After watching Kabali, I had the director’s earlier films recommended to me, Attakathi and Madras (tell me in the comments if there is anything else he did that I am missing and should watch). Anyway, Attakathi was easier to find, so I watched that one first.
What a very very odd rom-com! “Rom-com” doesn’t even really fit as a description. Maybe bildungsroman? Or meditation on male female relationships? It wasn’t that romantic, and it wasn’t that comic, but it was more romantic and comic than it was anything else, so I can see why most people sort of landed on “romantic comedy” as a catchall description (it’s what I ran across when I was looking it up online).
It feels a lot like Premam, but like a dark and bitter Premam. Not bitter at women (that would be hard to stomach), but bitter at the whole way romance can twist us up inside and make us do things we hate. Particularly how it can affect men.
(Okay, Premam got a little bitter in some parts too)
There is this whole yucky corner of the internet where men talk about how women have all the power in relationships, how they try to control us, how they are destroying our independence. That is NOT what this movie is saying. It is saying something very very close to that, but one step removed. It is saying “This is how relationships and love affect men, which is no worse than how it affects women, but this particular film and this particular character are about they effect on men.”
Part of putting us so clearly in the mindset of this particular character is that we never fully get a sense of what the women in the film are thinking. Because the main character (played by Dinesh, who was Rajnikanth’s sidekick in Kabali) never really learns to figure out what women are thinking either. There is a way to do this where women become some sort of magical mystical inhuman presence, where it feels like the director and scriptwriter aren’t really sure how women work either (see: everything ever written by Aaron Sorkin, Cameron Crowe, and Sanjay Leela Bhansali). Or there is a way to do this right, where there are a few little hints dropped through out the film so the audience can follow what is happening, even if the character is still totally in the dark.
(this feels like the closest Bhansali has come to giving his heroines a real relatable inner life. Of course, she’s still perfect and beautiful and flawless on the outside)
That is definitely what is happening here. To our hero, girls are mysterious creatures who sometimes laugh and sometimes cry and sometimes smile and sometimes get mad, and he can’t figure out who is going to do what when! But to the audience, we can see just enough of the context to figure out why they are reacting as they are, and why our hero can’t see it.
Obviously, a girl who smiles at you on the bus is going to react differently when you approach her in front of all her school friends. If you make her nervous, she is going to laugh, because that is a natural reaction to nerves (handy tip for any teenage boys reading this: a girl giggling just means she doesn’t know how else to react. It is a default reaction. Don’t read too much into it!). If she wants to be your friend, she is going to say “I want to be your friend.” And most of the time, shockingly, that actually means “I want to be your friend.” And a lot of the time, just like other humans, girls have more going on inside of them than what shows on the outside, and there are whole areas of their life that have nothing to do with boys.
Again, it feels like the director gets this. There are just little hints along the way that he understands what is happening with the women in the movie. But the hero himself has no idea, start to finish, how women feel. Which is what gets him into so much trouble.
Oh, and SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
We first meet the hero when he is struggling to complete a college prep type course. He lives in a tiny house on the outskirts of town with his alcoholic father, his nagging mother, and his big brother. And I think there might be a sister in there as well? The point is, it’s a crowded household! Naturally, Dinesh chooses to spend most of his time roaming the streets with his gang of friends, instead of sitting at home.
His gang of friends are obsessed with falling in love and having a romance, just like in the movies. That part of the film is fascinating! First, how these seemingly macho young men are all crazy about romance. And second, how little ability or experience they have with it. For them, a romance means seeing a girl at a bus stop, and then following and obsessing about her for days. None of them seem ready to actually talk to a girl.
And, clearly, the film industry shares part of the blame for this. How many movies are there where the hero sees the heroine, follows the heroine, and finally talks to the heroine and they are immediately in love? So many!!!
(Hiding and taking photos of her? Not cool, Akshay!)
There are a lot fewer that show the hero and heroine hanging out together as part of a group, working or going to class together, getting to know each other, and then starting a relationship that slowly progresses towards love.
(As I said in my review, the early romance in Srimanthudu is really well done)
What this movie kind of seems to be arguing, and what I think I have read before in various think pieces, is that part of the reason Indian boys have such a hard time relating to Indian girls (referring to everything from eve teasing to pornography to rape) is that society doesn’t let them relate. Boys and girls are kept carefully segregated, until they are thrown together suddenly in marriage and expected to make it work. More over, marriages are happening later and later, and these young people with their hormones going crazy, are supposed to suppress all their natural urges until they are graduated, with a good job, and ready for a marriage.
(This is the trap the poor kids in Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa get caught in, in love and ready to move on with their lives, but without the economic warewithal to do it without parental support)
And the end result is what we see here, a bunch of late teens/early twenties boys literally chasing girls down the street because it is the only way they can interact with them. Something as little as a smile is enough to start a romantic fantasy. Merely handing her a bus ticket is exciting physical contact. And, because they are “good boys”, their fantasies are all romantic, ending in socially sanctioned marriage, not just pornographic.
But, of course, this is ridiculous! Because there are no connections between the actual boy and girl involved. Our hero spends all this time obsessing over the girl he sees on the bus, showing off by hanging off the window bars outside instead of going in, returning her smiles, and so on. But he is discussing her more with his friends than actually talking to her. And she is doing the same, talking with her friend more than with him. Of course their first interaction (when she breaks his heart by calling him “Bhaiyya”) is going to end poorly! They both have built up all these assumptions about each other without getting to know the real person.
(Of course, sometimes these bus relationships work out great! But that’s if you are cool and confident Abhishek, and you actually go up and talk to the girl after you make eye contact)
He has two other smaller “romances” in this period, both interesting for showing how, well, stupid he is. There is a distant relative staying with them, who he starts obsessing over, only to discover that she is in love with his older brother and vice-versa. It’s a very quick segment, but it’s a great lesson, that she went for the guy who actually talked to her. Dinesh can have all the little moments of eyes meeting and so on that he wants, what matters is if he speaks to her and learns if she feels the same way, like his brother did.
And his other romance, that we see mostly in flashback as his motivation for taking the local karate classes, is when he sees two other school girls on the bus, who smile and talk to him. Only, he can’t decide which one he likes, because they both smile at him. And before he has to make up his mind, the local boys from their neighborhood chase him down and beat him up for bothering “their” girls.
There’s two things that are really interesting about this bit. First that, to me, it was obvious one of these girls liked him more than the other. She was the one who took the lead in talking, who told him their names, she was clearly interested. But Dinesh couldn’t see it, it’s not just about him finding girls inter-changeable, it’s about him not picking up the obvious clues that would tell him who to go for.
And second, the idea of boys from their neighborhood fighting off boys from other areas. There is a definite feeling of the attractive girls being part of the natural resources for their area, something that should be limited only to those who live there. Which is just another sign of how young men, all young men, have a hard time conceiving of women as autonomous beings who won’t like you just because you live nearby, and won’t stop liking someone who lives father away just because you beat him up.
After these series of failures, Dinesh is lonely, all his friends have succeeded in their romantic efforts, and he ends up falling in with a new crowd, of college toughs. Before, everyone was obsessing about love. Now, they are obsessing about fights and enemies. It’s still an obsession, and an awkward way of building a supportive peer group during the difficult growing up time (and I am also very aware through all this that Dinesh’s home life is not the best, making him even susceptible to peer pressure from friends), just an obsession with protecting “their” college and their gang from everyone else, instead of an obsession with finding a girl and falling in love.
And this is when Dinesh’s bus girl re-enters his life and proves that all his new macho posturing really is just a poor substitute for all those romantic/physical urges he still feels. She gives him the slightest encouragement, and he goes right back to obsessing over her. Making himself over to look like he used to, like she liked. Beating up people who bother her. Talking with her, being her friend.
This is the part I was talking about when I said that, if a girl says “I want to be friends” it usually means, she wants to be friends. This is also the part of the film that could most easily be read in a misogynistic manner. Because after giving off a lot of signals that seem like she likes him, fter being warm and welcoming and showing him that she saved the bus ticket he bought her, and talking about how nice he looks, and being his friend, she turns out to have been in love with someone else all along!!!
If the movie had been done slightly differently, it would have felt like she was the villain. But it tread a careful line, showing us how she kept being more and more friendly in response to his reserve, how she was always clear that she liked him and wanted to be friends, but at the same time she never acted shy with him, or invited his caresses, or did anything that was explicitly romantic or emotional. She really could just have been a friendly nice girl who felt bad for what happened earlier, and wanted a friend in college. At worst, she might have pursued his friendship a little extra hard just because he was the college tough, and it would be handy to have him on her side. But she was certainly not “leading him on” in a romantic sense.
In the end, the revelation that she was in love with someone else played, to me, like a reminder that the fantasy of a woman may not match the reality. While Dinesh was thinking about her as obsessing over him, as being happy because of something he did, or sad because of a mistake he made, she was living her own life and having her own concerns far outside his realm. And all Dinesh’s problems came from just assuming that he knew what was happening without actually asking her and listening to what she said. He even went so far as to plan an elopement, without ever considering that she had never said “I love you.”
Which is why the film had to end as it did. Well, both endings. First just seeing the meeting that starts his final, successful, romance, just the first meeting between him and a girl riding a bike. Because the point is to see all the mistakes you can make in “romance”, not how it looks when you get it right (we have every other movie in the world for that). And then we had to see the very end tag, Dinesh living in a household of women (his mother, his wife, and his baby daughter) and STILL not understanding them! Because somethings just don’t change.