Continuing to work through the whole list of movies people recommended to me, Salt n’ Pepper! Such an adorable movie. Not like a super super great movie, but so lovable! Like a big floppy puppy!
Before anything else, you must know that the respectable somewhat insecure older female heroine in this film did this 20 years ago when she was young:
(The character has a kind of winky line about how she was really beautiful when she was young, but she doesn’t have a winky line about how Ajay Devgn and Aamir Khan double-teamed her!)
But moving on from that (difficult though it may be!), and talking about this actual movie: I really liked it! I know it wasn’t that complicated, and it didn’t have any real big themes or point to make, but it was just sweet and nice and pleasant. I liked everybody in it and everything that happened.
Although I did like some parts more than others. I loved the older couple romance, and every part of it! I loved them yelling at each other on the phone, I loved them slowly opening up to each other on the phone, I loved them cooking together on the phone. And I loved them separately changing after their phone calls, becoming happier, younger, vibrant. I did not love that they didn’t actually meet until the very end.
Which brings me to a random thought that I have had a few times while watching other movies and was really striking me while watching this one: are these stars able to do so many movies because they are never in the same room at the same time?
I first started thinking about this a couple years ago when I read a really good (and odd) book on Ekta Kapoor. It talked about how, a few years into her soap opera production dynasty, they discovered the beauty of stand ins. Suddenly, no one was ever on set at the same time. You would have 4 stand ins and one real actor, film all the real actor’s lines in close-up, and then edit it together with the other actors who filmed with 4 stand ins themselves on other days. It’s way easier to find 4 stand ins, a set, and a whole technical crew that is available to work all day everyday and film these scenes 5 times over, than it is to try to coordinate 5 different schedules of TV stars.
(This is just the poster, it usually looks a lot less fake than this, but you get the idea!)
I don’t think movies actually use stand ins like this. Or at least, not often. But! I have noticed since then how many times there will be scenes in movies with one major star interacting with multiple minor character actors, and how comparatively rare it is to see two separate major stars interact with each other. The whole idea of romantic longing and distance is very poetic and beautiful, and related to Indian mythology and all that, but it also makes it super easy to figure out shooting schedules! You cast the two biggest actors to play the romantic couple, and then never have to worry about getting them in the room together.
This whole thing has become less of an issue in Hindi cinema, I think since it became the norm for actors to dedicate themselves to only one film at a time. And since actors figured out they could just use one really huge star and a bunch of nobodies, and then everyone just works around the Star’s schedule. Like Shahrukh’s Fan/Raees, Salman’s Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (yes Sonam is a biggish star, but she really didn’t even need to be in that many scenes with him, it was mostly Salman and character actors), and Aamir’s Sultan. But in Malayalam movies, so far as I can tell, there are still a fair number of stars all in one film at the same time.
Only, not really at the same time. At least not all of them, because the script makes sure of it. Usually it is so seamless I don’t even really notice it, or I notice it and then I forget it immediately again when I get caught up in the plot. Heck, sometimes the whole plot is set up that way! Not to get around the problem, but to celebrate it. To make the disconnect between all these actors part of the disconnect between their characters.
Like, Bangalore Days, it was a true multi-starrer, each of the three leads was a big name, and the other people in their stories were big names, but part of the whole theme of the film was how their lives were all going in different directions, and at the same time the tight bond between the 3 of them kept them all grounded in a special way. So, lots of scenes of Nazriya Nazim and Fahadh Faasil, lots of scenes of Dulquer and Parvathy, a fair number of scenes of Nivin Pauly and Isha Talwar, and sprinkled through out scenes of Nazriya, Nivin, and Dulquer. But only one scene of Nazriya, Fahadh, Dulquer, Nivin, and Parvathy. Traffic was even better about it, making their whole “hyperlink” format into a way to string together a series of one on one scenes among their amazing and huge cast.
(Again, it’s more subtle in the film than it is in the poster, but the idea is still the same, that they are all isolated in their own stories, just connected by a line to the person closest to them)
Which brings me to Salt n’ Pepper! Like I said, I loved this movie! But it wasn’t quite clever enough to make the work arounds seamless. I started to notice about 45 minutes in that our hero mostly interacted within his house (one set) with his cook (a character actor) and his nephew (an up and coming actor). Meanwhile, our heroine was also mostly within her house, with her sister/cousin/roommate (not sure which relationships were honorific and which were actual. Oh, and she was another up and coming actor with a probably pretty open schedule) or her landlady (a character actor). At a certain point, it just started to feel like our hero and heroine should really be in the same room, and it never happened. Not like they had to meet and fall in love and everything is perfect, fa-la-la. But like it was time to see some in person chemistry, have them overlap a little in their lives. Maybe they bump into each other in traffic and have a fight? Maybe he is brought in to consult on one of the movies she is working on? Just a few scenes of them together to keep us going until the happy ending.
Only, they didn’t do that. Instead, they switched focus to the young people. Which is okay, I guess the young folks are fine. But their romance isn’t nearly as sparkling and fresh feeling as the one between the older couple. It feels like we just got their flirty interactions to serve as surrogates for the flirty physical interactions we couldn’t get from the older folks, because the older folks couldn’t find a time when they could schedule being in the same room together for more than 30 seconds.
Which almost works as a thematic thing. That the older couple can connect on a deeper personal level, telling stories of their childhood and so on. But they have a harder time feeling comfortable with a physical connection, they agonize over meeting, going back and forth on their decisions, only finally bringing themselves to take a risk and meet in person at the very end. Meanwhile, the younger couple leaps into a physical connection, but has many miss-matches emotionally and intellectually. I mean, they don’t jump into bed or anything. But they are attracted to each other’s appearances right away. And they fall in love and drop into a love song after he has picked her up and carried her to a hospital when she is injured, a physical contact.
It still kind of works as a metaphor, purposely switching from the hesitant older romance to this jumping in without looking younger one, but the real problem is that you can see the filmmakers are less interested in the younger romance than the older. The younger people barely have characters, I’m not sure we even know what they do for a living. We only see the young woman interact with the young man and the older heroine. We only see the young man interact with her, the older hero, and the comic relief character who is forcibly inserted. It just makes their part of the film drag, and made me, as an audience person, start shouting at the screen “Go back to the older couple already!”
Because the older couple is so fascinating! And well-rounded. I love how their histories are just sort of sketched in. You can see how both of them have been on their own long enough, that it has given them a sort of power and confidence. They don’t have to worry about being “nice” for others. In our hero’s case, this has lead to a focus on work and food, to being unafraid to do something like walk into a kitchen and hire a cook away from someone else. He isn’t mean or cruel, he just doesn’t have time to worry about if what he does is “normal.”
But our heroine is even better. Again, she isn’t mean or cruel. But she has no problem speaking her mind to her co-workers, wearing glasses and the clothes she finds comfortable, even the way she stands is more casual and confident than I am used to seeing in women in Indian films. At least, in young-ish unmarried women. Really, in romantic leads. That’s what the difference is, we are seeing that even a female character who doesn’t fit in the down-cast eyes, flirty smiles, and swaying walk in a sari kind of look can still be attractive and romantic. And they even underlined it, by having her switch to that kind of persona when she was first falling in love, but then give it up and return to her “real” character by the end.
(Also, super cute song)
Oh, and I loved her job! The hero’s job was thematic, obviously, with the archaeology tying into the value and wisdom of age. And at the end, the reveal that his boss was only organizing the dig because of his own late in life romance. But the heroine’s job was not only thematic, but interesting! Her voice, her beautiful intelligent unique voice, was being used to dub for young actresses onscreen. At the end, she is accused of sending the younger heroine to their first meeting because she is afraid to show her real face, that she was cheating by hiding behind a beauty, just like she does in her work. But the reality is, these young beauties are hiding behind her voice. At least, that’s what we see in this film. He falls in love with her voice and personality, just as she does his, and in fact the miss-conception that the other is young and beautiful is what causes them both to lose interest.
Beyond the thematic level, I was fascinated by getting this glimpse of the film industry as such a matter-of-fact part of life. There were no big star cameos, or excitement over the artistry, or any of that. She just went in, worked in the sound booth, got a check, and went home. It wasn’t movie making as part of a dream factory kind of thing, it was just movie making as a profitable local industry, like any other. I am assuming that her version of the industry is also slightly affected by this being a Malayalam film. I mean, that the industry is more matter of fact and small scale in Kerala than it would be in Bombay or Hyderabad or Madras. It really struck me what a difference it makes having an industry for every language group.
In America, we just have Hollywood in Los Angeles. Every other major city has some filmmaking abilities and locations, but it’s really so small you wouldn’t even notice it. But in India, each language region is going to have its own film industry within at least one major central city. The jobs, the training, everything is more evenly dispersed through out the country. And at the same time, more everyday. From what I’ve read, in LA meeting a famous person or having a job on a film set is kind of no big deal. The industry is so much part of the town that basically everyone has some kind of connection. But everywhere else in the country, that would be a HUGE deal. And, I think, it probably leads to the greater disconnect we have with the whole movie business, the remoteness actors try to keep from their fans, the way fans tend to treat actors as less than human, just there for us to gossip about. Paparazzi, extreme gossip sites, all of that stuff that doesn’t quite translate to the Indian industry.
In India (and again, this is just my impression), it is much more common for people have actually met a movie star, or know someone who has. And not like at a fan gathering, but at a party somewhere or a wedding, or even going to school with them before they were famous. The movie industry is all around, every city has its own, which makes it harder to think of Stars as someone you can hunt down, terrorize, discuss every detail of their life. And makes it harder for Stars to think of fans as just crazy evil mobs. Obviously, Stars are still a huge deal in India! But in a different way than in America, a more personal way, both Star to fan and fan to Star.
Anyway, that’s what I got out of the heroine’s job in this film. A realization that every major city in India must have these people who work in film as just their jobs, and don’t think much about it, and how that must change the way the whole country sees the film industries.
I guess that was the biggest intellectual take away from this film, but the biggest emotional one was that they are just SO CUTE! It was such a sweet and happy love story, and I would totally watch it again, only I would probably fast-forward through the bits with the young people.