I am just zipping through my Malayalam list! At least until there is another big Hindi release that blocks me for a week. But in the meantime, Spadikam! Yet another Mohanlal film!
First, and I feel kind of embarrassed to be asking this, like I should have figured it out a long time ago, but does Mohanlal have a thing about wearing red? I am pretty sure the answer is “yes, you fool, how has it taken you this long to notice it?”
Although, to be fair, most of the other Mohanlal movies I have seen were more on the artsy side. This one was definitely not. Although it was still way artsier than the same movie would have been in Hindi or Telugu or even Tamil. And just in case I missed that, the director kept inserting excerpts from Thalapathi in the middle of fight scenes, to show how different this film was from that one.
I’ve mentioned before how interested I am in the way Malayalam films drop you right into the middle of things and leave it for the audience to catch up. In this case, that’s what I thought was happening at first, but I was wrong. We open with a massive fight scene, Mohanlal fighting a half dozen guys, throwing things around, etc. It’s the kind of thing you see an hour into a classic Amitabh movie, the moment when our hero finally stands up against injustice and fights back and reveals his full strength, etc. etc. Only, here it is right at the opening.
(this kind of scene, that’s what I’m used to)
See, I thought this was the normal drop you into the meat of things kind of opening, but actually it was dropping you into the beginning of things. The meat of things doesn’t have anything to do with violence, at least not this kind of cinematic violence, and our hero’s triumph isn’t about winning a physical fight, or even proving his fighting ability. It just took a little bit for that to become clear.
But there were hints all along that this isn’t the normal kind of action movie. For one thing, there was how it handled it’s “fallen woman” character. In movies like Deewar and Nayakan, the prostitute is a virtuous at heart, the broken character who matches our hero’s pain and outsider status with her own. Or, alternatively, she is just an item girl who is only there for pleasure and is never mentioned again. But this movie went a different way, which confused me no end!
(your typical prostitute purified for love kind of character)
The first time we see our prostitute, she is tending to our hero’s wounds. But she’s not doing it in a virtuous play acting of wifeliness kind of way, she’s doing it in a sexy-sexy way. What is this new kind of prostitute who is kind and caring, but not wholesome or loving? So confusing! Even more confusing, later our hero is arrested while visiting her and proudly puts his arm around her shoulder while they are paraded through the streets together. So, he’s in love with her? Or what?
It seems like maybe he has an essential respect for women? Maybe that is it? But on the other hand, we see him playing games with gross naked lady playing cards, in a room with icky naked lady posters on the wall. So, no essential respect there.
Later, we get to see him interacting with the village school teacher, an extremely respectable woman, and he is terrible to her! Gets her drunk, teases her, insults her, horrible! So, no respect for women there either.
Only, seeing how he deals with that woman made me suddenly figure out why he was so respectful to the prostitute! It’s the underdog who he cares for. A normal man would disrespect the prostitute and be worshipful towards the teacher. But he sees the world upside down, he loves the prostitutes and the abused ones, and resents the teachers.
Again, if this were an Amitabh movie, or even a Rajnikanth movie (based on the only one I have seen, Thalapathi), this could be a good thing. A protest against the essential structures of society and their shallow values. But, it’s not a Tamil or Hindi film. It’s a Malayalam film. So it’s less about a huge statement on society in terms of institutional power structures, and more a statement on society in terms of personal power structures.
This is where the Thalapathi/Rajnikanth clips come into play. Our hero has a constant dispute with the local cop, escalating to the point that the cop arrests his unmarried sister and brings her to the station. In a fury at this insult to the family honor, our hero is inspired by the film playing on the local screen to attack the cop. In Thalapathi, this is a part of a huge complex vendetta, in response to an almost fatal attack against our hero’s mentor (I think. There are so many fight scenes in that movie! It’s hard to recognize one separate from the others). But in this film, it is just a petty insult by a petty man that provokes a huge over-reaction.
Yes, the cop was in the wrong, absolutely he should not have brought the fight to our hero’s sister. But he was not in the wrong to the point that he should be beaten half to death. He was not even in the wrong when he arrested the hero to begin with, Mohanlal had broken the law and he was disrespectful to the police. Sure, the cop was enjoying his power a bit too much, and insulted him a bit too much, but it was nothing that should have lead to this kind of reaction. That is an escalation of our hero, picturing himself in the mold of a Rajnikanth, dealing with huge injustices and massive power structures. Not a petty tyrant at a local police station.
As the film goes on, it starts to make kind of deep statement about the roots of crime and violence. It’s not the injustices of the greater world that drive our hero to violence, or love for the underdog, or even a need to save people. It’s that he was not allowed to reach his full potential as a child.
(aw, adorable little Shashi!)
You could say that most of the heroes of this type, from Raj Kapoor in Awara to Amitabh in Deewar, were not allowed to reach their full potential. But in their cases it is a failure on a societal scale. They are not given their correct status in society. In this, it is that he was not allowed to do what he himself, as an individual, wished for in order to be happy.
Those other films are making a pro-caste, or at least pro-birth based destiny statement. The tragedy of the hero’s life is that he is thrown out of his proper family and his proper position. In this film, the tragedy of his life is that he is not allowed to leave his family, and his position, and find his own way. That his father keeps trying to drag him onto an unnatural path, until he finally breaks free of any path at all and turns to anarchy. But even in anarchy, he is still following someone else, in this case all the screen heroes before him who used violence to solve their problems.
I guess I should give a quick synopsis here, right? Just in case you forgot the details and are getting confused, or haven’t seen the movie yet. Okay, here we go, SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS.
In the film itself, most of this is in flashbacks scattered through out. But if I try to replicate what we learn when, I’m just going to get confused, so I’ll do it mostly chronological. In the present day, our hero is the violent over-sexed lout we met at the beginning. But when he was a little boy, he was a brilliant engineer, who loved to build things. However, his father, the maths teacher at the local school, was determined that he should be a math champion. He destroyed all his son’s creations and beat him for failing his math exams. Finally, he convinced his brother (I think? Seems to be our hero’s uncle, not sure if it is honorary uncle or real uncle), the language teacher at the school who was always a supportive presence in our hero’s life, to also mark him wrong, so that he fails all his exams. His father is convinced that somehow failing entirely will make him give up on any outside interests, will drive him to focus only on the studies his father forces on him. Of course, it doesn’t work. Instead, our hero confronts his uncle (or “uncle”), shaming him for his actions, then attacks the (lower-caste/class) little boy who has always been held up as an example to him, and finally hops a train and leaves town.
14 years later, in the present day, he has returned. His little sister still adores him and his mother does as well, with reservations. But his father continues to insult and attack him. His uncle supports him, as does the little girl he used to play with as a child, who has always loved him and has now returned as the teacher of the village school. His sister, his mother, and the teacher all work to return to him the pride and happiness he felt as a youth. At the same time, his uncle, mother, and sister all convey their rejection of his father, thereby taking all the pride and happiness away from him. The central conflicts turn out to be within the family, not within the community. The largest of these is that his sister’s wedding is almost canceled because of his actions, but her fiance steps forward and insists that he wants to marry the girl, not her brother or her father, so what does it matter what they do?
You know who the real heroes of this film are? The real outside the box thinkers? His mother, his girlfriend, his sister, and his brother-in-law. They are inspired by our hero, not because they want to be like him, but because they see him as an example of the worst possibilities of a rule-bound society. The society represented by his teacher father, which respects rote learning and awards more than personal satisfaction and self-worth. Mohanlal’s self-worth was so completely destroyed, that he has returned as an adult, still unable to take pride in anything he does, constantly lashing out at his tormentors and those he sees as tormenting others.
(Also, I love the image of his teacher girlfriend wearing his sunglasses)
The way to “fix” this is not violence, not big fight scenes, but small gestures such as his brother-in-law insisting on marrying the girl he likes, whether she has been arrested, or her brother gets into fights, or her father refuses to attend the wedding. He is breaking the cycle of shame and regret instead of adding to it. By the way, I really liked this actor and I can’t figure out who it was from the credits; does anyone know?
I was really excited at the possibility of a non-violent ending, which seemed like where this was going. One by one, Mohanlal’s entire family leaves his father, from his uncle to his sister (who rejects all his dowry jewels and wears only the necklace given her by her brother) to his mother, who walks off once her daughter is married. I was extremely hopeful that the happy ending would be his father being alone and bitter, punished for being a terribly authority figure who valued the honor his children could give him more than their happiness. But, that only happens in Telugu films (Munna), not Malayalam! (if there is a Malayalam film where the parental figure is never redeemed and is left to die alone, let me know!)
(Of course, without a father, he is tragically unable to afford tank tops that are big enough)
Instead of a “happy” ending with our hero surrounded by loved ones and his father alone, we get a downer ending. Which kind of condemns his father even more. If it had ended with the whole family siding with Mohanlal instead of his father, then the lesson would be that his father is punished, Mohanlal wins, everyone is happy; the wounds of childhood can be healed. Instead, his father forgives him at the last minute, but it is too late. The scars of his childhood and what they turned him into can’t be brushed over so easily.
Mohanlal’s father taught him violence and self-hatred. Mohanlal turned that outward into escalating attacks on all those in authority. And finally, even once he reunites with his father and heels the scars of that relationship, the events have already been set in motion that will destroy him. His violence will result in revenge against him that causes his father’s death, which results in vengeance for the death, and the end is Mohanlal being taken away from his home again, to sit in jail.
Which brings me to the central image of the film, the clockwork hand that Mohanlal builds to ring the school bell, and which his father destroys. Just as the gears set in motion for the hand to move, so are the events of his childhood inevitable gears that force the events of the present day. As surely as the hand will ring the bell, so will his character end up in jail or dead one day because of lessons he was taught in childhood.
Also, hey! The actor who plays Mohanlal’s Dad was the grandfather in Ustad Hotel! He was so loveable in that! I can’t believe it was the same guy!