I wanted to watch Traffic last night, because it is supposed to be really good and groundbreaking, and the director just died, and I have been watching a ton of rom-coms and I need to rinse out my system with a thriller. But, no luck! Couldn’t find Traffic anywhere. However, Mili, by the same director, was readily available, so I watched that instead.
So, the thing about Mili is, it’s a character study shot like a thriller. It kind of reminded me a Cassavates film, there is this constant sense of danger and dread and things being just slightly out of control, but it is all about internal character struggles, not about a bank heist gone wrong or anything like that. But, it’s a Cassavates film with a happy ending, which is nice!
I’d seen the main actress, Amala Paul, before in Oru Indian Pranayakadha. She was fine in that, but kind of too pretty to make the character work. Not just pretty as in her face looks nice, but as in she carried herself like a beautiful woman. Tall, confident, big smile, comfortable in nice clothes. Her character is supposed to have some hidden insecurities and worries, and she does an okay job bringing them forward when they are revealed, but for the rest of the film she is just so confident and comfortable in her own skin, that it is hard to reconcile it with her backstory.
No such problem here! It’s a very physical role, she shows Mili’s deep depression and unhappiness through awkward gestures, hunched shoulders, even the way she twists herself in a chair is unhappy. And in the same way, her slow return to health is very physical, a slight increase in stillness, her head held just a little higher, her expressions slightly more open. And that’s just her general attitudes, there is also the way her expressions and gestures indicate her mental state and thoughts. There is remarkably little voice over in this film, considering we are so trapped within Mili’s mind, her reactions are instead mostly conveyed through expressions and physical attitudes.
I’m honestly not sure if this is great acting, or great directing, because it is so physical and so specific. It could be that the director had are really clear vision of what he wanted his actress to do in each scene and told her how to sit and hold herself and where to look and so on. Or it could be that the actress so inhabited the character that she just understood instinctively how to be.
I think I’m going to give it to the director for the most part. First, because he just died and it is a nice thing to do. Second, because in the other film I saw her in, I didn’t see anything like this. And third, because the hair, the costumes, the set design, that was all perfect for this character too, and those were director decisions, not actress.
The brilliance of the character is that I found her legitimately unpleasant and frustrating to begin with. She is supposed to be so sunk in depression and unhappiness that she can’t pull herself out of it, and people who are that sick, are unpleasant to be around. This is where the Cassavetes similarities popped up, his characters aren’t movie-difficult, they are real-world difficult. The kind of people that you don’t even want to be in the same room with, they are too angry or too sad or just off somehow. I didn’t want to watch a movie about Mili! I wanted to watch a movie about any of the other characters, her pretty and flirty roommates, Nivin Pauly’s happy and empathetic trainer, even the old woman she visited. Mili is awful! She can’t seem to do anything, not stand up for herself at her job or with her roommates, or even have a conversation with a boy she likes. It is all pained expressions and stumbling dialogue. No wonder even her guardian doesn’t want to help her.
And there is this constant sense of doom and danger everywhere. In the music cues, in the lighting, in the camera angles, and especially in the editing. Lots of scenes with bits cut off at the end and the beginning. Sudden reveals of villains who have been hiding in plain sight all along.
Only, the doom and danger is internal. Mili’s tendencies towards self-harm, her fragile sense of self, all of this can be harmed by everything from a Facebook post to an angry parent at her day-care center. And as her confidence grows, the world becomes less dark and terrifying. The camera angles expand, the lighting grows, even the spaces she occupies become bigger (her bedroom in the house she shares with her roommates is much larger than either space she stays in at the girls hostel). And the music cues become more sweet and soft, rather than discordant and challenging.
I think filming this like a thriller, and making Mili’s character so sincerely unpleasant in the beginning, is a purposeful decision, and a statement on mental health. Depression and unhappiness and loneliness can be unpleasant to watch and spend time with. But we shouldn’t look away, we should treat it like a danger and a mystery, try to find the root causes, discover the danger, understand it, and confront it.
(Explicit SPOILERS start here!)
I am also interested in the solutions proposed. In some ways, this is sort of Tara Zameen Paar, the sequel. What happens to these children who are constantly driven towards success and punished when they can’t achieve it, rather than being given positive reinforcement and encouraged to simply be happy? Mili grows up unable to find happiness in anything, really. Desperate for approval, she can only find it with small children, and by bribing an old woman with forbidden sweets. She lives vicariously through her pretty and popular roommates rather than trying to get a life for herself. Any obstacle makes her retreat into her own misery rather than fighting back.
And the solution is simple, to give her even an inanimate object (her toy bear) which provides unconditional support. From that, she can build herself up, piece by piece, finding friends and a job she enjoys and learning how to interact correctly with the world. At first it seems like the romantic track will be the most important part of her development, Nivin Pauly’s character is clearly set up as her romantic partner. But somewhere in the last half hour, it takes a turn and makes her work life paramount.
I thought at first this was making a statement about women needing goals to fill their lives, or needing to find themselves before they can enter a relationship with a man, or even how it would be wrong for a man to be attracted to a seriously depressed woman so the romance had to be set aside until she was healthier. But then I saw that it was saying something very specific through the kind of work she did, and why it was important to her.
It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize why they made her a day care teacher. I thought it was just to cheer us up by showing us adorable children. But right at the end, her class is preparing for a performance and she sees that one of the little boys feels left out, not as good as the others. She supports him and helps him succeed, and I went “aha! This is all she herself needed and the lack of it lead her to her current state!” And then she underlines it in the speech which ends the film, when she says that the real triumph is simply in showing up, in giving children love and support no matter what, in accepting them for who they are so they can be happy with themselves.
Let’s see, what else? The songs were used to sort of underline her mental state in an abstract way. The first song is where things suddenly start to move fast, and confusing, we get glimpses of Mili’s roommates interacting with men, we see a new girl introduced (I think), we see them aggressively pursuing a friendship with Mili all of a sudden, and then when it is over, one of them is thrown out of the hostel and Mili is in serious trouble.
I think maybe they were hiding someone in their room? Possibly a secret wife of a co-worker of one of them? Maybe while another girl was spending nights away with her boyfriend? It’s confusing and unclear, but I think it is supposed to be. These side stories aren’t clear to us at this point, because they aren’t clear to Mili. She is drowning in her own self-pity and can’t conceive of anyone else’s perspective or problems. It is only weeks later in film time and hours later in real time that we meet up with the roommate again, learn that she was also thrown out of the hostel, that she has had her own struggles over the same time period, that there was more happening than those little confusing glimpses we saw. And at this point, Mili is finally able to really hear and understand what she is saying, to sympathize and feel for her, to see her as a full person with her own needs and problems.
Before Mili can get there though, she needs to spend some time alone, to gain perspective on herself before she can think about others. This is the point at which she begins to remember moments of her childhood, moments that explain why she is so desperate for approval and so unsure in hre relationships. And we have another song to mark it.
(they don’t include the whole song here, but it is the best version I can find)
And finally, there is another song to show how she is growing, becoming part of world. Everything is slow and clear, we can see how these people are interacting, who they are, what they are feeling. It seems like a “falling in love song”, and it is, but not just falling in love with a romantic partner, but falling in love with the whole world and being part of the world.
Which is why this isn’t a movie that ends with a declaration of love or a big romantic gesture. Instead, it is about Mili finding her place in the world and enjoying the approval of dozens of friends and strangers, confronting her past and making her peace with it. A resolution to the possible love story would solve nothing (although it would make me happy! I love resolved love stories!), her problems go a lot deeper than that, she has to learn to love herself, and everyone else has to learn to love her, not just one man.