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.