so we can get to the fun part where Amitabh beats people up in order to express his inner pain and the damage of society, blah blah blah, in this we have 2 hours of slow build as all of these character interactions and backstory and soft mental shifts take place and are fully unwrapped from every possible perspective. And then at the end, everything resets back to where it was at the beginning in terms of actions, but the way the characters look at it is completely different. Don’t get me wrong, I loooooooooooove Trishul (it may be my favorite Salim-Javed script), but it is definitely more about outward actions than inward. And this film is all about unwrapping the onion of the characters while nothing much happens in the plot.
(Loooooooove Trishul. Even though it ends with a massive kidnapping action scene that somehow resolves all the interpersonal drama. Or because it ends with a massive kidnapping action scene that somehow resolves all the interpersonal drama?)
Unwrapping the characters is where Mohan Lal comes in, because he unwraps his character right from the start, and then serves as a fully actualized parallel to all the other messed up people. His first scene is amazing. It’s basically a monologue, with Mamootty interjecting comments or questions occasionally to move the story along. It starts with him casually mixing a drink in their dorm room, using a bottle of whiskey and a thermos of water. He teases Mamootty about a letter from home, figuring out that the letter, although it contains nothing romantic, is clearly from a girl he has a crush on. Mamootty seems little uncomfortable with revealing his gentle love affair to this sort of chatty and a little drunk friend. So Mohan Lal starts a monologue, about how he’s been there, every boy has that childhood romance. He tells about how he grew up in a village also, and everyone knew his father and respected him, and then when he was 14, he fell in love and embarrassed his family. He was in love with a 14 year old girl, but what to do? He was too young for her. He tried to color in his mustache with boot black to look older, but there wasn’t even enough hair to color yet! He marched around her house declaring his love. Her grandmother saw and told his father, and his father beat him. Mamootty laughs and asks what happened. Mohan Lal moves to another position in the room and starts the second act of his story, still speaking in a light-hearted fashion, but being a little darker.
He explains that nothing happened, of course. She was the daughter of his family servant. His father would never allow it. The girl was married off that year to an army officer twice her age and he was sent away to school. 3 years later, her husband was done with her and returned her to her family. She is divorced now. Mamootty says something about how these affairs of youth go away.
Mohan Lal goes to make another drink, notices he is out of water, and drinks the whiskey straight. And then says he has never changed. At 14 and now, he is just the same. Someday, he will finish school and he will go home and he will marry her.
It’s an amazing scene, just on its own. We go from a childhood story that seems to be just a nostalgic memory, move on to a bittersweet ending showing how bowing down to caste and gender roles causes tragedy, and then get really radical with a quiet rejection of that tragic ending, a declaration that that initial instinct in the 14 year old boy was the right one, that all these rules and lessons that are, literally, beaten into us by society are wrong and can be overcome. And it is presented not as a screed against the world, but as just a personal story by a man who made the personal decision about how he would live his life.
At the time I was watching it, I appreciated the performance as a brilliant monologue. But as the film went on, it slowly became clear that this story, and Mohan Lal’s character in general, is set up as the ideal against which our “hero” Mamootty is measured. Every time Mamootty or his family says something about how this is how things have to be, about how you have to accept fate, about how you need to live right by society, there is Mohan Lal in the background, pointing out that, no, you don’t.
(Mohan Lal pointing)
He only has three more scenes. First, a few years after college, with his wife, to confirm to Mamootty and the audience that yes, he did marry that girl. Despite the objections of both their families, despite society, they are married and happy and leaving the country to make their own way. It is a challenge to Mamootty’s character, who has just made the cowardly decision to bow to his father’s wishes and marry the girl his father chose. And it is a call back to the quiet way he announced his intentions in the earlier scenes, without the histrionics that would imply an impulsive decision, but with the surety of a decision long in place. In the same way, he casually mentions that his father threw him out of the house after his wedding. He knew all along what the consequences would be if he went against society, and he had long ago made his peace with them.
Second, at the end of the film, he meets Mamootty’s lost love. He finally learns for sure that Mamootty never married her, never defied his family, left her alone and sad. And Mohan Lal’s reaction is instant sympathy with the woman. There is no question in his mind that the real tragedy and crime is what Mamootty has done to his lover. Again, in his monologue at the beginning, if you remember, when Mamootty asks what happened after his declaration of love, Mohan Lal does not talk about his years of sadness, drinking, writing letters, all the Devdas stuff. He talks about what the result was for the woman, he is already very aware that these kinds of young love stories have a greater impact on the female, and lower caste, part of the couple than any “well, I got sort of sad for a while” result there may be for the man.
And finally, in his last appearance in the film, he confronts Mamootty. And he does not forgive him and he does not want to listen to excuses. He tells him that he will return home and lie to his wife about what Mamootty has done, because it is so sad and depressing, and he does not want to see or hear from him again. If you recall, the first part of his monologue was brought out to build a connection between him and Mamootty. He discussed how his childhood love story is similar to Mamootty’s, and they should neither of them be ashamed. Now, he is rejecting that connection, saying that Mamootty’s cowardly actions and fear of society have made them forever different.
I love all of this! I love Mohan Lal! I get it now! He can play the progressive caring understanding guy, without losing the good time drinker vibe, and he can layer on top a fine film of moral outrage as needed. And he can do it all so memorably, that in just 4 scenes, he defines the moral conflict and judgement of the film!
Oh right, the film. I guess I should talk about the rest of it a little too, huh? Mohan Lal’s character sets the uncompromising tone, and the rest of the film carries it through. The catalyst of the plot is Mamootty’s father’s illness. At first, it feels like a simple story we have seen a thousand times before, ungrateful wealthy kids from the city come to the village to learn life lessons while caring for their father. But what eventually unpeels, is how this sick father created the ungrateful children by blighting their lives with the choices he made for them. He chose their unloving spouses and sent them on a path of ambition and greed. And now he is reaping what he sowed. This is not a “learn to respect tradition and your elders” movie, it is a “look what the elders and the rules of society have done!” movie.
And the biggest punishment is on women. Again, at first, the focus on our hero and his flashbacks and backstory make it appear that the greatest tragedy will be his life. But no, what he learns through the film, and what we the viewer see, is how his actions have stunted the lives of those around him, just like his father has done before him. The movie is not moving towards a change in anyone’s life, it is moving towards a change in how they approach their life, an awareness of how their actions and decisions forever effect others.
That is what Mohan Lal is showing through his shining example. How his actions, rejecting his family and rescuing the woman he loves, ultimately lead to a happy outcome for all involved. In his final appearances, we learn that he and his wife have 3 children (unlike Mamootty and his one child neglected by both parents), that he prospered by striking out on his own overseas (unlike Mamootty who struggles in the wealthy business he married into), that his family has forgiven all his actions and welcomed his wife and his children into the fold (unlike Mamootty’s extended family which is falling apart thanks to unhappy society focused marriages), and finally we see how his character, start to finish, is happier and more comfortable within himself than the other characters who make constant compromises of character and conscious. If Mamootty, or his sisters, or his wife, had been brave enough to defy their fathers in their youth and choose happiness, now, in middle-age, they would be much happier, and less likely to spread their dissatisfaction down to others.
It’s a great and subversive message that is all wrapped up and hidden in a traditional love triangle plot, and I love it!