I watched Left Right Left! I am very confused. I am hoping people in the comments can help me. I think I got the main thrust of the characters and the overall theme, but the details of exactly what happened and when and why escaped me. Mostly because I don’t know a lot about the Kerala Communist party. Or maybe it is the all-India Communist party? I don’t even know enough to know which one it is! But at least the relationship/female side of things more or less made sense to me, so that’s the part I will talk about.
So far as I can tell from what I was seeing, there was a big bloody battle between two different wings of the Communist party a few years, or decades, back? Is that correct? And a large part of this film relies on me knowing that and being able to understand that this is the backdrop for everything that is going on in the present day? Yes?
The film opens with the origin story of our 3 heroes, and I am guessing that the years given for each of them are pivotal in understanding their attitudes and the events that shaped them. But, again, totally went over my head! The oldest of them came of age in the 60s, when his uncle was killed by a landlord (I think?) for illegally planting in his fields. His father forced him see the body and then went back to the local Communist headquarters (really cool effect here, where everything is in black-and-white except for the red flag. Same effect was used in the opening song of Arabikkar) The other party members try to dissuade his father from going for revenge, but his father insists on leaving. Final shot is our young hero standing in front of the party headquarters, with the other men around him, watching his father leave, never to return.
Our next hero came of age in the 70s. He arrives with his father at a small town, goes into a little roadside store to use the phone, and calls a fellow party member to ask for help. It’s the middle of the Emergency, and his father is asking for help because he says the government is killing their comrades in the village, he has to get out and get help. The man they called is too scared to help and refuses. The boy and his father walk away from the cafe, and as they walk away, his father is attacked from behind with a machete and killed.
And finally, the 80s! A young boy is sitting with his mother and sister outside a hospital. His sister is gasping for air through her oxygen mask. A nurse comes over and removes the mask, saying the doctor told her to, because they haven’t paid. The mother starts to cry and beg, the young boy runs over to a nearby cop and asks him to help. The cop asks the nurse how much is needed, then goes over to a nearby group of men and forces them to donate the required amount. He gives it to the nurse, she puts the oxygen mask back on the sister, but it is too late.
These are all very downer beginnings! But I am guessing they are hyper specific to their historical period? Part of the reason I am assuming that is how the filmmakers are using the visuals to orient us. They have imitated 60s black and white film stock for the 60s, 70s grainy color, and then 80s bright colors. So you can see at a glance when this story is supposed to take place. And I also know this is very important to the characters, so important that the put together a song video of all the pivotal moments here and set it to the awesome title song from the film.
What I am getting from the 3 stories in terms of characters is that each of them was molded through an experience of injustice and oppression at a young age. While the oldest character, in the 60s, had a fairly straightforward experience in which the wealthy oppressed his family and the Party more or less stood by them, the character in the 70s had a slightly more complex situation, in which he saw the Party somewhat fail and somewhat succeed. His father’s call for help went unanswered, but ultimately he himself was adopted and assisted by party members (I think? I watched this bit a couple of times and I’m not 100% sure who the mustached man is who took care of him). And, in addition, he wasn’t experiencing oppression by the wealthy, but rather by a combination of the wealthy working on concert with the government. Yes? That is why it took place during the Emergency?
The 80s character is the one that is clearest to me, because it doesn’t seem to involve anything about the past 5 decades of political history in Kerala, but just kind of India/humanity in general. And I know about India/humanity in general! The medical establishment is failing his family, no one is helping them through pity, but when he goes to a cop, he sees how the police can help them through force. It’s possible, if the doctor at that point had helped them, he would have become a doctor. Or if a Party member had happened to walk by and assisted him rather than the cop, he would have turned to them. But it was a police officer, so he becomes obsessed with power rather than mercy or justice.
(Because Indian movie police may not always be corrupt or violent, but they are always powerful!)
The other super important part of the opening is the voice over. It is in a woman’s voice, giving details of each of these backstories. But only when she gets to the 80s story does she start to drop in little details about the character and how this shaped him in odd ways later. He remembered the face of the nurse who appeared willing to help save his sister. And he remembered his sister. And years later, he thought he found both of those women again in other people. Which is an odd thing to throw in there. Which leads me to how I am going to be interpreting this film, partly because I think it is a valid interpretation, and partly because the whole political side of things is so confusing for me that I have to focus on the female side instead.
Ultimately, this movie appears to be about 3 men, but it is equally about 3 women. 3 women who circle around our 80s hero in this scene, the nurse, the mother, and the sister. The choice of 3 is cool, because they end up representing Maiden, Woman/Mother, Crone. This powerful triumvirate is what is driving the film, much as the men may think it is their actions that are forcing changes. Which is what the end statement says, that all these men may talk about Communism, but it is the women who survive, who keep going, who are the true “workers.”
But before I talk about the women, back to the men for a second to see if I understood everything that was going on there correctly! Our 80s boy has grown up to fulfill his desires and become a cop. He abuses his power in many ways, from pulling over random motorcyclists and forcing them to pay a “fine”, to renting out his government provided housing, to viciously beating protesters (although that is with the tacit permission of his superiors). However, he does have a moral code, revolving around women. When his sponsor (who is also apparently an actor in a mythological television show? Lots to unpack there! More than I can even start thinking about!) asks him to help him rape his co-star, our “hero” draws the line and refuses.
Our 80s boy also thinks he has found the nurse and sister he is obsessed with all over again. His girlfriend is a pretty young nurse who looks similar to the nurse he remembers from his youth (possibly the same actress?). And he found a woman a few years older than him who he calls his sister. He insisted that his mother rent out part of their house to her and her husband, and he is as loyal and loving to her as any little brother should be.
(Girlfriend, and also maybe nurse?)
Meanwhile, our 70s boy grew up to be called “Che Guevara Roy” because he was so dedicated and committed in his beliefs. He is now a teacher, and suffering constant physical strains for unclear reasons. One half of his body seems to be paralyzed. His wife is the “sister” of the 80s boy, and also a teacher. From the way he interacts with others in the Party, Roy seems to still be respected and beloved, but not active. Yes? Did I miss something subtle about Party politics or is that accurate?
And our 60s boy grew up to be a leader in the party, a powerful speaker and respected elder, as well as a powerful politician. Only, he is also corrupt. Or at least tolerates corruption in others, “for the good of the party.” Is that correct? That he would rather look the other way if he feels a wrong might serve the greater good but he himself is not necessarily evil or completely uncaring about the overall Party principles?
And now all 3 characters are set on a collision course. The 70s boy is beginning to investigate corruption charges and, although he tries to handle it peacefully and internally, eventually he realizes that his mentor (or friend? or mentor? I know they seem close, but it is not clear if they are equals, or if he feels he owes something to the older man) is complicit in the deaths of the journalists who wanted to break the story.
Meanwhile, the 80s boy is going through his own life torments related to his girlfriend and his desires in his life, but is also somewhat aware of and concerned about the struggles his “sister” and her husband are going through as the 70s boy investigates the growing corruption.
And the 60s boy is just trying to stay in control, to keep everything status quo and to convince everyone that they owe it to the party to keep going rather than to try to change or fix things. Is that all more or less accurate so far?
The 3 men are creating their own little group of 3, which almost matches the standard 3 male grouping of Indian film, that of the separated brothers. I’m thinking about Amar Akbar Anthony, Trimurti, Hum Saath Saath Hain, films like that. The oldest brother is the most socially acceptable one, the one who is all about law and order. The middle brother is the outsider, the sensitive one, the one who sees the bigger picture of society. And the youngest brother is the most emotional, the unpredictable heart of the family. What is fascinating in this film is that the grouping of 3 matches emotionally with the standard roles, but the social roles have shifted. The law and order older brother is now a powerful politician in the Communist party rather than a cop. The sensitive middle brother is an aging radical rather than a criminal. And it is the emotional and unpredictable youngest one who is the police officer. This, to me, is the biggest way in which this film is truly “Communist”. That it is imagining a view of society in which the powerful forces for order are the party elites, while the forces of chaos are the police.
(I love this promo)
And then of course there is the tragedy of the film, that these 3 men are unable to come together and use their powers in harmony, but rather descend into infighting and destroy each other. The oldest, the force of law and order, becomes corrupted by his own power. The middle one, the conscious and large minded one, finds himself destroyed as he cannot survive in a corrupt society. And the youngest loses faith in all structure and meaning in society, and ends up unleashing destruction around him. It’s horrible! But maybe not.
What if, none of this matters? Because all these men were only pretending to do something important, to effect change, to improve society. In reality, it is the women who are the true force and the true change. Again, not saying this is how the film SHOULD be read, but it is an interesting potential reading of it.
The first woman who starts to make things move and change is the nurse girlfriend of our 80s hero. She is already an interesting meeting point of multiple stories, as her hospital is going through labor issues and she is listening to talks from the Communist characters. But at the same time, she is dating a hardcore “right wing” cop, a somewhat violent and corrupt one. Which seems odd, why would a nice nurse lady be dating this kind of nutty guy?
But it is because she is actually the most downtrodden of all the characters in the film! The greatest victim of societal oppression, the person with the least power. And therefore, the one who is using the most varied means to save herself. Not just Communism, which is only addressing her labor issues, but also capitalism in the form of her seduction and bribery of a politician’s son to get her out of the country, and brute force in the form of her Cop boyfriend.
Ultimately, the only solution for her would be a complete up-ending of the current power system which will always put more value on her abusive husband than on her. But until that happens, she is forced to use whatever means she is able to defend herself and her son. And, ultimately, she uses corrupt means in exactly the ways necessary to balance her husband’s socially given advantages. He is wealthier, so she works as a nurse in a hospital with a strong labor union that provides good benefits. He has the legal power over her (remember, marital rape is STILL not illegal in India, or even acknowledged as a possibility), so she tricks a young and connected man into perverting the legal system to let her leave the country. And, most of all, he has the physical power over her, the ability to dominate her and hurt her and, as we saw in the repeated flashback, even rape her (oh sorry, not rape, because he is her husband, so it was consensual sex.). So her greatest attack is saved for his physical power, finding a man even stronger and angrier than he to defeat him.
And her triumph, the end result of all these machinations, is to leave India behind her entirely (yes? That airplane at the end is going overseas, not just to Bombay, right?). Because until India is radically re-structured, there would be no hope for her character. But, her actions as she leaves, are enough to cause the tipping point for our 80s hero, to make him lose faith in himself and society, to cross the line into murder.
Which is when the “wife/mother” figure takes over. Our 80s hero’s “sister”. Her husband has been trying to solve his problems for most of the film, working through his doubts and fears and trying to find the right path for a solution. But she sees the way very clearly. She wants her husband to stay alive. So she fights with doctors and hospitals, and him himself, in order to make that happen. And, once he dies, she cuts through all the confusion and complexities, and simply makes sure her “brother” murders the man who killed her husband. I’m not sure whether she arranged this directly or if it simply happened because the bond she had formed over time with the younger man lead it to happen, but either way, she is the linchpin in this series of events. If she had not formed a bond with the younger man, he would not have felt as strong a need to avenge the death of her husband.
(older sister/wife character)
And finally, we have the “crone”. The mother of our 80s hero. All along she has served as an audience to events, rather than a participant. Commenting and complaining from the sidelines. But in the end, she is the only one who remains. She and the “wife/mother”. They are the ones who ride off, surviving, still trying to make the world a better place.
I’m not sure if this is the right interpretation of the film, but I find it fascinating that it could be interpreted this way, that there are 3 separate strong female characters who are driving events, just as there are 3 separate strong male characters. And that, ultimately, the women are the ones who survive to learn and do better, while the men die in their service.