That’s a little unfair, it really doesn’t have much in common with Dr. Kildare, beyond the basic set-up of the wise older doctor mentoring the young one. But it’s in the country instead of the city, and there is a whole bunch of other stuff going on in the plot as well.
Did you know Dr. Kildare started as a hard-bitten mystery series? The idea was, a young promising doctor from a nice loving home in the country is working in a city hospital, where he has the opportunity to interact with all kinds of low criminals when they come in to be patched up following gang fights. And he uses those connections to help solve mysteries.
This is a fun kind of story, but not really a timeless one. Dr. Kildare was first invented in the 1930s in America, when the depression meant that crime rates were going up and up, and that more and more people were pouring in from the country to the city. So a story about a doctor from the country navigating the crime of the city would strike a chord with all those recently arrived city folks struggling with the growing power of the mobs. Plus, large hospitals and surgeries and all of that stuff was all cutting edge and exciting, doctor’s seemed like superheroes. Now, cities and hospitals aren’t that exciting, and crime doesn’t feel that uncontrollable and ever present. But the idea of the saintly young doctor, struggling with his powers and responsibilities, that is timeless!
And thank goodness for Hollywood script doctors, because that was the idea they rescued from the Dr. Kildare stories. Instead of looking at crime and mysteries, they focused on the way young Dr. Kildare learned how to navigate the waters of medicine with the mentorship of old Dr. Gillespie. It became a hit series of films, which lead to a hit radio show, which lead to a hit TV show. Even a comic book!
(Dr. Gillespie is so smart, he can sit on top of a skyscraper!)
More important than the direct line of “Dr. Kildare” products, is the influence this concept had on other works of art. Suddenly, all medical dramas had to be about a young and emotional and impulsive doctor being guided by a wise old mentor. And it’s still true today!
I don’t think Ayalum Njanum Thammil ripped off Dr. Kildare, I think Dr. Kildare picked up an essential element of the medical field. Since there is so much supervision and training required, and things are changing so rapidly, you are always going to end up with these conflicts between the wiser and more mature supervisor and the younger and more cutting edge student.
Which brings me to Prithviraj! In most movies, our journey would be from a young passionate doctor to an older more reasoned one who better understands how to get things done and the price of sacrifice. In this one, we go from a young and reasoned doctor to an old and passionate one.
But passion is always more cinematic, so we start with present day grey-haired passionate Prithviraj, and then flashback to him in med school. Prithviraj is, predictably, excellent. But I was especially interested watching how his med school self is the same and yet different from his character in Classmates.
This is the same director as Classmates, and the same structure, so it’s really noticeable. We start in the present day, there is a mystery, various present day people piece it together by telling their memories of past times, and just as the past reaches a resolution in their memories, they put together the final piece of the puzzle to figure out the present. Most importantly, in both films, the central mystery is not so much what happened in the present, but about what happened to the characters to change them from their past selves to their present ones.
In Classmates, we saw Prithviraj as a somewhat restrained, dignified, lonely man. Our first view of his character is when a servant comes in to wake him. He is wealthy, he works hard (he is tired from working all day), and he has no one besides servants in his life. And then we go back and see him as a youth, full of fiery passion and power, surrounded by loyal friends and enemies. What happened?
Here, it is the reverse in terms of personality, we see Prithviraj as a passionate and committed doctor, willing to go to great lengths for his patients. And then we go back and see him in med school, failing a simple exam, and laughing about it with his fellow failure friend, then proceeding to enjoy campus hijinks and flirtation more than studies. But what both films have in common is that the younger time was when the world was brighter, the future seemed promising, and friends were everywhere. And now, everything is closing in on him and nothing can be treated casually any more. And the question is, what happened to change him from such a happy person to such a lonely one?
(Also, in Classmates he had a mustache)
I like the idea that it wasn’t one thing that changed him. That’s where the separate flashbacks structure really works well. We see what happened from varying perspectives from varying narrators, each providing an equally important piece of the puzzle. Oh, and SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER really you actually want to enjoy this as it unfolds in the film so don’t read if you haven’t seen SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
His old friend, one of the first to be called when he goes missing in the present day, provides the first bit of the puzzle. Remembering him as a carefree young med student, who failed his exams twice and has finally graduated, but is still hanging around campus, flirting with his longtime girlfriend and being indulged by his loving teachers. But then Prithviraj and his friend are both called into the principal’s office and given the choice of either serving 2 years in a rural hospital, or paying their 5 thousand rupee tuition bill.
His parents are questioned next and provide the next bit. They refused to pay the bill, confronting him with his inability to finish anything or take anything seriously, driving him to agree to rural service and to want to do it well. And then it is back to his friend, who provides a picture of his arrival at the remote country hospital through their letters and phone calls in the early days there.
This isn’t just a logical handing off between narrators, it also shows the development of Prithviraj’s character. In med school, he was close with his friend. And when he was banished to the rural hospital, he clung to those days and kept up a constant communication with this friend. Even the introduction of his father’s narration for just the brief moment of confrontation is important, showing how this scene was too embarrassing for him to ever share in full detail with his friend, so his father must tell it now.
And then we have the introduction of Dr. Supriya, Ramya Nambeesan’s character, who I loved!!! She knew Prithviraj in med school, they had a brief interaction when she reported his cheating on an exam and got him suspended for a year. But now, they are meeting again as fellow professionals, college days rivalries are meaningless, and they become friends. Not friends like he had at med school, not someone he laughs and jokes with, but someone he can share his worries with, who can give him advice, who honestly respects him and vice versa.
(She was in Traffic? I liked her more here)
She sees Prithviraj differently than his friends and family, as someone who can do better, who should be expected to do better. And as someone who has concerns and responsibilities beyond himself, beyond just his college love story or disrespect from his father. And it is her narration where we begin to see Prithviraj as he will be in the present day.
This is ignoring the two most important relationships in the film, because they are with people who are never allowed to narrate. First, his college romance with Samvrutha Sunil, who I saw before in Chocolate (and also Arabikkatha? But I have no memory of her there. Maybe the doctor?). This is a slow-burning tragedy. We know it’s going to be a tragedy from pretty early on, there is a mention that he lives in the hospital quarters because it is convenient for his work, which tells us that he doesn’t have a wife or family. But we don’t know why, did she die? Did they break up? Did they divorce? She is Muslim, so there is a built in incapability, but would that be enough to end the relationship?
I briefly thought that it would just be a simple issue of a long distance romance, when he agreed to go to the rural hospital and she had to stay to finish her med school. I thought maybe it would just quietly dissipate, that his relationship to her would die at the alter of his medical devotion. That happens all the time in American medical dramas! Or heck, in medical dramas from everywhere!
But then, just like making sure we know he is single now, Lal Jose makes sure we know there isn’t going to be a simple resolution to the end of the romance. He makes sure to have our hero vow he will marry her, come what may. So, great, now it has to be a tragedy!
There is another tragedy heavily foreshadowed, but I never saw how the two of them would line up. Even before he arrives at the hospital, Prithviraj is persecuted by a local constable who blames him for running into his jeep when it wasn’t his fault, and forces him to push the jeep back into it’s original position. Prithviraj reports him to his superior and gets him suspended. Only, there is a little tossed off line in that scene about the constable’s sick daughter. And I thought “Aha! He is going to have to treat the sick daughter and learn greater compassion and understanding or something!”
And that does happen, but before it does, the constable flexes his muscles and gets his revenge by preventing Prithviraj from reaching town in time for the registry marriage to his girlfriend, thereby losing her forever. That is the great tragedy of his life, the thing that lead him to loneliness, to put all his passion into his work, even into surgery, since it is mentioned that he only pursued advance studies to try to forget her. Or, is it?
The simple reading is that the constable prevented him from reaching in time, breaking his heart and ruining his life, and in return he enjoyed exercising his own petty powers and refusing treatment to the daughter. But he learned to be a better doctor from all of that, having seen the extant of his weakness, and now cannot bear to leave a patient untreated. The love story, the constable, they were just there to steer him to be a better doctor.
But, see, he was already running late even before the constable stopped him. And it isn’t that he missed his marriage by the several hours which the constable caused him to lose, it’s that he missed it by mere seconds. He could have still been there in just enough time if he had left the hospital just a few minutes earlier. And what delayed him at the hospital? Concern for a patient. It wasn’t the constable which broke his heart and destroyed his life and drove him to medicine, he had already been driven to medicine, the constable just exacerbated the situation.
And, more over, it wasn’t that he “lost his love”. He had already lost her. She was ready to marry him, but only in very specific circumstances. She couldn’t bring herself to run away from home, to defy her father, to run outside when he came to her house to get her. She could only bring herself to sneak out with elaborate planning and meet him for a registry marriage. It wasn’t just a failure of his love and devotion, it was a failure of hers. At least, that’s what I hope it was! The alternative is that it was an honor killing type of situation and she couldn’t go to him because her family would have killed her. But that would be really dark, to just leave a character in that kind of situation! So I prefer to read it that she could have left and only risked losing her family’s love, not her own life, and she chose their love over Prithviraj’s.
With all of this in mind, it’s not that the constable’s actions and this whole horrible almost-elopement are the tragedy that ended his romance. It’s that his romance was already over, thanks to her love for her family and his new found love for his profession, they just couldn’t see it yet. And that’s the other reason that his girlfriend isn’t one of the modern day narrators. She isn’t part of his life anymore so they can’t reach her, but also she never knew the man he is today. His best friend from college may have gotten little clues and indications from their letters and phone calls after graduation, but she only knew him in college, as the happy laughing joking charming guy. She would have nothing to contribute, no story to tell, which could explain the serious and dedicated healer of today. And if they had eloped, she would have found herself married to a stranger.
(But this song is still really pretty and really sad)
And then, finally, there’s the “Dr. Gillespie” character. The wise old mentor who teachers our hero what it is to be a real doctor. In the American versions, heck, in most versions, he would teach this through long speeches about responsibility to patients and dramatic examples and so on and so on. But in this, he just teaches through love. Not love for the patients, but love for Prithviraj. He only questions his professional habits once, gently indicating that perhaps he was allowed to pass out of medical school more thanks to his teachers kindness than to his own talent. And asking that he try to take patient care slightly more seriously. But all their other interactions are personal. He supports him in his romance, he comforts him when it fails, he reveals his failures as a parent and, without meaning to, how he sees Prithviraj as a son.
Prithviraj becomes a better doctor not because he learns to worry about the patients more (although that too), but because he learns to care for Pratap Pothen, his mentor. He doesn’t want to let him down, he wants to make his life easier, and so he starts to care for the patients more. We see this in small moments, slight increases in competency, changes in how he interacts with patients, increased comfort with them and concern for what may happen to them. It’s not just becoming a doctor, though, it’s in growing up, We see that in small changes to how he moves, Prithviraj is very loose and casual in the early college scenes, and very precise and aggressive in the present day. We see that change happening over his time with Pratap, he starts standing up straighter, moving a little faster, being a little more like a Man, not a Boy.
And in the end, he becomes too much of a Man. That is what we see in the present day. He is saving lives and working hard and taking everything seriously, but he is taking it a little too seriously. He is dedicating his life to trying to change a corrupt hospital, saving lives using the most modern and difficult of methods, but he has lost track of the simple joy of making a difference.
Which is what brings us full circle. At the end of the film, he is sitting on the same bench in front of Pratap’s hospital where he sat so many times during his 2 years there, laughing and happy for the first time in the present day. But, it is also a full circle of Pratap’s life. We heard earlier that Pratap used to be a big important doctor in the city. But he gave it all up to come back here and run his small hospital. We also hear that Pratap’s wife couldn’t understand it and divorced him, he seemingly lost everything, and yet he is happy.
Prithviraj went on to further studies, became an important doctor, seeking a distraction from his broken heart. But it didn’t fulfill him as much as his work back in that country hospital. The next steps for his character are left open, maybe he will end up with the hospital secretary who helped look for him (I hope not, I think she is too shallow), or maybe with his old colleague Ramya Nambeesan (I hope so! I think she was awesome and a good friend, and now she has a son but they live with her father, which makes me think the husband is out of the picture), or maybe he will live a solitary life saving lives in the country. But at least it is all available to him, he knows what it is to do work that matters, but enjoy life also, and he knows he has to return to that.
Oh, and the songs were great.