Ustad Hotel was like the second Malayalam film I saw. First Bangalore Days, then Ustad Hotel, then Ohm Shaanti Oshana. At the time I saw it first, I had nooooooooooo idea what was going on for long stretches of the film. But now I have seen like 30 Malayalam films in 6 months, so I know everything!
The big thing I learned in the past 6 months is how many connections there are between the Gulf and Kerala! The first time I watched this movie, heck, the first time I even heard the plot of this movie from the friend who lent it to me, I was very confused by that connection. First, because the Indian movie heroes are always from cool Western countries like Australia or England or America, not fellow Eastern countries. Second, because the only mass guest worker immigration to the Gulf I had heard about was from Kashmir and Pakistan, not Kerala.
I was also very confused by the Muslim hero. The hero is never a Muslim! The heroine, MAYBE, but it is a HUGE deal! And that part got even more confusing while I was watching it, because not only was his religion not a HUGE deal, the Muslim community in general was different from what I was used to seeing. More burkas, but also more freedom, which was strange.
But, now, I have learned so much more! First, that Kerala has a decades old relationship with the Gulf, which is commonly shown in films, so the whole Gulf upbringing thing wasn’t actually an unusual defining trait for our hero, it was just kind of normal. Second, that Kerala is really nice and open about religion. Not perfect, of course, no place on earth is, but way way more willing to have a Muslim hero character than a Hindi film would be. So that wasn’t a big defining trait really either. And third, that because of this large comfortable Muslim community, and the Gulf interactions, being a Muslim in Kerala is slightly different than in other states, just like the film shows.
Which isn’t to say I have learned everything I need to learn yet, I still have loads of questions. Speaking of! Why do the hijabs look so different? I noticed it with Moideen’s mother in Ennu Ninte Moideen, and then I noticed it again in this movie at one point when Nithya Menon puts her Hijab back on, I was able to see it clearly. The fabric is big and loose, and tied down around their head, with a front part that flips back and up from their forehead. It’s really flattering, actually, and interesting to look at, but it is also something I haven’t seen before, in films or real life. Is it a Gulf style? Or something that is unique to Malayalam/Southern Muslim women? Or is it not even a Hijab, just a scarf style from the region?
I have also learned that Thilakan is the Worst. Father. EVER. (thanks to Spadikam and Kireedam. And hey! He was in Punjabi House too! He wasn’t the greatest there either). I was kind of dreading this re-watch, trying to find him loveable here after learning to hate him elsewhere. But, strangely, it kind of worked! I mean, his character had these layers, and one of those layers was that Dad from Spadikam.
All the characters had layers, actually. This is one of the things I learned early on with Hindi films, that the audience is expected to bring in all sorts of outside knowledge to the characters. I mean, the characters and films work fine in isolation, but with the extra background, they are even stronger.
In this, it’s not just Thilakan, but also Dulquer and Nithya Menon and all the many many character actors that have a greater depth thanks to all the other films I have watched by now. Most of the character actors, I didn’t recognize their names and I couldn’t tell you what part they played in other movies, but I know I have seen them before. And before in, like, older films. The same kind of films where I saw Thilakan. Because of this, there was a vague sense of Thilakan and his employees sharing the same universe for years, all of which just served to heighten my sense of what a safe and stable and long term relationship all the characters they were playing had to each other.
There were little things like that with Dulquer and Nithya as well. His story of a son trying to break away from a father, just picked up meaning knowing that he is the son of Mammootty. Nithya playing the traditional girl with hidden depths picked up on my knowledge of her later roles, as the modern carefree girl with no fears.
(And also as the carefree confident olden times girl in Urumi)
But Thilakan was the best, let me swing back to him for a moment. I thought I would have a hard time seeing him as the sweet grandfather, after seeing him as the hard line unforgiving father in so many things. But it all worked together, didn’t it? The film only briefly touched on Thilakan’s relationship with his son, just enough to show that it was strained, that his son felt like he had to leave, like they couldn’t relate. And that, possibly, Thilakan was trying to make up for those mistakes with Dulquer. The film didn’t need to do more than touch on this, because the audience could fill in the gaps with all the many many authoritarian father roles they had seen Thilakan play. They could understand what kind of a father he might have been when he was young, and why he would have driven his son away.
The best part about having all this background now is that instead of being distracted by all the things I didn’t know and actors I couldn’t recognize, I could watch the film just for the film. And there were so many things I picked up on this watch that I missed the first time around! Like, Dulquer’s father re-married? Totally missed that!
And now I need to put in a SPOILER warning, I guess? Although it’s not really a SPOILER kind of movie. Regardless, SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
The opening is FASCINATING. Well, the very very opening is just the camera moving through a house, starting in the kitchen, which is going to be a recurring theme. But then the sequence continues, with Dulquer’s mother telling his father that she is pregnant. Only, the baby is a girl, and his father is disappointed. 3 more times this happens, and each time she gets pregnant again right away, trying for a boy. And finally, a boy is born, only the mother dies, worn out by so many pregnancies. Dulquer’s father takes his 5 children with him to Dubai, and leaves to work and make them rich while his daughters raise his son.
On the one hand, love the message of killing the mother to gain a son. I mean, the message that we shouldn’t do that. But I think there is something else going on as well. I think it is saying something about what we think we should want versus what we actually want. Dulquer’s father killed his wife trying to get a son. And then once he has him, he just leaves him to be raised by his sisters. Did he really want a son, or did he just think that he should have one?
There is also entitlement in there, that he will have a son because he has decided he wants one, and that the son will be exactly as he likes him. Despite no effort being made to turn him into that. It would be one thing if the film showed Dulquer’s father trying to spend time with Dulquer, to mold him into a businessman, to make him into what he wants from a son. But now, he takes the baby, abandons it, and then expects years later that the child will grow into exactly what he wants.
(See, in K3G, Amitabh was legitimately surprised when Shahrukh rebelled against him, because he had put in some real time making Shahrukh over into his image)
The interesting thing is, this is how Dulquer acts as well. He decides he wants to be a chef, he wants his white girlfriend, he wants everything right now just as he wants it. And he expects it all to fall into place. And, from the little we hear, that might have been how young Thilakan was as well, he wanted to be a pilgrim, so he ignored the needs of his wife and child and left, assuming his child would turn out fine anyway.
The film is making a fascinating statement on gender roles, that men are trained to assume it will all happen as they want it, it will all fall into place. And women learn to work around restrictions, to manage to get what they want despite fate. Dulquer and Thilakan exist in both places at once, by the end of the film. Thilakan because he is an old man who runs a small cafe, and he knows what it is like to be used and ignored by those in power, whether it is the nearby luxury hotel or his own son and grandson. And Dulquer because his father continually abandons him to be raised by those who have no power.
Dulquer moves back and forth in learning this lesson, we see early on his childhood in the magic place of the kitchen, the female realm where the women make the decisions that really matter in a household. He recognizes that once his father remarries and his sisters leave the home, there will be no place for him in that realm anymore. And he uses the subtle weapons he learned from his sisters to maneuver his father into helping him get what he wants, chef training overseas.
But that training teaches him to see the kitchen as a male realm again, as a place of power, and he decides he has the ability to marry who he wants, do what he wants, and he ignores the danger in his choices. That is what his sisters react to when they decide it is time to call him home. Not the white girlfriend, but what she represents, a rejection of any sense of limits or sacrifice.
(See also: Sarkar. Man, that’s a good movie! I’ve really got to re-watch it)
His lesson begins even before he meets his sisters’ preferred girl. When he arrives at the airport, he suffers through awkward hugs and greetings from his father and multiple other older powerful men. But then his one true greeting and open loving embrace is from Abdullah, the servant. This is where he truly belongs, far far down on the power balance. He should not expect his escape to the west to be so easy, or be so cavalier about his plans for the future.
The girl he meets is Nithya, and she is awesome in this, of course, more than capable of accepting his modern ways and girlfriend and everything else. But she also gives him another lesson on understanding his place and working within limitations, when she explains that she agreed to an arranged marriage because her family expects it, but she has certain requirements of her own. Again, Dulquer refuses to learn the lesson, and his confident declarations of love for a white woman and plans to move to Europe lead directly to his banishment to India.
The first time I watched this, I found Dulquer’s father’s theft of his passport shocking. What belongs to a person more than their passport? But this time, I almost cheered. Dulquer’s passport is not something he earned on his own, nothing is. He has his transnational life thanks to his father’s efforts and his sister’s sacrifices. He needs to learn to value it, not just enjoy the fruits of their labors. To learn how to move through the world humbly and cautiously.
Which is what happens when he meets Nithya again, in India. Now, she is in a rock band and he is driving a delivery van. He calls her on her brave talk of being traditional girl, and she is unapologetic and reminds him that he was supposed to be a top chef. This is life, being many things at once, and none of them at the same time. Dulquer forgot that, he thought he could create himself into the one thing he most wanted to be. He couldn’t erase his Indianness, his obligations to his father, his love for his grandfather, just by an announcement that he would be working over seas, any more than Nithya could erase her wild heart simply because her family would prefer her traditional.
(Also, I love this song)
Which is where Dulquer’s father comes back. Ages ago, in the middle of a fight over Dulquer’s chef dreams, he had mentioned that he had been running for years from being called the “cook’s son”, turning himself into a businessman, and now Dulquer just wants to be a cook again? His father did exactly what Dulquer wants to do at the start, run away and re-invent himself, pretend the past never happened. And it takes him 20 years to realize what Dulquer learns in a few months, that the past is always there, it is just a matter of accepting and integrating it into who you are today.