Abhiyum Naanum: A Love Story From the Sidelines

I loved this movie!  So sweet and funny and tender.  And then, right at the end, it pulled out a message that really packed a wallop and made me go “yes!  That is why these movies are important!”  Not just because of the lovers at the center, but because of everyone else around the edges.

Okay, someone in Tamil Nadu really likes Steve Martin.  First Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, now Father of the Bride.  But unlike Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, I have actually seen Father of the Bride!  It’s one of my soothing background movies, whenever it pops up on TV (which is A LOT), I tend to leave it on as I wander in and out.

This movie kept the feel that I like from Father of the Bride, the episodic plot, the lack of any real conflicts, the general sense that everyone is ultimately good at heart, and the overall feel of everything being right with the world.  And then right in the last half hour, it added a surprising level of depth and meaning that still managed to be in tune with everything we saw before.

But first, it gives us a nice Indian style alteration to the story structure.  It’s all a flashback, for one thing, told by Prakash Raj to young father Prithviraj who he meets in the park.  And for another thing, we start way back at the beginning, with birth, not at the end of the story with the wedding.

And the film takes its time with all of this, with establishing Prithviraj as a nice guy who never really thought that much about what his fatherhood is going to mean to him until he started talking to Prakash, with Prakash as a really charming calm casual sort of guy, the kind of guy who would strike up a conversation with a random person in the park and end up charming him.  Which makes it extra fun to watch his constant freak outs and fears as we see him in the fatherhood flashbacks, much less relaxed than he is today.

I also like how he ages through the flashbacks.  Not just the changing hair color and posture and costuming.  But the way his attitude towards his daughter slowly changes.  At first, when she is born, he is completely besotted.  When she is a toddler, he can’t stop playing with her, can’t bare to say “no” to her.

Once she is a little girl, he still has a hard time saying “no” (accepting a random beggar she brings home and making him a member of the household), but he isn’t quite so weak and doting, he interacts with her more as an equal, not a precious treasure.  And by the time she is a teenager, she is talking back to him and he is talking back to her.  It’s healthy, it’s natural, it’s how parental relationships are supposed to evolve, but we don’t usually get to see the whole journey on film.

But it’s not just because of an Indian film narrative style, giving us full character backstories before diving into the plot, it comes around again at the end to a deeper meaning.  I don’t want to give too many details, but way at the end of the film, when Prakash is feeling down about himself and like he is no longer the best person in his daughter’s life, he gets a speech from someone he respects, telling him that he is a great father, because he loved his daughter, but he also gave her freedom, and that is why she is the person she is today.  That’s why we needed that slow slow opening, to really see the way he combined doting love and affection with trust and freedom.  Yes, he cried the first day of school, but he also sent her to school.  And later, he let her ride her bike there alone when she asked.  And when she got scared the first time a boy gave her a valentine, he didn’t freak out or take charge, he gave her good advice about how to handle it.  He has always trusted her judgement and let her be herself, and in the end his reward was a beautiful confident loving daughter.

And then of course she fell in love.  I mean, you knew that, right?  I did say it was loosely based on Father of the Bride!  But the way it played out right at the end makes it so much different, and so much better, than the Steve Martin version!

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

When I was in college, my roommate was Telugu.  And she used to joke that her family got nervous as she kept growing taller and taller, joking that if she got more than 5 feet 4 inches, they might have to marry her off to a Punjabi!  What could be worse!

So, that’s the joke here too.  Prakash Raj’s daughter (now played by Trishna, who I know from Varsham and Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaaannounces she has fallen in love with a boy she met in college in Delhi.  And when they go to the airport to meet him, they spot a turban.  It’s a Sikh!  She fell in love with a Sikh!  What could be more different from their quiet restrained simple life in a hill station in Tamil Nadu?

(this is a later song, but it illustrates the idea well!)

Prakash starts out by thinking the guy isn’t good enough for his little girl, and then realizes he is better than Prakash, he is interviewed on television, he is some national economics expert, even consults with the Prime Minister!  It’s all very uncomfortable for Prakash, but he tries not to show it, because his wife reminds him that it is what their daughter wants.

All of this is just the same as any version of the Father of The Bride story, whether it is the two American films, or any other time that you have a humorous “father has a hard time letting go of his little girl” kind of story, from The In-Laws to Live Free or Die Hard.  And it gets even more the same when all of the family shows up.  On their side, it is just her father and mother, their servant/family member (the beggar she brought home as a child who still lives with them), and a few friends.  On his side, a whole horde of Punjabi’s suddenly descend from Delhi filling their house!  They hug Prakash, the yell hindi at him, small adorable children play tricks on him, it’s a nightmare!

(Supposedly, Elizabeth Taylor’s first wedding dress, for her marriage to Conrad hilton, was based on her costume for the Spencer Tracey Father of the Bride)

And this is where the deeper message, ever so slowly, starts to come out.  First, in just a couple of tiny moments.  His wife laughs at him for being uncomfortable, saying that it is nice to have family all over the house.  And his daughter brushes past his confusion about all these people, since she thought the groom didn’t have any family.

It goes on, all these people make him uncomfortable, he is increasingly sour, his daughter even offers to change the plans if they make him unhappy, but he mans up and tells her it is his problem and he will get through it.  And then he explodes, when she twists her ankle while walking with her fiance.  He blows up at him, telling him he doesn’t know how to take care of her properly, he is a fool.  And that’s when he gets the nice speech, from the fiance he has resented and struggled to accept, telling him that the fiance struggles to accept him, that he is a great man, for raising a daughter with so much love and freedom, and he wishes he had a father like that.

This makes Prakash think about the family question again, and he asks Trishna, finally, to explain how all these people are related to the groom.  And she explains, in a very matter-of-fact way, that they are related because he made them into his family. If I am remembering all the stories correctly, the older Punjabi man who is always smiling and singing was the father of a terrorist.  He shot his son when he learned what he was planning, and was sent to jail.  The groom took him in when he was released and gave him something to live for.  The middle-aged woman (who has kind of a wordless romance with their beggar/servant) was orphaned by the 1984 riots, and rescued from a life of service to live in the groom’s “family”.  The two young men lost their family in the Gujurat riots.  The old woman lost her family in Partition.  And the little boys lost their parents in the Bombay train blasts.  This is the groom’s work, he has a social service organization that takes in these people damaged by violence and places them into families, giving them love first and then everything else.

It makes everything we saw in the past few days slightly different, all of a sudden.  At the same time Prakash was feeling threatened by all these loud happy people invading his tiny happy home, they were feeling happy to see such a happy home, and a happy family.  Just like all that time he was worried about living up to his very impressive son-in-law with all the big credentials and connections, the son-in-law was just worried about living up to a guy who had such love in his family.

(Again, this song may not come at that exact moment, but it illustrates my point)

And it also makes the childhood stories we saw of Trishna slightly different.  Before, it looked like the standard “saintly soft-hearted little girl” kind of story.  But now, it is a sign of how and why she is the perfect wife for this man, and he is the perfect husband for her.  They both have an ability to take strangers and make them family.  Punjabi or Tamilian, that’s why they are perfect for each other.

And that’s, ultimately, what this story is about.  How you have to take the love you have for your child and, slowly, expand it out and learn to love other people through it.  It’s a lesson Prakash learns slowly, starting with the morning of his daughter’s wedding when he finds his wife crying because they are about to lose her, and finally realizes that part of her sadness is over the way they themselves had a runaway marriage and she lost her parents that day.

All those little moments throughout the film, when he tried to keep Trishna close and his wife pushed her out into the world, her happiness with a house full of relatives now, it all comes together.  His wife has been hiding a struggle inside herself this whole time, pushing their daughter away because she wants her to be strong and self-supporting, like she has learned to be.  And welcoming family into their small house, because it feels an emptiness she has had all along.  And it is only now that, finally, Prakash realizes this about her, and tries to fix it, inviting her parents to the wedding.

But it’s more than that.  At the reception, with Punjabi music playing to one side, and all these people dancing around, Prakash describes how he realized how wonderful this is, how all of these strangers have now been made into a family, how amazing it is that he is now connected with them.

That’s the message, that’s what I love.  And it’s not just about this film, it’s about any cross-cultural romance, or really any romance at all.  This is why romantic love matters, because it is a way to pull people together who would never otherwise be connected.  Not just the two lovers, but their families, their friends, everyone in their lives.  It goes forward from this wedding, with Prakash’s new son-in-law and his new “family”, and backwards, to Prakash’s elopement in the past, that separated his wife from her family when it should have brought them all closer together instead, the way a second marriage has finally brought them together.  Even on to his old friends, a couple with no children, who are inspired by the marriage to look into adoption, or Prakash’s servant who has fallen in love with the Punjabi woman and (we see in the present) has married her.  Marriage is a wonderful institution, event, ritual, however you want to call it, because it can bring all of these people together.

And it all starts with the child.  The end-end of the film is Prithviraj, now back at Prakash’s house having tea, holding his little daughter on his lap and looking at a picture on the wall of a man holding a baby with the words “the child is the father of the man” beneath.  Normally, this saying is taken to mean “as you are as a child, so will you be when you are grown”.  But in this case, I think it means that having a child, going through this experience of fatherhood, will make you into a man.

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12 thoughts on “Abhiyum Naanum: A Love Story From the Sidelines

      • The above comment was from me, posting from my phone. 🙂

        When the groom’s qualifications began to come out, it reminded me a lot of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”, a landmark film from the 1960’s. I never saw Father of the Bride, but did that have the overqualified groom, too?

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        • When we talked about Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in one of my classes, there was a discussion of how Poiter’s character’s attributes were specifically in response to the stereotypes of the time about interracial relationships.

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          • Indeed. But I always remember a column by someone (possibly African American) who thought the stereotype was being inverted more painfully. The basic question was, why would such a highly qualified man go for a bimbo like her? Or to put it another way, a black man was acceptable as a son-in-law only because he had out of the world accomplishments. Isn’t that just reinforcing the racist stereotype?

            Now I don’t think any of that was going on in this film, because there just isn’t that kind of history between the different ethnicities of India. For Abhi’s father, the main objection is that he is not “one of us.” Any non-Tamil guy would have elicited the same reaction; heck, even a Tamil guy of the wrong “community” might have been unacceptable. I think the film makers just made him Punjabi so they could play with the Punjabi stereotypes for comedy, and of course tie his work in with various historical events that happened to Punjabis.

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          • I think that was my teacher’s point, but coming at it from the other side, that Poiter’s character was too perfect to be real, not so much a presentation of a human person we can relate to, but some idea that one one in real life could live up to.

            In this movie, what I really liked was how by the end you realize all of the groom’s many perfect accomplishments were actually matched by the bride. It wasn’t random that this awesome guy fell in love with her, she was similarly big hearted and open minded and charitable.

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  1. It was a revelation to see Prakash Raj as a doting father without any villainous overtones.You’d have thought that since he had eloped with his wife he would be more sympathetic to an inter-state marriage.But no, it’s more a case of ‘do as I say not as I do.’ But obviously he loves his daughter enough to adjust his expectations and put aside his prejudices.It’s a shame that Aamir didn’t go ahead with remaking this in Hindi.

    Aiswarya who played Trisha’s mom was equally amusing as the stern counterpart to Prakash’s indulging father.She’s Lakshmi’s (grandmother from Hulchul) daughter and it is clear the acting genes have not missed a generation.

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    • She was really good, and I kept feeling like I had seen her in something before, but I can’t see anything on her filmography! So, either I am forgetting a movie, or I am just really really smart and noticed how her face looked like her mother’s 🙂

      (I honestly think I did do that the first time I saw Soha in Dil Maange More, I felt like she was an old friend, like I went to college with her or something. And then I realized it was just because her expressions and face are EXACTLY like her brothers! Just female)

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