I watched Ambe Sivam! Another Kamal Haasan movie! And, I don’t know, I had issues. Mostly with the way they handled the ending. I could see a cool idea in there, but I think it got messed up a little bit by the need to make Kamal Haasan just the coolest dude ever.
So, first, a confession: I haven’t seen Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. In my defense, I didn’t realize until over halfway through that this was a remake, otherwise I would have made sure to watch the original in advance! But, on the other hand, I am from John Hughes country, so I really don’t have any good reason not to watch what is one of his deepest and saddest films.
I have read various articles and discussions of the original film though, so I kind of know what the central idea was, and this movie squandered and changed it a little. Not sure how I feel about that in general, it is their right as the adapters to change the plot to suit a new location. But I really really don’t like what they did to the ending.
The set-up, though, is perfect for an Indian film, especially a two starrer, and I am kind of surprised this is the first time it’s been used! A fancy rude busy business man gets stuck traveling with a sloppy chattering fellow traveler through a series of adversities in a desperate effort to get home in time for a big family event (Thanksgiving or Christmas in the original, his wedding in this one). But then the ending, which is this huge emotional moment in the original (according to what I have read), just gets squandered here.
Before we get there though, there are some things I really liked. I like that Madhavan is just straight up unpleasant and in the wrong all along and we can see that, but we can also see why he is mis-understanding Kamal. Kamal does look odd, and he acts odd, and he talks a lot, and won’t let him alone. Maybe his actions are kind and wise and considerate, but his manner sure isn’t. His manner is of a more boring know-it-all won’t shut up type.
I also liked all the local touches to the general Planes, Trains idea. That it is a flood that washes out everything, that Kamal can roll with it because he is used to traveling in flood hit areas, but Madhavan can’t, because he has been insulated from floods and other unpleasantness in his urban upperclass life. That as they travel through these remote areas, Kamal has the common touch and can relate to the people, while Madhavan can’t. The lesson that Kamal keeps mentioning, that Madhavan as an advertiser is part of selling a false vision of the world, of exploiting the common Indian, has a nice partnership in what they are actually experiencing, people suffering and dealing with problems that Madhavan can’t even imagine while he is trying to sell them global products.
Kamal’s flashback adds to that, his epic love story in which he is the noble hero artist fighting for justice for the working man, a story that Madhavan doesn’t even see. I really love that little twist, that the flashback starts with Kamal telling him the story, but then he leaves in the middle, so all the noble cool bits are just things that Kamal is remembering to himself and the audience is seeing, but Madhavan never really learns. It’s both a statement that Madhavan, the character, is unable to fully understand this kind of story so he doesn’t deserve to hear it, and a nice message that those very people you overlook may be the most noble and worthwhile of all.
I also like that Kamal actually does fight back against Madhavan’s abuse. He takes it up to a certain point, but when he finally has had enough, he does fight back. He isn’t just a punching bag there to teach Madhavan a lesson, he has his own feelings and they can be hurt.
I wish Madhavan had gotten a little bit of the hero treatment as well. Kamal gets to be a little off putting in his manner, but clearly in the right in every other way. More noble, more heroic, more wise, able to stop a thief or find a train or catch a bus, whatever is needed. And then we get his flashback, where he is handsome and debonair and a brilliant artist and also a dedicated revolutionary who women fall for practically at first sight. Yes, he has to overcome adversity, but it’s not because he himself every made a mistake.
I wouldn’t mind that Madhavan is just there to learn and grow and eventually embrace Kamal as his new “brother”, except for the ending. Which, as I said, really really bothered me. And kind of ruined the film for me.
So, SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
After Madhavan and Kamal have been traveling for a bit, Madhavan asks him about his love story, how he met the wife that he mentions. So, Kamal tells him the story. In the flashback, he is doing a street activist performance, and a woman riding in a big car is stopped in the crowd. She is initially intrigued, but when her driver explains that the performance is against her father, she orders him to drive on. This is when Madhavan wonders off and doesn’t hear the rest.
More importantly, present day Kamal has massive scars on his face (the reason Madhavan was nervous about talking to him to begin with) and a prosthetic shoe and back problems, whereas past Kamal is lithe and athletic and handsome, so we know something must have happened. But the flashback takes it’s time getting there. After their first unpleasant interaction, they meet again at a dinner party, because while Kamal fights for the workers, he is also an artist who knows big names in the art world, and Kiran Rathod (the rich girl in the car who’s father owns the factory) is a patron. Kiran spills her main dish, and Kamal, to make her feel better and get over the awkward moment, turns it into a painting by moving the sauce around. Kiran is so charmed by his talent, that she arranges to sell a photo of it, and then takes the proceeds to him to donate to his workers cause.
(she has experience playing the rich girl, her big break was in Yaadein playing the spoiled girl Hrithik’s parents want him to marry)
To make more money, she suggests that she help him get the commission to paint a mural in her father’s office. Her father agrees, and asks that he do it over the next weeks holiday. The office will be closed, he will turn off the lights and a/c, but they can have the windows open. And, of course, over the week while he paints, Kiran falls for him. There is also an implication that it was partly because the a/c was off and natural hot air makes people feel sexy. Which is the opposite of my feelings with unairconditioned buildings! I follow much more of the Kiss Me Kate line of things.
(Ann Miller is awesome, but I think I like the stage show version better, where it’s sung by a bunch of rough male gangsters. This version makes it sexy, but it is supposed to be comic)
At the grand opening, Kiran’s father notices first that Kamal has hidden a pro-workers message in his mural, and second that Kiran and Kamal have a thing going on. So he arranges for thugs to follow Kamal home and beat him up/kill him (it’s unclear what their goal is). Kamal manages to fight them all off, with a little help from his fellow workers’ rights people, but mostly on his own using his umbrella. Again, we get a display of amazing balance and grace from Kamal, in contrast to his present day shuffling condition.
After the fight, Kamal is arrested and Kiran bails him out. But Kamal isn’t sure they can be together, both because her father will never agree, and because he doesn’t want to be seen as the kept husband of a wealthy woman. Kiran yells at him, pointing out that none of this takes into account her feelings, and what she wants! Is she supposed to be unhappy just because he has a problem with her father and vice versa? Kamal is convinced, and they make plans to run away.
Only, the bus Kamal is taking to meet her has a freak accident when the driver swerves to avoid a dog. Kamal is the only survivor. Kiran’s evil father tracks him down and tells him he isn’t even going to bother killing him, because he is so close to death. But Kamal beats the odds, over weeks or months or years of rehab in a hospital with sympathetic nuns, and learns how to walk and talk again. Finally, he goes back to Kiran’s house, only to be told by her father that she has already married someone else, because he lied to her that Kamal was dead in the accident. And that she is in America now, pregnant. And Kamal goes away, sad.
Meanwhile, in the present day, Madhavan is softening, especially after they run across a train accident (shown in way too graphic detail! Like, we see a decapitated body. Not that it’s too gross to see, just it distracts from the less dramatic parts of the film to have this horrible scene in the middle). Madhavan is convinced to give blood to save a life, even though he has a horror of blood and anything medical it after seeing his older brother die at a young age. And then the child he gave blood to dies anyway, and Madhavan is broken. Kamal comforts him, telling him that he still believes in God, no matter what happens, because he sees God in other people. Madhavan is a God, and so is Kamal.
Madhavan is so touched by this, and all their other experiences together, and actually wants to stay in touch with Kamal in the end. And then, the big Planes Trains and Automobiles reveal, Madhavan goes to the address he has for Kamal to return his bag, and learns that Kamal has no wife, or child, and lives in the Party headquarters when he isn’t traveling. And the child he kept mentioning was just the old dog who caused that bus accident to begin with, who he has adopted. Madhavan runs out into the street after Kamal and chases him down and INSISTS that he come to his wedding, that he has family now, that Madhavan is his little brother and he must come to his brother’s wedding. That Kamal is Madhavan’s brother, replacing and healing the wounds of the death of his big brother in childhood. This is the finale we have been building towards, Madhavan dragging Kamal back into the light, giving him the love and respect and family he has been craving, just like John Candy gets at the end of Planes Trains and Automobiles. With added depth, since Madhavan all along has been stumbling towards recovery from his childhood shock of losing his brother, and the end result that his parents protected him from all the problems of life since then. And now he has his brother back and has learned not to be afraid of connecting with the world.
This is the point of the whole odd couple movie, that the guy you overlook may be hiding more sadness and more problems than you can imagine. And that our “hero”, Madhavan in this case, may not even realize how much he has come to care for him until he learns how sad his life is. These two people with seemingly nothing in common are brothers in the end.
But, nope! The movie keeps going and gets SO STUPID!!!!!!!! Because, Madhavan’s fiancee is Kamal’s lost love! Dun dun DUN!
But, why? Really, why? It’s supposed to make Kamal look even more noble because, after blackmailing her father with a promise not to tell Madhavan if the Dad finally signs the workers’ agreement he wanted way back when, he walks away from the wedding, leaving a note for Madhavan that he isn’t meant to have a family. So, he gives up any hope of happiness both as Madhavan’s “brother” and possibly getting back together with his true love to get a worker’s agreement signed? Or maybe because he thinks both Madhavan and Kiran will be happier this way? I have MAJOR PROBLEMS with both of these possibilities!
Way back when, Kiran gave this passionate speech about her father and Kamal using her as a bargaining chip in their dispute and losing track of herself as a person and what SHE wants. And this ending is about the ultimate in that! Heck, the whole thing leading up to it is the ultimate in that. Her father decides she should think Kamal is dead, and lies to her. Kamal, apparently, decided she wouldn’t want to see him until he is fully recovered and keeps her in the dark for months (or years?) while he goes through rehab. And then takes her father’s word for it that she is married and pregnant and, furthermore, agrees with her father that if that is the case, better not to tell her he is alive.
(Remember Kal Ho Na Ho? Remember how upset everyone was when they learned the truth but ultimately it was better that way and the film seemed to imply that Shahrukh was just being selfish and cowardly by not telling Saif and Preity what was going on? Because it is better if they made the decision to get married knowing all the facts and they would be even happier that way? That’s what was missing here!)
And now Kamal is selling out the happiness of the woman he “loves” for a wage increase for the workers. If the wage increase had been shown to be his main goal all along, I would have been okay with it. But we saw that, while he wanted this wage increase, he was working on many other social justice issues for many other groups as well. It’s not like his father died while on strike against this factory or anything. Or like these workers are in imminent danger if the wage increase doesn’t go through now now now. He could find another way to make it happen at some other point, if he really tried.
Or, you could say that he had already decided never to speak to her again, and was just using the threat of it to force her father to sign the agreement. Fine, okay, but why was he not speaking with her? He should be beating himself up, literally throwing himself against the wall in self-anger, over not trying to talk to her way back when, just taking her father’s word for it that she was married. And what evidence does he have that she is happy to marry Madhavan now? He knows Madhavan is a nice enough guy, but he also knows that Kiran’s father is a killer who only cares about money. And that Kiran’s father seems to think, if she knew Kamal was alive, she wouldn’t marry Madhavan.
Kamal is, once again, trusting his enemy over his true love, just because his enemy is a man and his true love is a woman. I mean, that’s really what’s at the heart of this, right? Kamal and Kiran’s dad making deal after deal in their manly way about manly things like money and labor, and never involving Kiran in the discussion, because she is just an object to be used as a weapon between them.
I kept thinking about Innale, and how the same kind of situation was handled so much better there. In that film, both the ex-love and the audience saw the woman with her new love and new life, and knew 100% that she was happier there. But in this, Kamal can’t be bothered to find out how she feels. He doesn’t have to talk to her, but he could just overhear a conversation, hear her say something to Madhavan like “I never thought I could be happy again, but now I know that I didn’t know what true happiness was until I met you.” Wait for some kind of confirmation that her reaction to seeing him again would be dread and guilt, not joyful relief, then make his sacrifice. In fact, the only evidence he has for her happiness is, again, second hand through a man. Through knowing Madhavan and how much Madhavan cares for her. But that doesn’t tell him anything about her feelings.
At the heart of this, is also the assumption that Kiran doesn’t want a broken down old husband like Kamal. But, can’t we let her make that decision? Especially since the whole point of this movie is to look past the superficial, to see the depth beneath. Is that something that is only possible for men to do, even angry advertising executives like Madhavan, not something women can handle? They are just too shallow for that? Is that it?
Ugh, it just makes me so angry! It’s one of those movies where the last 10 minutes effectively ruin all the goodwill I had built up in advance. And it could have been so cool if they’d stuck with the original route they were on!
Imagine if Kamal was brought in as Madhavan’s “brother” and met Kiran as a wedding guest there from the bride’s side. If Kiran’s faith in him was justified by the way wealthy and important bride groom Madhavan treated him as a noble soul. If Kiran’s father had been forced to bend down because Kiran suggested (picking up on the way she was always looking for an angle to help the workers in earlier scenes) that Kamal and Madhavan use Madhavan’s position as bride groom to force the agreement as part of his dowry, thereby completing Madhavan’s awakening to worker’s rights.
Or, just have the original ending! Kamal’s life is sad and he hides it from everyone, but it works out because Madhavan learns to love him and brings him into his family. Have Madhavan’s wife be some nice woman who touches Kamal’s feet and invites him into their family, and that is how his wounds are healed.
Or, double down on the odd couple looking past the superficial message, and have Madhavan be the one who gives up Kiran. Because Kiran still loves Kamal, despite his injuries, and Madhavan can see that Kamal is the better man for her. Make Madhavan insist on hosting his “brother”s wedding.
The point of the film is supposed to be that humanity and love for each other is God, that’s the title. But the end of the movie says that you can forget all that, Kamal Haasan is God. He gets to decide who marries who and who knows what and punish the guilty and reward the innocent and all of that. And everyone else who thinks they should have any rights over their own lives and wishes is clearly wrong. Especially if they happen to be a woman.
(and I’m not even getting into the earlier scene where Kamal’s female best friend admits that she only joined the revolutionaries because she had a crush on Kamal, but now that he is marrying someone else, she is marrying his friend, because what else can she do? In isolation, I found it kind of cute and funny the way it was played half tragic and half comic. But after seeing the ending, it just feels like another time a seemingly independent woman had her whole life decided by men/Kamal. Or, the final-final scene, where Kamal’s life is spared by a henchgoon, because the henchgoon regrets his past actions as he thinks his daughter died in punishment for them. Because daughters only exist, to live or die, as a means of punishing their fathers.)