I finished my last 2 Malayalam Films! Arabikatha Confused Me

I finally finished with the pile of random library movies!  Thank goodness!  So I can start watching the ones people have been recommending to me in the comments!  These last two, though, were really important and I am so glad I watched them!

I watched Arabikatha first, and I honestly don’t know what to make of this movie.  For the most part, it plays like a straight comedy, one of those in which our “simple” hero exposes the hypocrisy of man through his straight-forward world view.  Just like everything from Shree 420 to Bajrangi Bhaijaan.  But, about ten minutes in, our first song turns deadly deadly serious.  Literally deadly, we see some protest marchers being killed.  At least, I think it is supposed to be serious?  I was watching it, and it was so serious, I actually wondered if maybe it was a spoof (like the Lagaan spoof dropped into the middle of Kal Ho Na Ho).  I googled around, and from what I could see on the internet, it’s actually a really really serious song?

 

And it keeps up like that, there will be these comedy bits, and then suddenly it will get very noble and serious.  Like, later, our hero has traveled to Dubai and is working as a guest worker.  And in the middle of these humorous scenes of him living with a bunch of other Malayalam guest workers, one of his roommates is buying dinner to celebrate his daughter’s wedding which is going on at the same time back home, and suddenly breaks down crying about missing the wedding.  And then there is a really sweet and serious song in which all of the Malayalam characters deal with their homesickness.

Not just the tone, but the plot felt like two different movies stitched together also.  It begins and ends with big events in the Malayalam Communist Party.  Our hero is a dedicated Communist, which is part of his personality through out, but we also get to meet all the other members of the party, and his father who was one of the founders, and we learn a little bit about the inner workings and conflict within the party and stuff.  And then suddenly half an hour in, that whole plot is just dropped and our hero moves to the Middle East for work.  And it turns into a film about guest workers and how they can be preyed upon and come together to create a new community and how everyone at home thinks of them as “rich” because of how much money they are making, but in the Middle East they are all doing these menial jobs and living in terrible conditions and stuff.

But then that plot gets suddenly dropped also, and we go back to Kerala all of a sudden and deal with the inner workings of the Communist party again, and those problems end up causing the communist characters to go to the Middle East and meetup with our hero again.  And the ending is our hero coming home and taking charge of the party in an inspiring sort of move.  Only, a lot of the Middle East storylines were really resolved, they were just dropped when he came home.  Oh, and there’s a love story in there too, with our hero falling in love with a Chinese guest worker partly because he has such a fantasy about the Chinese Communists.

The multiple films in one were great for me, because I got to learn a lot about both Communism and the Middle East worker community!  The Communist party stuff was fascinating.  I’d seen in other movies how the communists were just part of the political landscape, unlike in America where they are anathema.  But this film really ennobled them in a way that didn’t feel like a joke, or like a random choice.  Like, in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, the point wasn’t that our hero was Hindu.  The point was that he was completely dedicated to a moral philosophy, any philosophy, in a way that the more cynical characters weren’t.  And some of the time, it felt like the same thing was true of our hero in this, that being Communist wasn’t the point, the point was that he was so sincere in his beliefs.  But then at other times, it was that he was actually Communist, that there was something “better” about the Communist philosophy.  It made me wiki the writer and director and composer and star, and yes, they are actually dedicated Communists.  The director is even named “Lal Jose”.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, of course.  It’s a social and political philosophy that can do a lot of good in the world.  It’s just, I don’t know anywhere else where you would see a Communist film and it isn’t official state sponsored propaganda, or officially condemned by the state, it is just an acceptable option as to how you can look at the world.  That fact, that it was made so casually and received so acceptingly, told me more about how politics work in Kerala than anything else.

And then on top of learning about the Communist party, because of the funky structure of the film, I also got to learn about Guest Workers.  The Kerala-Middle East connection is just sort of in the background of basically every movie I have watched so far.  But I never saw one that really dug into how it works, that had long segments set overseas.  This one was fascinating, for showing how these men end up spending much of their lives homesick and lonely, building their own communities and families in the Middle East while always feeling responsible for and longing for their families back home.  It was so different from the migrant stories I am used to as an American.  In the American based Indian diaspora (or really, any American immigrant community, including my own family when they first arrived several generations back), it is the youngest generation that comes.  Young men and women, often bringing along their spouses or siblings from back home.  They settle here permanently and their children are raised here.  The pain is in missing their parents, their childhood, watching their children grow up without the experiences they enjoyed, feeling that disconnect with their past.

But for the workers shown here, it is the middle generation that comes, and only men.  Very very different.  They are missing their children’s childhood, the companionship of their wives, and the last days of their parents.  And it’s all for money that can go a very long way to making live at “home” easier, but for which they have to live in horrible conditions overseas.  Which is another big difference!  In the American immigrant tale, the immigrants always get to live an easier and more comfortable life than those left at home, and part of the conflict is guilt over that inequality.  But here, there is no guilt, not even for missing their children’s youth, because the sacrifice they are making is so great and the rewards for those at home are so concrete.

Because of all this, we really only have one character who expresses any actual connection to his life in the Middle East.  At the end of the film, the restaurant owner who has them all living in his backroom loses his restaurant.  While his tenants sadly disperse to different locations, he is taken away sobbing, forced to return to Kerala.  It is treated as a tragedy, not that he is losing his restaurant, but that living here so long has stunted his life to such a degree that his only family and home is this small restaurant and the men who live in the backroom.  The “healthier” attitude is that shared by his tenants, who have families and homes back in Kerala.  They have the constant pain of missing those families and homes, but at least they still have something that grounds them and makes their sacrifices worth it.

That lesson is the only area where the Communist/Guest Worker messages really seem to connect.  At the end of the film, our hero is asked to return to Kerala by his comrades in the party.  He resists at first, because he has found a job he enjoys (taking care of a dairy farm), but they convince him by calling on his connection and responsibility towards his party at home, just like his fellow guest workers feel a connection and responsibility towards their families.  Even after traveling the world and living for years overseas, the call of his comrades and his dedication to Communism is still strong enough to bring him home.

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15 thoughts on “I finished my last 2 Malayalam Films! Arabikatha Confused Me

  1. Ooh my husband and I were very fond of this one. It has its confusing moments and the climax felt a bit much in places but we related to parts of it (I grew up in Dubai, and yes, for those in menial jobs/construction work etc, the conditions are dreadful – some employers even confiscate passports so the employees can’t escape the deplorable conditions. My dad worked in an aluminium plant and the heat could be unbearable until you had spent years there and gotten used to it. If we didn’t have AC in our homes we’d melt to a puddle in the floor!)

    In my mind I always felt the movie was about how Mukundan’s textbook-Marxist ideals were slowly beginning to get irrelevant, even within his own party, and how it is this ideology that makes it hard for him to fit in. Kerala and West Bengal are the only states in India which are largely Communist so the irony here is that the need for power – which neither Mukundan nor his father know anything about – makes even the party leaders forget their own ideology. In Kerala his behaviour will be seen as eccentric but understandable. But in a capitalistic society like Dubai, most of what he proposes as solutions seems like nonsense (taking surveys, asking abt a worker’s union, doing Lal Salaam in the bathroom) because dissent is not an expat’s right as much here. Which is why when he meets the young Chinese woman, he becomes emotionally attached – because he sees in her a representative of a country where he thinks his ideals are valued. He says as much too: “I don’t know whether it was you I loved, or the China that I saw in you.” (yet another irony, Shumin hates the Chinese government for what they made her loved ones go through, proving that Communist govts aren’t exactly ideal either).

    I know the second half seems confusing at first but I think it’s because we’re supposed to be left hanging for a bit on what happens to him after the owner’s death. Because Anwar, the party member who searches for him, finds out that Mukundan’s father had been framed and he’d been sent to Dubai for nothing. So basically when we see him in those pitiable conditions, cheated by someone he trusted ans almost left for dead, defeated and aged beyond his years, the tragedy lies in how unnecessary his years of toiling and suffering were, and how outrageous the betrayal of the party president is when he tries to sell out the party. So Mukundan goes back a (slightly) wiser man, still sticking to his beliefs, but not as judgemental, impractical or seeing things as black and white as he did in the beginning.

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  2. If anything, Mukundan goes back realising that most of his Malayali brethren who go to the Gulf do it not out of greed but out of a desire to make life better for their families, and also precisely how much they have to sacrifice to survive everyday. He looks down on them in the beginning but cannot find it in his heart to do so by the time he returns

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    • Okay, that makes a lot more sense! Thanks! I noticed there was a brief exchange in the beginning with someone he criticized for living the easy life in the Gulf, but I didn’t put it together that it was part of a whole thing.

      And I also didn’t realize that that level of devotion to the Communist philosophy is kind of normal, or at least not super exceptional, in Kerala. Not just being a member of the party on paper, but reading Marx as sort of a daily devotion. For me, it came across as so unusual that it probably defined the character more than it should have.

      Also, and this is a small thing, but thank you for the confirmation about the heat! I noticed they were spending a lot of time outdoors, like you would in India, in parks and sidewalk cafes and stuff. But that didn’t feel like what I thought the Gulf states were like. I mean, India is too hot for me, but I had always thought that the Gulf was like really really not open to human habitation hot.

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  3. It’s bearable hot for most of the year and cold around December. The really hot months are mid-yr…around June/July/August. I remember back in school they used to cut down assembly time because some kids were known to faint in the heat and we were allowed to not wear ties in those months, leaving the first button of our shirts open. There was a time when electricity was out for an entire DAY and we were reduced to stripping to our petticoats and lying on the cool tile floor coz it was unbearable otherwise. In India at least you can somehow power cuts. In Dubai you can’t. It’s that hot.

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  4. The 2 major characters mukundan and karunan somewhat symbolise the 2 most powerful leaders in the party hn kerala now, V S Achuthanandhan and Pinarayi Vijayan respectively…Achuthanandan is the founding leader ofcommunist party in India..he is in his 90s now but still the most popular mass political leader in Kerala…he is very much devoted and sincere to the principles of party and a pure communist…While Pinarayi is more powerful inside the party and rules it..he but deviates from principles for the benefits of supporters and party…not a pure one comparatively a pro capitalist…ideological differences between them always create controversies…movie is some what discussing these matters and placing Pinarayi in a negative shade…it created some controversies since it was released when the differences between two were at peak…also i think by placing hero in a capitalist country dubai movie is depicting the current situation of party …both plots are pretty much connected…there are moments when he actually looks like an idiot and meaningless sticking to the old principles when everybody else is running for their bread….something that the party is undergoing now here

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    • Thanks! I think I saw something in a description, or maybe on the back of the DVD box, that said it was about a split in the party. But I couldn’t see how that would work when I was watching the film. This explanation makes sense.

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  5. if you are interested in watching another movie about communism in kerala n how deep it is…i would recommend left right left(2013) its an interesting one and will give you a better idea…

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