Priyadarshan! I love Priyadarshan, his comedies are always funny, and yet somehow heartbreaking. Sort of “you look at the worst situation possible, and you can either laugh or you can cry” feeling. And somehow I did not realize until I watched this film that he came out of the Malayalam industry.
This Priyadarshan film in particular seems to be about a light-hearted love story, and it is really, but it is also about the power structures within rural villages. It’s right there in the opening; it doesn’t open by describing the character’s backstory or anything like that, but by situating us within rural Kerala, villages with their own habits and practices.
I want to be clear, it isn’t making fun of these villages. Or even saying they are all bad. But it is saying that the way everyone knows everyone else’s business, and feels they have the right to judge it, is specific to villages. And that is what creates the movement of the narrative, not any love story or revenge story or ox race.
Our hero and heroine fall in love outside the village, while traveling. They return and find themselves within the village’s power structures, most prominent among them the control our hero’s employer/adopted older brother (Nedumudi) has over them. In the end, they run down a road, trying to reach the bus that will take them away from the village, chased by the villagers.
It’s the same ending as Sholay. Not the big fight scene that everyone remembers, but the end-end, Basanti and Veeru taking the train together out of Ramgarh. Ramgarh may be a generally good and decent village, but it doesn’t have space for non-conformists like Basanti and Veeru. There are some other similarities to the Basanti-Veeru relationship, with our heroine being an orphan, being strong minded, first meeting our hero through a hired cart, and their romance progressing more through flirting and teasing than big romantic declarations.
(Carts: Super romantic!)
I don’t think these similarities are a coincidence. Not that Priyadarshan sat down and said “I am going to do a new version of the Veeru-Basanti romance!”, but that within the restrictions of a village film, there are only certain ways a man and woman can interact as equals, and only certain paths for the kind of independent minded heroine that is Basanti and Karthumbi here.
Going back to how this film (and Sholay) begins its romance, if you want a romance in which the hero and heroine are able to get to know each other isolated from other influences, and you want to set it in a village, you kind of have to use travel. And cart travel is the best kind. It gets them out of the constant scrutiny of their community and, within a tiny cart, which only two people can comfortable share, whether it is Veeru and Basanti talking while Jai rides in the back, or Mohanlal grumpily driving while Shobhana makes herself at home in the rear.
The heroine being strong-minded, and an orphan, and romancing through flirtatious give and take, also rise out of the village setting. I mean, Basanti is awesome, but can you really see any man in that village being brave enough to woo her? Or her aunt being strong enough to force her into a marriage with someone she didn’t like? The only choice left for her is to try to find a man on her own, one who will appreciate her uniqueness. Which Veeru definitely does!
(See how much he appreciates her!)
The same conundrum is true for Shobhana’s character in this film, with a slight twist. She does have a relative who is strong enough to force her into a marriage. Well, who is at least willing to try. But she escapes him using her wits, and ends up with Mohanlal. Who she tortures and teases and drives to distraction, until they finally fall in love. Again, it is a matter of strength meeting strength. Notice that she first gives him a bit of a “hey! Who is this?!?!?” glance because he yelled at her and tried to throw her out of his cart, possibly the first man in her life not to swoon at her beauty, or treat her with a courtesy that masks an assumption of weakness. This is not a girl who could be easily married off within a village, she is too beautiful, too strong minded, too much of everything for the usual villager. So she needs to find someone different and escape with him.
The big difference is, in Sholay, they leave the village entirely at the end, while here they merely escape to a second village. Also, if I am understanding this correctly, the “bad” village where she comes from, the one under the thumb of her evil brother-in-law, that is in Tamil Nadu? And the “good” village that Mohanlal is from is in Kerala? So there’s a whole other political message going on there! Especially since the “bad” village is established as being more closely tied to the national government, with the evil brother-in-law being a police officer, and calling on the police for justice in general, instead of using the Panchayat (like in the “good” village).
But the “good” village isn’t that great either. Really, when you write out the backstories for Priyadarshan movies, they sound much more like some sort of crazed Greek tragedy than a raucous comedy! If I am understanding this correctly, Mohanlal’s boss/foster brother Nedumudi has a beloved older sister. She was married off to a local land owner, who was crazy and killed himself and their child. She was thrown out of the house, and Nedumudi moved to this village and set up a household with the goal of shaming his sister’s in laws. And because of this goal, and his devotion to his sister, he has put off his own marriage. Correct? Sort of?
Meanwhile, Mohanlal’s family had worked for the Nedumudi’s family for generations, and Mohanlal’s father and younger sister live on a small farm some distance away (yes? Close enough for visits, but not right next door?). Mohanlal himself seems to have been working for Nedumudi since a young age amd regards him as a brother, and his older sister as a older sister/mother.
This is a happy family and a happy household, but it is also an unnatural one. Mohanlal has been separated from his own family in order to provide support and love to another family. His boss needs that support and love, because he is giving all his familial affection to his sister. And his sister is receiving it, because she was cheated out of her own household by her in-laws. All three of them are an unbalanced triangle, one that will inevitably break.
Which is what happens when Shobhana enters their life, and falls in love with Mohanlal while Mohanlal’s boss falls for her. If this had been an actual familial relationship, things would be much more open and easy. Heck, it would be a movie we have seen many times before, from Yeh Dillagi to Chal Mere Bhai to Hum Aapke Hain Koun (boy, they dipped into this well a lot in the 90s!). The two brothers are in love with the same women and it becomes a test of the younger brother’s respect for his elder, versus the elder’s responsibility for the younger. But in this case, while Mohanlal feels respect and obligation towards Nedumudi, Nedumudi does not feel the correct amount of love and responsibility towards him. They are not “really” brothers. And they cannot appeal to the elder in the family for a decision either, as the sister is not “really” Mohanlal’s sister either. And she isn’t even “really” Nedumudi’s elder. Not the same way a mother or an aunt or stepmother would be. Although she may have helped raise him, she is still of the same generation, “merely” a sister.
(Chal Mere Bhai may have a predictable plot, but it makes up for it with great songs!)
And what is the source of all this agony and discontent and dysfunctional households and unnatural relationships? Women! Or rather, how women are abused in a village society. It all goes back to the sister being forced into marriage with a man who turned out to be mentally ill. If she had been allowed to marry a better husband, one she chose herself, she would now be a happy wife and mother with her own household. Her brother would have been able to marry when he wanted and would now have his own household as well. Mohanlal would still be a loyal and trusted servant, but there would be less confusion as to his place within the family, as he would not need to take the place of other actual relatives. And the introduction of a romance and a woman into Mohanlal’s life would not serve as a threat to the stability of the entire household.
It is a theme that comes up again and again in the film, how the atmosphere of the village serves to limit women’s agency, especially their sexual agency. Way back at the beginning, before they even meet Shobhana, Nedumudi is able to take control of the Panchayat after proving that the light skin color of a baby is not enough to prove that its mother was unfaithful to her dark skinned husband. What is done so well in this scene is that the director, and our heroic characters, do not necessarily care whether or not the woman was unfaithful. Their argument, and their actions, are based on a protest against taking evidence as scanty as the color of a baby’s skin against a woman’s word. There is no Sita-style trial by fire in order to prove the woman’s chastity. Just a clever argument against assuming her unchastity. They are taking a stand against the witch hunt quality of the trial itself and how it treats women.
Which is why the most evil action on the part of Nedumudi is when he gives into the Panchayat’s attitude’s towards women, and encourages the maidservant to accuse Mohanlal of “misbehaving” with her. We know he sees through this simple village attitude toward chastity, that it is an object which can be given or broken or taken away. But here he is, using these attitudes for his own ends, encouraging a woman to say away her chastity, and thereby make her as helpless as if she had really “lost” it. I mean really, she is losing it just by saying so, since chastity is an imaginary object that exists only in the minds of the community. And it is left to Mohanlal to protest against this the only way he can, trying to return it to the realm of the real and the practical, insisting for a baby as “proof” of his actions.
But this is just another way of showing the lack of agency for women and the troubles it brings. The maidservant is in love with Mohanlal, but it is the boss’ pressure which convinces her to lie to the Panchayat. And it is the other servant’s desire for her which causes him to back her. In the end, Mohanlal is the only one to give that agency back to her. Not by giving in to her demands, but by asking her to change her mind, withdraw her statement, and letting her make that decision on her own, instead of through coercion. I find the song sequence in which he convinces her really interesting, since it isn’t treated as comedy necessarily, or as romance, or as power. Mohanlal takes his task of persuading her somewhat seriously, treating her as an independent and intelligent human who has the right to make her own decisions, something that no one else has the decency to do.
And finally, it is another woman who shames Nedumudi into doing the right thing. His old girlfriend, who’s life has been blighted and forced into an unnatural pattern just like the rest of the main characters. Left to grow old, unmarried, waiting for her lover to finally be free of his dysfunctional family responsibilities, she is forgotten even by the audience for much of the film. Only to return at the end to shame her lover with his faithlessness, just as she is shaming the audience with our dismissive forgetfulness of her character.
And therefore, the happy ending is when she gets what she wants. Not Mohanlal, not Shobhana, not his boss, or the maidservant, or anyone else, but the forgotten middle-aged woman who life has passed by. Mohanlal and Shobhana are leaving the village, just like Veeru and Basanti. They can catch the bus and leave, never to return. But what about the women who can’t leave? Which is why the actual ending is Nedumudi returning to the village, with his new bride, the woman who has been waiting so long. And the moral Pryadarshan ends with, literally having Nedumudi say it as the last line of the film, is that it is important for a woman to marry the man she wants, not just the man who wants her.