Charlie: Another Malayalam movie! How it Shows the Human Under the Magic

I watched Charlie!  Which I don’t think is even on my To-Do List, but was recommended to me by a friend, and moviemavengal just posted a review and that it’s been added to einthusan, so I had to check it out.

My friend who recommended it to me said that it reminded her of Amelie.  If you haven’t seen Amelie (which you may not have, it was a bit of a crossover hit from France about 15 years ago, but has kind of dropped off the radar since then), it is about a shy young woman who accidentally interferes in the life of a neighbor, setting it on a better path, and then decides to do the same for various other people in her life, from her father to her co-worker, to the regular patrons at the restaurant where she works.  She’s very sprightly and sees the world in a magical way, which was the big gimmick of the film, how the director gave us a kind of “Amelie’s-eye-view” of the world.

But along the side of this happy sunny magical film, is a tragedy.  Amelie grew up alone and feeling unloved by her very undemonstrative father.  Now, she watches and helps everyone else in her world, but is afraid to make her own connections or reach for happiness for herself.  She bumps into a man who is similarly odd and quiet and has a strange way of viewing the world.  But rather than connect with him, she keeps avoiding it and sending him on little treasure hunts and challenges.  Finally, at the end, he tracks her down and gently forces her to let him in (both to her apartment and her life), giving herself the same happy ending that she has been giving to others.

(Happy happy ending!  Definitely a feel good movie)

That’s what Amelie and Charlie (both the characters and the films) have in common.  Not the almost magical central character who spreads joy and happiness in others’ lives.  But rather, the central character who does all this because he/she is too scared to make a connection that could lead to their own happiness.  And a second character who is able to understand and love enough to force their way into their lives.  Does that make sense?  Too many pronouns?  What I meant is that just as Nino forces his way into Amelie’s life, so does Tessa (Parvathy) force her way into the life of Charlie (Dulquer).

The media scholar Nathan Rabin came up with the phrase “manic-pixie-dream-girl” to describe characters like Amelie, and moviemavengal (accurately) used it to describe Charlie’s character.  Amelie was one of the first in the modern era, but they’ve been around for ages in Western media.  Everything from Katherine Hepburn’s character in Bringing Up Baby to Elizabeth Taylor’s character in The Sandpiper to Jane Fonda in Barefoot in the Park.

The idea is that these characters dance into our hero’s life, provide him with magical moments of happiness and wisdom, and ask for nothing in return.  Usually, they also fall in love with the hero and are ecstatically happy at the end of the film when he reciprocates their feelings.  Or, if the film ends with him returning to “real life” stronger and wiser from his time with them, they will be understanding of his inability to be with them and place no blame or expectations on him.

There are two ways that these characters can become hard to take (for me).  First is if the romantic relationship between the magical heroine and our hero becomes too imbalanced.  It’s one thing if you are going around magically fixing the lives of strangers.  It’s a whole other thing if you are helping your life partner and they are giving you nothing in return.  At that point, the power imbalance is just way off.  It doesn’t have to be, of course.  There are variations on this trope where the woman provides the sprightly advice and encouragement and the man provides the financial, emotional, and practical support she needs.  But when you have something like Elizabethtown (terrible movie, don’t watch it), where the heroine is just there to literally provide a roadmap to mental health for the hero and he does nothing in return, than there is something seriously wrong with their relationship.

The second issue I can have with these characters is if they seem to have no inner life of their own.  If they exist only in terms of what they can do for others, not what they need for themselves.  This is actually one of the reasons I love Indian film SO MUCH.  The female characters may exist to serve men, but there is usually an indication of the toll such service takes on them, that they have their own pains and desires and needs.  Even Shraddha Kapoor’s character in Ek Villain, who comes dangerously close to embodying all the bad parts of this concept, is introduced talking about her own desires and needs, separate from those of her husband.

(This song is the “manic-pixie-dream-girl” character in a nutshell.  But then they pulled back from it with the rest of the plot.)

Okay, that was a huge detour, bringing it back to Charlie!  Charlie did two things to change up this trope.  The first was making the “manic-pixie-dream-girl” into a man.  Instead of playing into existing gender power dynamics, in which the woman is always the caregiver, the helper, the wise one, it is the man fulfilling that role.  Which is excellent!  And often, his only purpose is to help the female characters, whether it is the suicidal doctor, or the HIV positive sex worker, or the little girl about to be sold into prostitution.  Which is also excellent!  Presenting a magical angel figure as being put on this earth as a man in order to serve women, instead of the other way around.

And the second thing was structural, that they switched perspectives 20 minutes before the end to show that our magical helper character actually does have an inner life and inner demons and is more than just what he does for others.  But before I get into that, I need to outline the plot, so beware!  MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD!

Our heroine, played by Parvathy, who I know from Bangalore Days and will know from Ennu Ninte Moideen once I get around to watching it, arrives at a family wedding after living for a while on her own in Bangalore.  Her family is planning to marry her to her brother’s fiancee’s brother, so they can have a nice sibling-sibling spouse-spouse kind of family arrangement.  There is nothing really wrong with the guy, but she doesn’t want to marry him, so she runs away that night, still in her dancing outfit from the party.

(a little unusual looking)

She goes to a friend’s house, who suggests she rent a room from a distant connection.  The room isn’t ready for her yet, but she moves in already anyway and finds it full of odd art pieces and pictures and drawings from the previous tenant, “Charlie”.  She has a quick phone call with Charlie when he calls the landline in the room.  He talks in riddles and calls himself a “Jinn” and she asks him to take all his stuff away or she will get rid of it.  She starts to pack it up, but gets drawn in and starts looking at everything, finding a series of pictures of people Charlie knew, and a half finished story told in pictures.  She gets intrigued and starts tracking down the people from the pictures, including Charlie’s father.  She learns that Charlie grew up somewhat alone after his mother died, as his father is a bit of an adventurer, and now he travels around all the time, drifting in and out of people and places as he feels like it.  She hears stories about him from others as well, of people he helped, and adventures he went on, and gets more and more intrigued, and eager to meet him.  This whole time, she is ducking phone calls from her own family and friends.

After several near misses, she finally gets a clue to where she can find a woman he saved from suicide.  The woman is a doctor who is now living in a remote mountain hostel, where several old men and the little girl Charlie had earlier saved from a brothel are staying.  The doctor tells her story and Parvathy, by now in love with what she has learned about Charlie from his friends and family as well as the brief glimpses she has had of him, is jealous of the closeness between the doctor and Charlie.  Before the doctor can clarify, or help her find Charlie, Parvathy’s mother and brother arrive.  They don’t want her to marry the man she doesn’t want, they just want her to come home in time for her brother’s wedding, and to see her beloved grandmother, who is in the hospital.  Parvathy agrees and leaves the mountain hostel just as Charlie is arriving.

(Aparna Gopinath plays the doctor, and she looked so familiar, I was sure that I had seen her in something else before.  But, nope!  She just has one of those faces)

Okay, this is where it gets interesting!  It has been structured and crafted really well up to this point, but the last 20 minutes are where all the little bits and pieces that have been dropped along the way come together.  First, our heroine in the first few scenes is presented as running from a trapped life, an arranged marriage she doesn’t want, and so on and so on.  But, slowly, she becomes more and more obsessed with “Charlie” and less and less connected to her friends and a regular life.  And now, her family has tracked her down, and it turns out that they don’t want to trap her in an arranged marriage, they just want her to come home.  In a different movie, this would be the happy ending, that she can return home with no potential husband hanging over her.  But in this movie, all of the choices we have seen her make, everything we have learned about her, come together to show it was never really about the arranged marriage.  It was about freedom, experience, joy.  And now it is gone, and she is sitting in the back of the car driving down the mountain, so trapped and dead inside that she doesn’t even notice the man she is searching for is right outside her window.

Which is when we switch to Charlie/Dulquer’s perspective.  As his hand draws across her window, almost touching her face, but not quite reaching it, and suddenly we are following his journey (literal and metaphorical), not hers.  He is returning to the mountain hostel, bringing with him the lost love of one of the old men.  All along, we have heard stories of Charlie as this magical figure who dances into people’s lives and out again.  But now he is here, talking with the doctor he saved and the old man who’s lost love he has found, and there are cracks in his supernatural facade.

He expects the old man to be happy for what he has done, but the old man points out that this is still a tragedy, maybe if he had tried a little harder, worked a little more when he was young, they could have gotten together then and been happy.  The doctor, similarly, points out that he stopped her from killing herself because she thought she could never be happy.  And Charlie himself confesses that his father, who has never asked him for anything, asked him to meet this woman who is searching for him.  And he admits, he is afraid.  That she will have heard all these stories about him, and actually meeting him will be a let down.

(See the doctor giving him that “You are pretending to be happy and in control right now but I see right through you!” look.)

Just like all those little changes and choices we saw our heroine make through out the film come together at the end to tell us that she was never going to be happy with her family, arranged marriage or no, and she was never going to be happy in a regular job like her friends either; now we are seeing the culmination of all the little side things we learned about our hero.  How he sobbed and sobbed after he failed in an attempt to help a woman.  How he has never had a real father-son relationship with his own father.  How he was so lonely on New Years that he invited a thief who broke into his house to have dinner with him.  This may be a man who brings happiness to others, but sometimes he is lonely and unhappy himself.

What’s fascinating is that they manage to make this change in his character, and reveal his humanity, without taking away his magic.  He is still the crazy wise and wonderful figure everyone described.  It’s just that he is also someone who needs help himself sometimes.  It’s not that his magic is a mask for his hurt, it’s that the two things exist together.

Which is why we have to have the brilliant sequence of end-end-end scenes.  There are really three separate sections here, each equally important.  After much nagging on the part of the doctor, Charlie decided to leave word for Parvathy that he would be at the Pooram festival, and if it is meant to be, she will be able to find him there.  Okay, the Pooram festival has super downer associations right now, but this movie came out before all of that, so I am going to try to block all of it from my mind.

At the festival, she is actually able to find him fairly easily, he is helping a magician with a trick, culminating him him seemingly bursting forth from the ground after being burned in a box.  It’s very dramatic, and the kind of magical perfect introduction he was wanting.

But, it’s not what she wants.  She doesn’t want the magic perfect introduction, she wants the real “Charlie”.  So, when he confidently spots her in the crowd and declares she must be “Tessa”, she says she is not.  He takes her for a drink from a nearby stall and again calls her “Tessa”, trying to trick her into admitting it because he is so sure.  She corrects him again, and he starts to look unsure and uncomfortable and a little sad and disappointed.  It seems cruel, but I think it is also necessary.  That she (and the audience) has to see that he actually wants her, that he was looking forward to meeting her.  And that she evens the playing field a little bit, that he doesn’t get to have a big magical introduction and over-whelm her with his awesomeness, they have to come together more simply than that.

In the end, he agrees that she isn’t Tessa, but asks to take a photo of the two of them together anyway.  Only, when she looks down at the photo, it is of her in the dancer outfit she was wearing when she first ran away from home, and when she looks up he is gone.  This part confuses me a little, but I think it works out.

Her conclusion is, he was the guy on the motorbike who gave her a ride with all her bags and her dancer’s outfit over to her friend’s apartment.  And then that friend is the one who suggested the room she should rent.  So maybe Charlie picked her out all along?  Sensed a soulmate when he saw a woman on the side of the road in a dancers outfit, carrying all her belongings, with no embarrassment?  And then figured out from the location where he dropped her who her friend was and made sure to get word to the friend that his room was available?  And then just hoped that all his stuff there would intrigue her?  I’ll have to re-watch the film to see if this all tracks logically.  But it certainly tracks emotionally!

Charlie has been too afraid to approach her in the normal way, because he doesn’t want to be normal.  So he creates this whole magical coincidence of getting her into his rooms, leaving just enough clues so she can find out more about him, leaving it up to her to decide if she wants to pursue him once she knows what kind of life he leads and what kind of person he is.  Which matches with the reveals of this very last section, when we see that he is really a lonely guy who is too scared to try for love.

And that’s why the second “ending” is important.  They don’t finally come together at the perfect place with the perfect magical show, in which he is performing for her.  They meet in the middle of the crowd in the midst of the festival.  He is looking for her just as she is looking for him.  And they come together as equals.

And then there is the ending shot, which answers all my questions.  You know I usually like these movies to end with a wedding sequence!  Or, even better, a baby!  But in this case, for these two characters, that wouldn’t make any sense.  Sure, someday they will probably get around to getting married.  And they may even have a child.  But right now, what is most important is that he has found someone who is not only willing, but eager, to travel the world with him.  And so what is most important is simply to see the two of them lying (laying?) on the back of a truck, smiling, with his arm around her.

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14 thoughts on “Charlie: Another Malayalam movie! How it Shows the Human Under the Magic

    • Yeah, I found myself liking it more and more as I wrote this, and thinking about it today, than I did while watching it. I may need to rewatch it myself, or maybe even buy it on DVD!

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  1. Oh, this is fascinating to read! I did some thinking and writing about this film myself, though not half as eloquently and reasoned as you have (just ask @moviemavengal). And yet I didn’t quite comprehend the possibility of every interaction from the bike trip together being a deliberate ploy of his- like he was choosing her. Unni R’s writing always leaves a lot for the audience to unpack- I would love to know your thoughts on his latest film Leela (which is based on his own short story-unique subject matter to say the least). It’s running in theatres now but it also released online simultaneously on reelax.com if you’re willing to pay. (Also it’s not Shruti Haasan in Ek Villian, it’s Shraddha Kapoor- but I can understand the confusion because both have equally grating dialogue delivery)

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    • Thanks for the correction! I feel like I have maligned Shraddha just by accidentally calling her Shruti. Cannot stand Shruti, but actually I’ve been kind of impressed by Shraddha! Almost looking forward to seeing her in the OK Kanmani remake.

      I’ll have to check out Leela, I’ll add it to my very long to-do list (please check it out and let me know if I am missing anything!)

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  2. I can’t stand the manic-pixie-girl stereotype.And Charlie is sometimes over the top.But still he’s bearable most of the time.Plus he genuinely cares even though his meddling sometimes makes things worse.

    Tessa’s mom was so over the top.I thought Tessa might have been adopted or an illegitimate daughter of her Dad or something.Anything to explain her mom’s animosity.But her brother is sweetie and is obviously the family peace keeper.

    I can’t believe Charlie arranged to have Tessa stay at his room.Her friend doesn’t recognize him from the photo when she visits Tessa.I’m sure someone pointed her out as the girl who’s currently staying at his room.And of course he immediately recognized her as the girl he gave a lift to.

    And his room is a treasure trove.I completely understand how she was intrigued by the knickknacks in that room.The artist in her obviously recognised her soulmate at once.

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    • I have to go back and watch the opening again to figure out exactly how she landed in his room and if it would be at all possible for him to have arranged it. And/or the point at which he realized that she was the one staying there and started getting interested in her. That initial phone call is so odd, he is clearly trying to get her curious about him already, but how does he know she is someone he wants to make curious? She’s certainly not that interesting over the phone.

      I agree that her brother is a sweetie. I saw it as her and her grandmother being two peas in a pod, her mother being a completely different (practical) kind of personality, and her brother being a combination of the two. I didn’t get the relationship words, is it clear whether her grandmother is her mother’s mother or her father’s mother? I was assuming father’s mother, and that’s why there wasn’t much in common between her mother and her grandmother.

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