How Old Are You?: Wait, Do I Only Have 5 Years To Be Relevant?

This was one of those movies that was recommended to me more as an “it’s okay I guess, and kind of interesting” than as an “oh my god, Best. Film. Ever.” kind of thing.  And I agree, it is okay and kind of interesting!

It reminded me a lot of Mili (no, not the Hindi one, I still haven’t seen that one.  The other one, from Kerala), I mean it’s basically the same plot, a depressed woman finds a purpose and passion in life and everything gets better.  But allllllllllllll of the details are different.  Starting, and most importantly, with the heroine’s age.

(Also, the poster looks different.  I think I liked this movie better, but I like Mili‘s poster more)

Okay, so, I am about to turn 31.  And I was feeling pretty good about that!  I’ve got a Masters, I’ve got a blog, I’ve got a book.  I have loads of friends and a studio apartment and a 16 year old car and 500 DVDs and an unlimited monthly pass on public transit.  I mean, it’s not everything I want in life.  Someday I want a a thousand DVDs and a one-bedroom apartment to store them in.  But I was thinking this was sort of a nice start, and I’ve got plenty of time to figure out the rest.

But apparently not!  The whole point of this movie is that our heroine, age 36, is over-the-hill, life has passed her by, and she has just given up.  Or at least, that is how society and her family and friends and co-workers see her.  Which is still pretty bad.  So, I’ve only got 5 years left to prove my worth to society.  Gah!!!

The hidden message is that 36 is when you are past prime child-bearing years.  That is both why our heroine at age 36 is starting to be discounted by the world, and why she was married so young to begin with (her daughter is 14, which means she would have been married at 21), to take advantage of that.  This is of course a problem world-wide.  Right when you are in your prime career years, with knowledge and maturity, but also loads of energy, is also right when you are in your prime child-bearing and caring years, for the same reasons.

There is the solution a lot of people choose, or just end up with without thinking about it, of putting children aside until their careers are in place, and then crossing their fingers and preparing for a potential battle to achieve motherhood.  But there is also an alternative option you hear about sometimes, where women choose to be young mothers, and plan to start their careers afterwards.  It’s something some people are consciously choosing now, but it is also something that often just happens.  My grandmother, for instance, was a stay at home mother for 16 years, and then when her youngest turned 14, she went back to school and got her Masters, and worked for another 25 years.

The hardest part is finding the time.  Not the time like “time in the day to do all this stuff”, but time like “when is the moment that I should stop thinking about family and start thinking about me again?”  The whole film, age 36 is being positioned as “out of time”.  But really, what the heroine finds out and what the film shows, is that it is instead the “perfect time”.

Oh, and SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

Our heroine, played by Manju Warrior (what an awesome name!  And she was the perfect actress for this role, having been extremely promising when she first launched, and then disappearing for 14 years while she married and raised a family), is the mother of a teenage girl, the wife of an ambitious radio announcer, and works at a government office all day.  She can’t really bring herself to be interested in any of this, she reads magazines and gossips at work, she doesn’t bother with her at home garden, she can’t bring herself to care that much about her husband’s job, and she loves her daughter but has a hard time relating to her.  Or, put more simply, she is suffering from depression to such a degree that she has lost the ability to feel or do or care about anything.

Things show the possibility of changing when she learns that her daughter’s school was visited by the President of India.  And the question her daughter asked him so interested him that he asked to meet the woman who inspired the question (Manju).  Manju is excited and enjoys the perks and interest around her new experience, but is also dreading it and nervous, because she doesn’t even know what the question was her daughter asked and can’t get her to tell.  Finally, when she is face to face with the President, she faints.  It turns into an internet meme, and everything about her life gets worse.  Culminating in her husband deciding that it would be best for their daughter to go abroad with him rather than stay in India with her mother.  Interval!

(From the release date of the movie, I think it is supposed to be this President?)

I really have to deal with the first half now, before moving on, because the first half of this movie is so disconnected from the second half.  And I’m going to start at the end and go back, because I found the conclusion fascinating in how it played out.  When I read the plot synopsis for this film, I just could not get past the idea of her husband and daughter going to Ireland and leaving her behind.  But the way they build to it, and the way the decision is presented, it makes complete sense.  First, there was a problem all along with her getting a Visa.  Her husband really wanted to go and was excited.  But if she couldn’t get a Visa, or a job, they weren’t sure if the rest of the family could go.  It would be expensive to live there as a family, they would need a second income, and of course it went without saying that a daughter needs a mother.  So it wasn’t like there was a set in stone plan for them to all travel together and then it was changed, the plan was always in flux.

What isn’t said, but what we see, is that Manju is already working for an income, and it is killing her!  She has no interest or enjoyment in her job.  And then she comes home and is too tired to think beyond the basics of housekeeping, making meals and making sure her family is clothed and the house is tidy.

Her husband confronts her at one point with how she never talks about outside interests, or expresses an interest in what he does, it is all “how many chillis were in the curry” and “how expensive milk is”.  She comes back with “that is important to me!  That matters!”  And I agree, it does matter.  But I think the problem is, with working all day and coming home to a needy family, she doesn’t have time to discover anything else that is important, anything else to care about.  So the little she does have control over becomes increasingly large to her mind.

And now this Ireland plan relies on her living the same kind of life, but even more so.  The job will be harder and less interesting, the housework will be more complicated (and without the comfort and company of her mother and father-in-law).  And her husband and daughter will have even less respect for her, as they move ever forward in their lives in the new country (the daughter is excited about the “top school” she will be attending).  It’s not that her husband is forbidding her from the great dream of her life (at least, not when he goes to Ireland without her.  He may be doing that at other points), he is actually saving her, whether he realizes it or not.  I think she knows how horrible moving would be for her, which is why she is resisting the Ireland plan all along.  The first scene of the film is her tanking an interview for an Ireland job, more through lack of interest and focus than anything else.

The biggest issue of the move is her daughter.  And that’s where I think the film is saying something FASCINATING.  Her husband (Kunchacko Boban, who I think I saw in Law Point?) is making the correct choice for his daughter.  Her mother is depressed, she is losing her own sense of self, and sinking into similar despair.  He says, he wants to save her from living like her mother does.  In a bigger sense, I think the film is implying, he wants to save her from the fate of women in India, from having to give up her dreams for the sake of the family (in this case, her mother).

(This guy.  I hate the beard)

Which is great!  Go Feminist Fathers!  He wants his daughter to go to the top school, to chase her dreams, to have whatever she wants.  But he can’t see that his wife has the same dreams and the same desires, and deserves the same chances.  She is just “a wife”.

This goes back to the childbearing years issue.  If our daughters are encouraged to do whatever they want, if Indian societal shifts/natural love for your children can accomplish that, that is wonderful!  But then they hit 21, and get married off, and suddenly they change from your “daughter who can do anything!” to “just somebody’s wife, just somebody’s mother.”  So her husband is making the right choice as a father, the good feminist choice of letting his daughter be selfish and ambitious, but he doesn’t even see how he is constantly making the wrong choice for his wife.  And she has become so used to it, it has been so long since she thought of herself as anything besides a wife and mother, that she doesn’t see it either.

Oddly, the only one who does see it is her daughter.  Or, I guess, not oddly.  Since the daughter is both privy to the experience of being a woman, and still young and hopeful enough to see possibilities of change.  I would not have expected the resolution of their relationship from their first few interactions, but as the second half of the movie unfolded, it all began to make sense.

Now, Second Half!  The thought of her daughter being so miserable and unhappy with her that she would need to travel around the world has shaken Manju.  And right at the perfect time, her best friend from college reaches out to her.  The friend is now an important leading business woman, and she can’t believe that Manju has become a quiet shy housewife.  In college, Manju was a firebrand who lead protests and forced change.  Just like her daughter, this is someone who isn’t blinded by the male perspective, which just accepts that women have to be like this, or fails to see all the forces that are making them like this, and this is also someone who can still see possibilities for change (which Manju is blind to as she has become so wrapped up in the day to day).  With her encouragement, Manju posts a video online, accepting all the criticism leveled at her for her fainting spell, and moving past it.

(Kanika plays the friend from college.  I’ve seen her before in My Big Father, which was terrible, and OK Kanmani, which was great but I have no memory of her)

With the little extra spark and energy this interaction and resolution gives her, Manju decides to take a few of the vegetables growing in her rooftop garden over to an ill friend.  The friend gives them to a wealthy wedding planner.  And the wedding planner asks to buy vegetables from her for a wedding in a few months.

The vegetables are so interesting as a symbol.  First, practically, it is a great choice to show something within the “women’s realm” (a garden out of the home, food preparation, weddings) that is also a major issue of business and of public health.  It’s not saying that she has to leave the women’s realm to make a difference because the women’s realm is less important, it’s saying that she needs to be brave and expand her interests and fully understand the importance and possibilities of what she is already doing.

Secondly, the first time the vegetables are mentioned, it is when she uses some from the garden to make dinner one night.  She hasn’t had time to tend the garden in weeks but, she says to her husband, “they were growing there anyway, just on their own.”  That’s how Manju has been growing.  Her soil is so rich, even without any attention paid or effort, she can’t help but blossom out.  She just needs someone to notice and take what she offers.

The vegetable plan is a huge success, she gives a speech at a government workshop on the efficacy of rooftop gardens and the importance of growing natural pesticide free food, and she is offered the chance to head a whole government initiative for this.  Not to mention, she has gotten all the neighbors to start their own gardens, and involved her friends from work in getting a loan to pay for all this.

(Only song of the movie.  But it’s a really nice one)

And that’s when her husband comes back and “rewards” her by offering her a Visa to Ireland, and admitting that she is needed by both he and, more importantly, their daughter.  This is how English/Vinglish ends, essentially, with Sridevi’s happy ending to finding herself being a reunion with a more appreciative family.  In my post on it, I talked about how the big message of English/Vinglish is that mothers are people too, and we should appreciate their sacrifice and choices in putting their family first.

This film goes a different way.  She rejects the Visa, her husband, and the whole idea that she needs to put her family first.  And it works!  I mean, as a “happy ending” for the film it works.  It also works for the character, in the epilogue we see how her marriage is ultimately much stronger for this temporary separation.  But I was dreading this ending, because I just didn’t see how I could sympathize with someone who puts their family last.  But the way they build to it, just like building to her family leaving her at the interval, it all makes sense.

First, there is the age thing.  Or, not age exactly, but life point.  In English/Vinglish, it feels like Sridevi reached the point of seeing that she needed more than just her children to feel complete a few years back.  That’s when she started her catering business out of her home, and she gets a lot of pleasure out of that.  She doesn’t need a huge change to her life, she already changed her life, she just needs a change to how she feels about her life, and how her family sees it.

And second, there is a difference in how the husbands approach the issue.  In English/Vinglish, her husband is kind of a jerk in how he treats her.  He makes fun of her inability to speak English, her tends to ignore her stories about her life, he doesn’t really “see” her any more.  But he also does a lot of good things.  He encourages her to visit her sister and makes all the arrangements for it.  He helps out with the kids (he is usually the one to go to their daughter’s parent-teacher conferences).  He may not think she is educated, but he never acts like he thinks she is dumb, or lazy, or just there to serve him.  He may make fun of her to her face, but never behind her back (although some of the jokes he shares with their daughter while she is in the room are a little cruel).  Basically, he treats her with respect.  In this film, by the very end, Manju’s husband has reached the point that Sridevi’s husband was at the beginning.  He finally respects her and is ready to work with her to figure out the future of the family, instead of just plowing ahead with his own plans and informing her as to what will happen next.

And third, and most importantly, while Sridevi was on a journey of self-fulfillment, Manju is on a bigger journey and has dragged other people along with her.  Sridevi could take her fulfilled self back to India and be happy.  Manju can’t take all the neighbors who are part of the scheme, the co-workers who helped fund it, the politicians who want to expand it, with her to Ireland.  She would be abandoning not just her dreams, but all the people who believe in her.  The needs of her family are just not enough to balance that.

This is the very female conundrum the film faces.  At what point do you stop serving your family and start serving the world?  At what point does it become not selfish, but necessary?  And is the pull between these two needs the reason women so rarely have the opportunity to serve the world?

 

Which is where the mother-daughter theme comes full circle.  It all started with her daughter’s question.  And now, at the end, Manju is able to articulate what that question must have been.  Has there been only one female President of India, and only one female Prime Minister because no other woman had the talent, or because no other woman was allowed?  Basically, is the problem with women, or with society?

Knowing that her daughter came to that question by watching her mother, Manju also knows that, while her husband may not understand her staying to finish what she set out to do, her daughter will.

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14 thoughts on “How Old Are You?: Wait, Do I Only Have 5 Years To Be Relevant?

  1. This film created awareness about importance of pesticide free vegetables. It created good impact on society. Because kerala is a consumer state most of the food stuffs are importing from neighbours states like, AP, TN. The farmers using pesticides unscientifically. It caused cancer. In kerala cancer patients are increasing. This film came on right time when kerala were debating on importance of food without any chemicals And how could we cultivate it in highly populated place like kerala.

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  2. Considering that both the actresses were making a comeback after so many years, it’s inevitable that Manju is compared to Sri Devi.But Sri is such a sweet lady in English-Vinglish.She’s never sarcastic or even mean.Manju is more competitive, sarcastic with the newbie who points out that she’s supposed to be working when she’s actually reading gossipy magazines, and has no compunctions about using her prospective visit to the President to gloat a little over her rival.Both of them have supportive in-laws,(Sri’s MIL and Manju’s FIL),fabulous saris and great friends.It says a lot about Manju’s family that only her friend was willing to stay overnight at the hospital with her.Sri’s husband is more oblivious than truly cruel, he takes her granted for so long.But Manju’s husband is a nasty piece of work.He persuaded her to accept his driving misdemeanor in her name, essentially abandoned her and had no compunctions about using his daughter to blackmail her to come to Ireland at a crucial time.She promised to come over after settling things at home, but no it had to be right now because he just couldn’t accept that his wife was becoming more popular and successful than him.Kunchako Boban should be congratulated for having the courage to play such a negative role.I wonder how many popular actors in Bollywood would have the courage to play the same role in a woman-centric movie? They’d rather get Sunil Shetty or some less popular actor to play the role.

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    • I saw Sridevi’s sweetness as a symptom of how, ultimately, she was happy with her life. Her little business and caring for her family were enough to fulfill her, she just wanted a little more respect. But Manju, from what we learn, was never cut out to be a housewife, or a petty office worker, and her unhappiness in those roles is making her lash out at the world. And then once she is able to find something that fully uses her talents, she is much nicer.
      The husband was such a jerk! They really should have just shown her and her daughter at the 2 years later epilogue, and let us assume that the marriage was dead. Especially because we saw over and over again how the husband kept her trapped in this life, forcing her to keep offering things she didn’t want to give. But of course the martiage has to survive, so there he is at the end, mouthing words of support.
      I was trying to think who played a similar role in Hindi film, and Shahrukh in KANK was a pretty terrible husband. But he also got a whole love story of his own, and that movie flopped anyway, so it’s not a very good example!

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  3. I got the impression (though it wasn’t spelled out clearly at the end) that the marriage was more in name than anything else.More of a case of the parents staying together for the sake of the child.She’s talking about taking her daughter on a European trip and there is no mention of the husband accompanying her.I think they deliberately left the end a little ambiguous.

    The lady on the bus is a real hoot.She’s the same actress who played Indrajith’s mother in Left RIght Left.A number of character actors left the scene these past years(Kalpana died,Innocent is more interested in politics these days,Jagathy is paralyzed).Malayalam movie industry is desperately in need of new character actors.

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  4. Speaking Malayalam? Not necessary 🙂 We have excellent dubbing artists here.Many of the top heroines (eg:Shobana) prefer not to use their voice in the movies.Heck they even dubbed Suzanne Bernart in the tv-show Chakravartin Ashok Samrat.And her Hindi is ok and she’s supposed to play a Greek princess anyway.

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