I saw a Malayalam movie in theaters! Because my friend convinced me I should be brave and risk no subtitles. It was really really good! And subtitled, thank goodness.
(if you want to see a different review, moviemavengal has posted hers here)
UPDATE: I am getting a lot of traffic, and I suspect some people just want to know in a few sentences what happens and how it ends. So, we open with a big fight between husband and wife, and then flashback to them in college. He was the campus tough guy, always getting into fights, especially to protect her. They eloped after his father saw them together, and struggled for a while, selling his motorcycle to make money and so on. Finally, he managed to get a good job as a bank clerk, although he had to keep swallowing his anger as he dealt with the clients and management and co-workers. She begs him to try to be more happy and less angry because he is driving away everyone. He gets better and life is more pleasant, but then at a work party the night before they are supposed to leave to drive to a wedding at her parent’s place, he blows up at a co-worker who has been teasing him for weeks, and the couple has a big fight about it. They finally leave for her parent’s, driving through the night, on edge. They are almost driven off the road by a truck, he chases it down and almost confronts the truck driver, but she begs him to let it go, and finally says she is leaving him because she can’t handle his anger any more. After this big blow up, they stop for a meal at a remote truck stop, the only place still open, and slowly realize they have walked into the middle of some sort of gang hide-out. The gang won’t let them both leave together, so he sends her away to get money to bring back for him. She is chased down by the evil truck driver and almost raped, before being rescued by the police who were called by a caring bystander. They return to the cafe to find the owner stabbed on the floor and the husband standing over him with a knife. Everyone assumes he killed him, but in fact another group attacked the cafe, the husband got caught up in the fight, and he only stayed to save and help treat the gang leader who had been abandoned by all his compatriots. At the end, they go back on the road to her parents, with her driving the car and him as passenger (something we have seen them having a hard time with before, her because she is too nervous, and him because he wants to be in charge, so this is a sign that their relationship has changed). They see the truck driver by the side of the road, the husband looks away and tries to control himself, but the wife decides to stop the car and give him permission to get out and vent his anger. The final shot is a freeze frame as he leaps in the air, fist upraised.
So, this movie was fascinating. The second half is just one long string of suspense and action scenes, done perfectly. But the first half is a straight up character study and romance, really letting you get to know this couple before everything goes wrong. It feels like two different films, in some ways, but it also makes it stronger.
I can’t help comparing this movie with Ki & Ka which I saw on Friday. Especially in terms of structure. Ki & Ka did not build at all. Actually, it felt more like a series of sitcom episodes than a movie. There was the opening 20 minutes, which felt like a pilot, setting up the basic situation. And then there were a series of unconnected problems that were solved, one after the other. The characters barely grew or developed, and we the audience never really got to know them any better than we did at the beginning, or care about them any more. Worst of all, the story didn’t build or develop. It was a light superficial jokey romance at the beginning, and it was a light superficial jokey romance at the end. Never took a turn into drama or social commentary or anything else interesting.
Kali was the complete opposite! Not only did it build and build and build through out, constantly revealing more about the characters’ personalities, background, motivations, and feelings, it really really used the Interval structure in the best possible way. Ki & Ka had a perfunctory cliffhanger at the interval, obviously the director didn’t want to do it and just put it in for commercial reasons. Which is fine, but much more impressive is when a creator takes the interval requirement and builds that into his plans for the film, using it as a narrative tool instead of an obstruction. Kali took the interval and used it to force a change in the film, to expertly pivot from the story of a marriage to a tense real time thriller.
Everything about the movie was impressive, every little element was just perfectly designed to support the overall narrative and themes. For instance, our hero’s introduction, when he gets caught up in a fight at college, at first alone in a hallway with space to move, and then surrounded by dozens of others, and the camera pulls back to show him struggling in the midst of a surging mass of young men, all fighting furiously. It gets us into his mindset immediately, a visual show of the first glimmers of anger that eventually grow until it feels like he is surrounded and trapped and has no choice but to fight free.
There are tons of other perfect little moments in the film. The very opening, well, the opening post-prologue, is delightfully subtle and yet clear. A young woman with a suitcase walks out of an apartment. The downstairs neighbors, a woman and her father, watch her leave and glance at each other. The daughter suggests that the father go upstairs and see what happened. The way they glance at each other, the matter of fact and yet concerned way she makes the suggestion, tells you right away that the upstairs couple has had problems for a while, big enough problems that their neighbors are concerned about them. And what the father says when he goes upstairs tells you even more. He doesn’t ask what happened or try to deal with the situation directly, he just says he is there for the rent. It’s very much the “bell bajao” campaign, not risking yourself by addressing possible domestic violence directly, but still letting them know that you know and are watching.
I love this sequence, both because it is so well done, and because it sets the tone immediately that the world is a dangerous place (scary music, crying woman, angry man), but also that people care for each other and look out for each other. Later in the film, when it has all gone horribly wrong and you are waiting for our hero to ride to the rescue of the heroine, instead the cops are the ones who show up. Because a random stranger saw that she was in trouble and called them. Because most people are basically good and care for others.
A big part of what makes this movie work is the acting. I have to say, Dulquer is on a whole other level in this movie than everything else I’ve seen him in. Maybe there were glimpses of it in OK Kanmani. But the laid back charming sweet loveable guy who still had a lot of growing up to do, the one from Ustadh Hotel and 100 Days of Love and Bangalore Days, that was just completely gone. And I don’t just mean that he is acting like a different kind of person, I mean his whole onscreen persona has had a huge level up.
(Sweet! Good acting! But youthful, and not really controlling the screen)
In Ustadh Hotel, for instance, he was the protagonist of the story, the one the audience spent the most time with, the one who served as our guide to this place. He was also one of the best people in the film, kind, generous, intelligent, open-minded, all sorts of good things. It’s a nice character. And he had a nice onscreen vibe coming through that supported it. Handsome, charming, loveable in a little brother or sweet teenager kind of way. But, when he was sharing a scene with Thilakan (who I understand is a really really big deal?), he just sort of faded away. And the same to a lesser degree with Prakash Raj in OK Kanmani. He was a good actor, but he wasn’t a “star”.
And, more over, the movies didn’t treat him as a star. He was surrounded by strong character actors who were playing strong characters. Even in 100 Days of Love, he was usually given a scene partner to play off of, and the script provided lots of bells and whistles around him to keep the audience interested.
His characters built on the weakness he had before as an onscreen presence, they weren’t really mature, or strong, or confident in what they wanted. I understand that his last movie, Charlie, which I missed in theaters, was a little bit different. His character was more magic and perfect and didn’t need to grow or change in any way, yes?
(Magic! Or so I’ve heard?)
In this movie, he takes it a step further. His character is an adult in every way. This is not a “coming of age” story, this is a “turning point in your life” story. He has to show emotions and thoughts and feelings and uncontrollable inner forces all at once, and he has to show them not as a confused college kid, but as a grown man, as a figure of strength and power and authority. And he does it! It’s amazing, we spend almost the entire film just watching his face, looking at every little expression and glance, feeling alternately afraid of him, afraid for him, and afraid of others and wanting him to save us. The sweet quiet presence I am used to is just gone, replaced by this angry force that takes over the screen. It’s a triumph of acting, but also a reflection of his growth, that he is believable in this kind of role in a way he wouldn’t have been just a few years ago.
When I say “growth”, I also mean it literally. I don’t know if it is costuming changes, or if he trained for the role, or just that he is holding himself differently, but I noticed for the first time how tall he was, how large his frame. Seeing him looming over others was legitimately terrifying.
Which brings me to Sai Pallavi. Love her! I loved her in Premam and I love her in this. She has such a sense of humor in her face. And she is also tiny tiny tiny! It was used a little in Premam, seeing the way big scary bearded Nivin turned into a big old softy around her. But in this film, it is definitely part of the way we see her relationship with Dulquer. As I mentioned, their very first scene raises the spectre of abuse. And with that in mind, it is noticeable in every other scene of the two how much bigger he is than her, how easy it would be for him to hurt her, to control her. The flipside is that we also see how easy it would be for others to hurt her, how defenseless she is against any kind of outside threat, and why Dulquer might be so quick to defend and protect.
(so cute! Both of them! So tiny! Just her!)
The whole movie is just Sai and Dulquer interacting as a married couple. Oh! And this is another way that this movie is an interesting companion to Ki & Ka! In Ki & Ka, there was never any real change in their interactions pre and post-marriage. It was supposed to be a movie about a marriage, so they made the opening pre-marriage scenes super short and sweet, right from meeting to engagement to marriage. But then nothing ever seemed to change. They were still flirty and happy and never really fought or even got that irritated with each other. And they definitely never seemed to talk about the future, or their mutual flaws, or anything serious at all. But in this movie, we again just see a glimpse of the pre-marriage relationship. We don’t get any background about how they met, how they fell in love, any of that. We are thrown right into a longstanding relationship at the point when they are talking about marriage. And then rapidly go through a quick elopement, a brief period living at his brother’s while he looks for work and money is tight, and then a move to the city and a nice apartment with a car after he gets his first job. And in each of these changes, we see a slight alteration in how they interact, in a natural way.
At first, it is like a long-time dating couple. Long enough that she feels comfortable giving him ultimatums and he is worried about losing her and so tries to follow them, or at least make her think he is following them. After marriage, in the first flush of a life together, they are partners. They fight less, they are too focused on figuring out how to survive and get a foothold. But once they do, the concern shifts to how they can keep this life, how they can take it forward, what kind of people they want to be and what kind of person they want to be married to. Their conversations have an undertone, not of “if you don’t do this, I’ll leave you” or “if you don’t do this, I’ll be unhappy” but “I know you better than anyone else, I want what you want, and I can see more clearly than you what needs to happen to make that happen.” Their fights and conversations and even the way they get in and out of the car feels lived in, a habit, this is a couple that has legitimately grown together and the moment at the end of the film, when circumstances force them to separate, feels all the more wrong.
I honestly don’t know if the couple story is there to serve the story of violence and anger or the other way round. I think they might be so intertwined that there is no way to separate them. The surest trigger for Dulquer’s anger is a threat to his wife. And the biggest problem in their marriage is his anger. But I think maybe it gets back to two moments at the end of the film.
Early on, Sai tells him that he has to deal with his anger, because right now, she is the only person in the world who can stand to be around him, and if he keeps driving people away, he will end up completely alone. At the very end of the film, we see what that would look like, when the super angry guy all the way from the prologue, the one who has been set as the antagonist for the last third of the film, is dying, alone, having been left by all his friends. And suddenly it snaps into focus, this is why these two men have been brought together, because they share the same uncontrollable rage, and Dulquer is the only person in the world who might be able to take pity on him as he dies, and he is the only person in the world who can really show Dulquer what his rage will lead to. And the moment when Dulquer is able to take pity on him, to see him as a person, not just an antagonist, might let him finally learn to control his own emotions and avoid this kind of end.
But meanwhile Sai’s character has been having her own journey, seeing how her avoidance of violence and determination to always be calm, be pleasant, be happy, is not always the solution. She has been shown the ugly face of violence, without her husband around to protect her. And the very end of the film, there is another opportunity for him to protect her. He holds back, he resists, he stays calm. And she makes the decision to let him loose. His rage is no longer just about him, it’s about them as a couple.
(And look what a great couple they are!)