We are now almost a week into all Salman coverage (because Sultan has got me all excited!), but I decided it was time to take a break and slip in a Malayalam review, just for a change. And I picked the least Salman-y film of them all, Ozhimuri, all about the Matrilineal system.
This is an un-Salman film not because he is so “macho” in a superficial way, but because the men in this movie have all kinds of issues with powerful women and their own masculinity. And Salman NEVER has that! In fact, in his films, he is more likely to find a powerful woman attractive. And all signs point to that really really being the case in Sultan, with the whole falling-in-love-with-a-female-wrestler thing.
The Malayalam film structure always confuses me a little, but this one is super confusing! There’s the present day, which seems to cover at least a year if not longer. And there’s the past, which skips about between about 7 different decades. And the whole thing is set-up to make a point which I thought was obvious from the beginning, so that kind of confused me too.
I don’t mean the “I thought it was obvious!” to sound insulting to the intelligence of the film or the audience, just to make me sound ignorant. I wasn’t able to fully get into the mindset of the characters who kept looking for another explanation, before finally landing on the one that was the only one I could see from the beginning. I mean, the possibility of a deeper explanation never even occurred to me.
There is a little bit of a twist to it, or what can feel like a twist, with the whole investigation of the experiences in the life of the male character in order to more fully understand the female. But essentially, the whole thing is about a divorce because a marriage never quite worked out.
(this is a completely different movie in almost every way, but it also does a great job of showing how sometimes divorce is the happy ending)
The bigger message that I think the film is shooting for is that marriage has to be between equals, one partner can’t be afraid of the other, no matter the gender. So we see 3 generations of marriage, the first in which the man was afraid of the woman, the second in which the woman was afraid of the man, and finally the last, in which they are equals. And there is a bit of a complication in there with an investigation of how the parent-child relationship is part of the husband-wife one.
But ultimately, I’m not sure if it is saying that this all came about because of the matrilineal system that used to be in place, or if that was just a good way of making the personalities of the various people involved in the marriages in this family clear, so they set it in this time period/location. I think maybe a combination of the two? With a bent towards the side of “it’s just their personalities”. At least, it was open to that interpretation. And certainly that’s how I saw it!
What it is definitely saying is that it is unfair to blame people for becoming what you made them into. Whether it is an abusive husband who keeps going because he is never confronted with his actions, or a wife who does the same. People are what other people make them into, and everyone involved in a relationship needs to share responsibility when it goes wrong. The only thing that gets up my nose a bit, is that the film seems to be implying that, good or bad, the woman has more responsibility for what happens in a relationship than a man.
Okay, I don’t think I can go on without dealing with plot stuff, so SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
Our heroine is a young lawyer who is assisting on a divorce case, on behalf of the husband. The couple are a 55 year old woman and a 71 year old man who have been married for decades, and now the wife wants a divorce and her son is supporting her. The lawyer, Bhavana (who I feel like I’ve seen in something before? But I can’t tell what from her filmography), goes to talk directly to the son, Asif Ali (who I have definitely seen before, in Salt ‘n Pepper and Ustadh Hotel), suggesting that they settle out of court, because it is just going to drag on and on, and what’s the point?
(Here he is in Salt ‘n Pepper with someone who isn’t Bhavana)
And this is the first time that I got confused, because I had such a hard time getting into the mindset of this community. First, the argument “what’s the point of divorce at your age?” comes up a lot. I guess because the assumption is they are too old to remarry? So why not just keep living together? But, first, 55 is a perfectly reasonable age to remarry, in my experience. And secondly, for me, divorce isn’t about marrying someone else, it’s about not being married to who you are currently married to, and that doesn’t change at all with age.
And then the other thing that confused me, why the heck is she talking to the son about all this? I could see it, sort of, as a kind of “softening up the enemy” thing, getting him on her side so she could convince his mother. But the way she approaches it, it’s more like she assumes the son is the driving force and all she has to do is convince him. Like the son is the appropriate person to talk to about the divorce and the mother is meaningless.
On the other hand, the personalities that show through in this conversation are handled perfectly. Actually, I’m just going to take a second to talk about just this one relationship. This whole movie is about power dynamics between men and women, and the relationship between Asif Ali and Bhavana is a great example for how that dynamic is constantly shifting in a healthy relationship.
They are initially attracted to each other because he enjoys how strong she is, and she enjoys how he will just accept her strength. She is super bossy in this conversation, and he has no problem with it. But then it shifts, the first time she sees him get angry, really angry. She isn’t afraid of him, but she is impressed with it. And then after that, most importantly, they are able to truly open up to each other, to stop any effort at a power balance and just relax. Asif Ali opens up fully about his struggle with his relationship with his father. And Bhavana responds by kissing him, and obliquely referring to a child they might have together in future, opening herself up to him by revealing her feelings.
It’s the 3rd phase of their relationship that I find most interesting. They’ve moved past the power struggles and the uncertainties, and now they are working together, in partnership, towards the same goals. They aren’t married, they have none of the officially recognized legal and social bonds, but they are a healthier and better couple than any of the others we have seen. They even have sex without marriage, and then discuss how they must have shared what his parents and grandparents shared. But, see, they didn’t! His parents and grandparents shared sex as an expectation, an obligation, not as something freely given and freely taken. That’s what makes this couple special, that they can choose what to give and what to take without worrying about others.
And that’s also what I just refuse to believe is strictly a generational issue. Yes, the societal expectations have radically changed between the generations. But the ability to ignore those expectations and build a private commitment just between each other, that is always there. That could always have happened, and the failure to build such a commitment is a failure on the part of individuals, not society.
Which brings me to the earliest relationship we see. Through out the film, as the court case grinds on, and characters discuss what lead them to these points, we get the briefest flashes of Asif Ali’s grandparents’ relationship, back when the Nair community was still strongly matriarchal. Lal, who plays Asif Ali’s father (and who was his uncle in Salt n’ Pepper), also plays his grandfather, a strong wrestler, who drifted in and out of his son’s life. Meanwhile younger Lal’s mother, Shweta Menon (who was Lal’s love interest in Salt n’ Pepper as well), controls the relationship. She doesn’t seem to let her husband live with her or see his son often. And, eventually, she moves on to a new husband, a scholar and artist (it is implied), leaving Lal’s betel leaf box outside the door as an indication that he has no place there any more (or else these are the divorce documents? It didn’t look that way to me, but the title translates to the name of the leaf on which women used to write their divorce decrees, so maybe this is where that is being referenced?). In need of money, Lal takes a job performing an exhibition wrestling match for another strong landowning woman, and is injured and dies in the match. Or, as his son sees it, dies of a broken heart.
(Just needed to take a break and see the same actors in a completely healthy and delightful relationship)
But, see, I don’t think this relationship has to be this way just because of society! It’s never said as clearly as it is about the parents’ relationship (I’ll get there in a second), but the same thing is true with the grandparents’ generation, that he is “letting” his wife do this to him. I don’t mean he should yell at her or beat her up or anything. But there is a moment when he is bathing with his son, and other men see them and laugh at him for being a kept man, afraid of his wife. And it gets to him. Now, why? Why can’t he just laugh it off and say that he is more of a man than they are, because he is able to respect his wife? Why is he so intermittant in his son’s life at all? Why doesn’t he gracefully accept his position, which must have been clear to him when he married, and insist on being around as much as possible so he can be with his child?
To his son, it must seem like a black and white issue, his mother is a scary bully who threw his father out. His father lost all his dignity and heart through accepting this unnatural position. But it’s not black and white, it never is. His father, in some small ways, “let” this happen. But Lal, younger Lal, can’t let himself acknowledge that, he has to cling to his vision of things because he thinks it is the only way he can honor his father and “defeat” his mother.
That is where, I think, I can accept what they do to redeem younger Lal in his son’s eyes. In the beginning, Asif Ali is all in for his mother. His memory of childhood is a father who was a bully, to his wife and his son. Who insisted on respect he hadn’t earned, and made them feel “less than” for no reason at all. He wants his mother to be free of this man, and he never wants anything to do with him either.
(Oo, that makes me want to watch 2 States again!)
But, eventually, he learns that his mother had filed for divorce before, and then withdrawn the case. He asks her why, and gets a new perspective on his childhood. He was sickly, nearly dying twice. The first time was after his mother had left his father for the first time. He was terribly ill, and his uncle, who he and his mother were staying with, was unwilling to go any further in a search for treatment. But his father found out about his illness and rushed him to a specialist, saving his life. Which convinced his mother to go back to him, because he was a good father.
And she stayed with him because Asif Ali kept getting sick. As a young child, he had a fever which caused a weakness in his hand. The allopathic specialist they consulted put him on an extremely restricted diet and fearsome exercises. What he remembered as abuse in his childhood was in fact his father forcing this treatment on him, and forcing his mother to follow it as well, and eventually saving the use of his hand through its success.
Now, on the one hand, I feel like this is a pretty fantasy version of abuse. “What if my father wasn’t just a petty horrible bully? What if it was for my own good in some obscure why I will find out later and for some reason couldn’t know at the time?” Sure, parents are always doing things that at the time you hate but as an adult you understand. But the point is, you understand them as an adult! That is, just being an adult is enough to make you go “oh, I get it now! That’s why I couldn’t have cereal for dinner and stay up late watching cartoons!” You don’t usually need some insanely complex explanation to understand it.
(Like, Amrish Puri in DDLJ. I don’t agree with his actions, but they are easy to understand and obviously he thought he was doing what was right for his child. No obscure medical treatment explanation needed)
Secondly, it’s a strong sign of how bad this household was in general that they didn’t have this conversation until 20 years later. That his father never considered explaining his actions to anyone, even a simple “sorry son, I am beating you to make you do this exercise to save your hand.” And that his mother never considered discussing it with him either, because she didn’t feel she had the authority to be part of these decisions about her own son’s care. And that this crazy diet and whole experience wasn’t notably different from Asif Ali’s life and their household outside of this time.
And thirdly, what they are talking about as proof that he was a loving father is, to my mind, pretty basic parenting! “Ooo, he cared that his son was about to die! Ooo, he forced his wife to put his son on a restrictive diet and threatened to beat her if she went off it! The man is a SAINT!” Oh please!
But this whole section works for me, if I think about as less about redeeming this character, and more about making peace with the idea that the parental relationship can be separate from the husband-wife relationship. Asif Ali can support his mother in her divorce, and still love his father. That is the balance that younger Lal never found when looking at his own parents’ relationship. He always saw his mother as his father’s abusive wife (and I do believe she was abusive), never as simply his mother.
And, finally, Lal and Mallika! Well, he was just a real jerk, wasn’t he? Also, this is another one of those times when I think I wasn’t able to get in the right mindset because the big “revelation” at the end was pretty much where I was right from the start. He wanted to marry a woman from a patriarchal, not matriarchal, family. And when Mallika came out at the first meeting, looking all shy and scared, he was approving. Duh, obviously he wanted to avoid marrying someone like his mother because he was afraid of her! Which is the big thing he says to Asif Ali in the present day at the very end, that he had to keep Mallika down because he was afraid of women. I mean, isn’t that why bullies bully? Because they get off on having power over others, because they need to keep everyone else scared and off-balance?
(Lal and the way he treats Mallika in this film=the British and the way they treated Bhagat Singh and his group in Rang De)
I guess I was supposed to be expecting there to be something specific, an infidelity or a secret or something, some big reason that their marriage failed. But no, it was just like any other abusive relationship. She was trained by her family to put up with abuse, whenever she gathered her courage to leave economic and parental concerns pulled her back, and now that those concerns are no longer an issue, she can finally leave. That’s it. No big mystery or secret or big moment of change. I mean, it still worked for me, because it was a good portrait of an abusive marriage, I found all the characters believable and sympathetic, but I think I might have been missing another layer somewhere.
The one thing that I found very unusual and interesting was the relationship between Mallika and Shweta Menon. Obviously, this is also where the big divide between matriarchal and patriarchal societies comes in. Shweta was raised and lived as the head and supreme authority in her household. She and women liked her “walked like elephants” through society. And Shweta does a great job showing that in her demeanor, she really does walk, or sit, or even just lie (lay?) down like an elephant, all strong and authoritative. But Mallika was raised to serve men, to obey them, to fear them. To fear everything, really. And Shweta pitied her for it, and also hated her for it.
Mallika “loved” Shweta but, as she realizes at the end, she had no ability to love anyone. She was just “loving” people as part of her social expectations. She loved her because she was her mother-in-law, but not for herself. She didn’t understand Shweta or why she did what she did until decades after she died, the moment when she realizes she has to divorce Lal. Because, as Shweta kept telling her, she was bringing this on herself. She was “letting” Lal abuse her by never standing up to him. She had the power all along, in every way, she just wasn’t seeing it. Just like Lal never saw that his fear of Mallika was driving him to abuse her for no reason, just like Lal’s father accepted the treatment given him by his wife without question. It was only when Mallika accepted that she had the power to walk out, and when Lal accepted that he could give her that power, that they could live in peace.
Although, and I cannot say this enough, really Lal’s character was just a horrible man who should have died lonely and miserable and unloved by all. Just because you can understand someone doesn’t mean you should forgive them.