I’ve had such a hectic week at work! For no real reason. I do tech support for a small software company, and some weeks all of our users have questions, and some weeks they don’t, and I really can’t predict why! Anyway, to relax, I decided to check out one of the older Malayalam films that had been recommended to me.
(moviemavengal just watched it as well, check out her review here)
Maybe I am missing some big political metaphor, or historical positioning, or subtle character conflict but, to me, Innale was just a super super happy pleasant movie! Good people doing good things in a good place. Like a nice warm bath of soothing happiness.
I mean, sure, there was a little bitty bit of conflict, and there were a couple of people who weren’t as nice as they could be, but mostly it was just happiness straight through. And all in that slightly grainy 80s film stock that says “childhood” too me, because that’s what movies looked like when I was little.
What made it really stand out as spectacularly conflict free is that this is a plot that I have seen many many times before, and it is usually made either more dramatic, or more twisty. Instead of just being “welp, this is all basically exactly as it appeared to begin with and there was no huge conspiracy to get us here, and now let’s all be nice people and deal with this logically.” And when I say this is a plot that I have seen many times before and it is always more dramatic, I don’t even just mean in Indian film!
Family story: When we were little, we were riding in the car with our parents, and they were talking about some news story or something about someone who had amnesia. And me and my sister piped up from the backseat to say “Is that what Betty gets all the time? We know about that!” Our parents, of course, immediately got very alarmed, thinking there was some little friend of ours who had series mental issues, or brain damage or something that needed to be reported to the authorities. But after many many questions, they finally realized we meant Betty from Archie comics. Because she really does get amnesia All The Time!!!
(Why have I never seen this music video before?)
Betty gets amnesia for the common reason people get amnesia in fiction, it’s a way to take a “good girl” and drop her into a new situation, give her an adventure, force her to interact with new people. Maybe make her a little sexy and vampy. Of course, it can also go the other way, take the evil vampy character and make her good for a bit. Like in Overboard, one of my favorite so-cheesy-but-so-good movies. It works very well in serialized formats, like televisions shows or comic strips, where you want to shake things up a little, but have an easy way to reset back to the norm once it is over.
It works a bit differently in films or novels, closed narratives. In that case, usually it is the central conflict of the plot, a way to wipe the slate clean for the character and have them try to find themselves and solve the “mystery” of their identity. The mystery is always “who is she!” (also, why are amnesia victims in fiction almost always female?), but sometimes it is more “who is she, what is her legal name, how did she get here, what is her job” and sometimes it is more “who is she, if she has no memories than how does she craft an identity and relationships”. And then the end of the narrative is when we find out the answer, whether it is “she’s a spy!!!!” or “she’s still in love with him even if she doesn’t remember him!” But Innale is different, because it decides there is no mystery, there is no conflict, there is simply a person who is moving forward with her life and nothing else matters.
Going back to that point about amnesia victims being female in fiction for a second, I think it might be because amnesia is the most passive-aggressive way for a woman to slip between layers of society. A man can rise and fall through his actions, but a woman is less likely to have that option. She is trapped within a family, a home, certain social rules and structures. Or really, the author is trapped by those restrictions when they want to change things. If I am writing for Archie comics, I can’t have Betty run off and join the circus, because she has responsibilities to her parents and her friends and she is a “good girl”. But, if I give her amnesia, I can take responsible intelligent talented Betty (way more interesting than flighty vampy Veronica who actually might run away and join the circus!) and have her adopted by circus people, and then solve the mystery of “Murder Under the Big Top” or whatever it is, and then regain her memory at the end just in time to return back to her regular boring life. And in the same way, I can take spoiled Goldie Hawn in Overboard, and force her down through several layers of society to become the wife of blue collar Kurt Russell. The underlying idea of both of these examples is that the woman retains her essential personality, formed through her original circumstances, but applies it to a new situation she can only experience through the radical influence of amnesia. Anamika, that really really good 70s movie with Jayaji and Sanjeev Kumar, is a wonderful example of turning this trope on its head a little, asking what it really means when amnesia is used to give a new life. And I can’t say any more about it without spoiling it, so I will save that for its own spoiler-warning post!
(I will post this song though! Because even with no context, isn’t it cute?!?!?)
So, Innale is special not just because it is so conflict free, but because it is an amnesia story with a woman that is conflict free. Even inner conflict! Our heroine doesn’t feel overwhelming guilt or angst over the people she may have left behind, she simply looks to the future and a new life. And the people in her new life and, eventually, her old life, support that choice with only minor reservations. The amnesia is not a shortcut to a life change, or a shallow mystery to be solved, it is a simply a line that divides her happy past life from her present moderately happier one.
In terms of life divides, what it reminds me of most is not an amnesia story, but a time travel one, the Outlander novel series/TV show, in which a woman from the 1940s is dropped into the 1840s. Outlander is frequently considered merely a “romance novel”, that it is about leaving your drippy boring modern man husband for a bodice ripping hunk from the past. Both the novels and the show are of varying quality, I’m not necessarily going to claim they are modern classics and works of genius, but the idea that they have at their heart is much deeper than that, which is why it is such a crossover hit, both in the publishing and TV world. The idea isn’t that the heroine is choosing between two men, but that she is choosing between two possible lives, and the question is, which life is worth more, which is the better choice, what is truly valuable in a life? In the future, she has a safe life, modern medicine, the opportunity to advance in a profession, to travel the world, to have TV, movies, cars, even food is more easily accessible and more varied. But in the past, she has a community, a family, and work that makes her feel like she is making a difference in the world. And the conclusion of the books (and TV show, I assume, unless it takes a wild turn at some point) is that all of these elements are of greater value than modern medicine and conveniences.
Which, finally, brings me to Innale! In Innale, the heroine starts with apparently no choices. She has lost her memory and her identity, and has landed in a small hospital in a small town. But in fact, it is these very lacks that provide her with choices. After recovering physically, she is approached by the local businessman/bus owner who owned the vehicle involved in her accident. He first speaks with her doctor, and her doctor’s son, asking permission, or at least their opinion, on whether he should propose to our heroine. But, they refuse to give a strong opinion one way or the other, or even speak to her on his behalf. They leave it entirely up to her as to what her response will be. And her response is horror! Not only is he an older man, he is already married, and is only offering her the position of “2nd wife” in his household! At first she looks shocked, but then she quickly changes and starts hitting and yelling at him, throwing him out of the room. Only after she has almost defeated him on her own, does the doctor’s son enter to finish the job, throwing him out of the house entirely.
How different is this than the way the same scene would play out without amnesia! There is no official family member around who would make the marriage decision for her, there isn’t even anyone around she can easily call on to punish this man for his insolence on her behalf. And the end result is empowering! She finds it in herself to react with anger and violence, with no sense of that “good girl” holding back. She is perfectly capable of taking care of herself, but she is only able to show that because there is no one else to take care of her.
(See also: Queen!)
On this essential scene is the rest of her character built. Her doctor’s son finds her a job teaching at a nearby school, and offers her a house to stay in, alone. She isn’t saved and happy through falling in love, through a hasty marriage, but rather through finding confidence in herself, work she enjoys, and building a connection with the community, her doctor, her students, everyone.
Only after that, after she has become happy and comfortable on her own, does the doctor’s son propose to her. He specifically says that he has loved her since he first saw her in the hospital, but he waited until now to speak, until she was stronger and safer within herself. And at that point, his mother asks him to wait. Not because she disapproves or worries about what might be hidden in her unknown past, but because she worries about the future. She wonders if someday the amnesia will go away, or her family will find her, and she will want to leave their little community and her new life. And the resolution is not that she discovers how much the couple loves each other, but that she decides the heroine is fully settled into this life, and even if she has to leave, she will always choose to return. Phew! So many pronouns there! Shobhana! That’s the name of the actress. I’m using that. The doctor worries that Shobhana isn’t fully settled into this life and might one day want to leave, but she finally decides that even if Shobhana ever has to leave, she will always return, not just because she believes that her son and Shobhana truly love each other, that was never in question, but because Shobhana loves her whole life here.
Which brings us to the twist! Warning! SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER!!!
Shobhana was married in her past life! For almost 2 hours we have gone along watching her build her new life and become happy there, and we have almost forgotten about the “mystery” of where she came from. But then the mystery is solved, and it turns out to have been fairly simple all along, almost as simple as the obvious solution the characters previously believed.
The obvious solution is that her whole family died in the accident which injured her. The bus she was on was a whole package tour thing, traveling through out India, full of a variety of passengers. Everyone else died, and even when her photo was printed in the newspaper, nobody who came forward could recognize her. The simplest assumption was that she was a young woman traveling with her family, and all of them were killed in the accident, so there was no one left to look for her. Therefore, it made sense for her to choose to build a new life in this new place and only look to the future, not the past.
But, there was another almost equally simple explanation that we now learn is the truth. She was a young wife, traveling alone to distract herself while her husband was out of the country. And her family did not come forward because she had no family, only her husband, who has just now returned.
At first the “no family, only her husband” bit seems suspiciously convenient. Something put in just to have a good reason that no one else has come forward. Only, if you think about it, they could have had the exact same effect by making her a married woman who is traveling with her family but not her husband, and therefore her family is all dead and her husband is the only one left to search for her. But, they didn’t do that. Why?
Because it isn’t about choosing between her husband and her new fiance, it’s about choosing between having a family and a life, and not. We learn that, in her past life, she was an orphan. She had only been married a brief while, and loved her husband very much. But she had nothing beyond him in this life. Few friends, no family, and even her husband’s family is all overseas and she has not yet met them. If they had been married longer, if she had moved overseas with him, she would have grown to love his family, had a family of her own with him, found a life and made a community. Maybe. But there is no way to know, because that never happened. Instead, her life shifted, and she built that world and community in a new place. Now, to remove her from there, would not just mean removing her from the man she has grown to love, but from the whole life and world she has found.
Which is why the final part of the film is structured so well. We abruptly cut from our happy and in love couple in their pleasant home to a man we have never met, arriving in Bombay and telling his story to his friends. It’s a lovely romantic story but, slowly, it also becomes a very lonely story. He lives in America, but came to Bombay/India to find a wife, wanting to meet an orphan, someone who could understand his loneliness, and a Malayali (by the way, why is it no one mentions that our heroine speaks fluent Malayalam? Isn’t this a huge clue? Since this was an all-India bus tour leaving from Bombay? I guess we are just supposed to accept it and move on, like when that mugger spoke Hindi in Ra.One). They are introduced by friends and fall in love at once. Only, the wedding he flashes back to is just them, in a temple. Because neither of them have any friends or family to invite. Their happy honeymoon time is spent just the two of them, roaming the streets of Bombay together. And when he leaves to go to America, she tells him she will miss him, and since she has no job and no friends or family to visit, she will go on an all month tour to distract herself. Again, as he is describing this, it all sounds just lovely and romantic.
But then we go back to Shobhana’s new life. And we see her new engagement party, mobbed with people who love and care for her. And we see how she has been embraced by her new family and the community. And not only does the audience see this contrast, her husband does as well.
(Notice that this song is 70% romantic, 30% enjoying her job, her house, and her new friends)
When he arrives, at first he merely wants to meet the woman he thinks might be his wife, to see her and decide for himself if it is her or not. But her new community is protective. Her doctor/future mother-in-law protects her privacy, her fiance does as well, and her husband sees the life that surrounds her, and where she flourishes, before he is able to meet her in person. And by that point, he has learned that she has already moved forward, built herself up, and to remove her would be to just drag her down again. In the end, he pulls out his wallet, looks at the photos from their wedding, and then puts them away again and leaves, saying nothing, letting her continue in this new life.
That ending is so lovely, and it works in two ways. On the one hand, he is saying goodbye to the woman he loves, taking a last look at his photos while acknowledging that he has lost her. But it also gives him a chance to look at what she was when she was with him, and compare it with what she is now. Here she is, alone with her husband on their wedding day. No one around to share their happiness. And here she is in the present, with a lovely home, a loving potential husband, a caring mother-in-law, and a whole town that knows her.
Normally, I would find it troubling that a man is making a decision for a woman. Really, two men, since her new husband has been trying to stop her from meeting her old husband, afraid that she would turn out to really be his missing wife. But in this case, I think, it is permissible. Because to tell her the truth wouldn’t be giving her the freedom to make a choice, she has made her choice already, long ago when she decided to stay in this town and build a life instead of continuing to chase her past. It would be taking that freedom and choice away from her.
Oh, and Shobhana the heroine is the real star of the film, and is wonderful, as always. I think in the whole “Mohanlal versus Mammootty” debate, I may have ended up on a surprise 3rd choice of Shobhana.