Aval Shanmughi: Once Again, Kamal Haasan is the Best, and Everyone Else Therefore Has to Be The Worst

I am trying SO HARD not to call this Chachi 420!  Not that I ever saw Chachi 420, it was just so heavily promoted, and the title is so catchy, it’s hard not to use it instead of the original.  On the other hand, not hard at all to avoid calling this Mrs. Doubtfire, because it changed the biggest message of Mrs. Doubtfire when it translated it to a Kamal Haasan film.

I’ve only seen Mrs. Doubtfire a handful of times, I wasn’t one of those kids who grew up watching it, I think the first time I even saw it straight through was in college when I was randomly flipping through channels.  So I don’t have a deep personal connection to the film.  I didn’t even really think about it as anything more than a silly kid’s movie with Robin Williams using a funny voice until I started reading some of the tributes to Williams after his death that mention Mrs. Doubtfire as an important film for some people.

No ones calling it a “great film” or anything, that was reserved for The Fisher King, but what people talked about was how it had a wonderful message for them, as children of divorce.  In the end, Robin and Sally Field are still separated.  But that doesn’t mean they don’t still love each other, or love their children.  It doesn’t mean one of them “lost” and the other “won”.  Or that one of them is “better” than the other.  It just means that in some families, not everybody lives in the same house all the time, and that’s okay.  That can even be better than it was when we all lived together.

(The Fisher King: one of the few Hollywood movies to use fantasy songs in the same way Indian films do)

It had never occurred to me, being a child of a family with no divorce, how painful it would be as a child to watch all those films where the “happy ending” is mean Mom agreeing to take back Dad, or vice versa.  It makes you keep hoping for a happy ending that will probably never come, but more than that, that if your parents aren’t currently together, then you must be trapped in the unhappy part of the movie.  That your family and life is “wrong”.  To have a movie told in this very gentle child-friendly and child-level way with the message of “your family is a-okay and you are a-okay and this is all perfectly normal”, was deeply meaningful for some people.

And then Kamal Haasan came along and blew that all up.  Because it couldn’t be a movie about both Mom and Dad being right and wrong, and loving you equally just the same.  Now it has to be a movie about Dad being right and loving you more, and Mom being a “child” (he actually calls her his child at one point!  In a public TV interview!  Like he doesn’t realize there might be anything wrong in saying that) who he has to gently correct and steer away from the obscenity of divorce.  Because, as I am beginning to learn, Kamal Haasan really likes being the best ever in his movie roles.

Now, I’m not as mad as I would be if this were an American remake.  India has a very different relationship to divorce, there aren’t nearly as many small Indian children watching this movie going “wait, am I doomed because my parents got divorced?” as there would be in America.  There is no crying need for a film that addresses the experience of children of divorce.  I’m fine with the ending being the parents getting back together.

But to make Kamal right all along, removes the second message of the movie, the one that may have been less important for the audience but which is the main engine for the plot: that our hero learns about himself, and is able to be more honest and a better person, when he is playing a woman than he ever was as himself.

The conflict in Mrs. Doubtfire does not come from Sally Field, it comes from Robin Williams.  And the trick of the film, is that the audience is so trapped in Robin’s perspective, we can’t even see that.  At least, not at first.  At first, it looks like Sally Field is the enemy, taking his children away from him for no good reason.  But once we, and Robin, see the family when he isn’t there, see how his wife struggles to do the best while always being the bad guy, to support the family and keep the house going; and see how the kids and struggling with the feeling of being trapped between two parents; then we, and Robin Williams, see that he is part of the problem as well.  And that he has to “become” his fake character a bit in order to solve the problem, to help around the house and be a disciplinarian for the kids, not just as “Mrs. Doubtfire”, but as their father.  He has to pretend to be someone else, to learn more about himself.

Image result for mrs doubtfire

I was going to say that this was a standard dramatic idea, and it is certainly common in Western literature and film (Black Like Me, Tootsie), but I can’t think of an Indian product that does it quite like this?  Chupke Chupke, Don, the many Ram Aur Shyam imitations, they all have the idea of false identities.  There are even films with the false identities becoming real, the man pretending to be a son or a brother or a father eventually taking on the role fully.  But I can’t really think of any in which the hero learns more about himself and comes to understand his own weaknesses and how he brought this on himself through the masquerade.  It may be that I am just missing a really obvious example, let me know if you think of something in the comments, but if not, it’s an interesting statement on how Indian narrative treats heroes differently, that they can’t even criticize THEMSELVES.  That any masquerade will only serve to let them learn that they are even more awesome than they thought, and to teach others to appreciate their “real” selves even more.

Right, so, this movie!  Kamal Haasan is perfect in every way, and the disguise just serves to let him prove to everyone else how inferior they are in a new way.  I mean, I agree with a lot of his points, and it’s a really cleverly constructed way of proving everyone else wrong, with all of the assumptions destroyed as new people in disguise are introduced into the household, but it’s still irritating!  (also, very strange to have Kamal make an anti-divorce movie when he himself is happily divorced.  Or was this before the divorce?  Huh.  Wikipedia says, he was divorced early on from an early marriage which resulted in no children, then lived with Sarika without marriage until Shruti was on the way, and then they got divorced in 2002.  So he was a little bit of a hypocrite when this movie came out, but really really would be a hypocrite now, since he has now divorced the mother of his children)

(Huh.  I don’t think I’ve seen a Sarika movie yet.  But this song is really nice!  Maybe I should watch this one)

Especially considering how his constant right-ness destroys the character of his wife, Meena.  She is basically a foolish shrew for the entire film, until the very very end when she has learned to appreciate him and once again goes along with whatever he says.  Oh, and she played Mamootty’s wife in Drishyam!  So I guess she specializes in wives who foolishly disobey their husbands.

His friends and father-in-law are pretty destroyed too, but I don’t really care about them, because they are set up as sort-of antigonists to begin with.  But it is very odd to have the wife character, who he supposedly “loves” constantly be dismissed as a child and not really knowing what she wants.  I kept thinking “well, maybe you think she is childish and simple, but she was like that when you married her too!”

Meanwhile, the actual child is adorable!  Very cute child actress, very fun dancing and playing with Kamal.  Although I wish they had done a little more with her besides making her happy to be with her father and not that interested in her mother.  Some investigation of how the divorce is affecting her, beyond just suffering for losing out on time spent in Kamal’s magical orbit.

Okay, I am a little worried that I already sort of spoiled the movie, but that’s all stuff that you could kind of get from the DVD cover, right?  Now, time for the slightly more specific SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER




His wife Meena is a wealthy Brahmin girl who married him against her father’s wishes, even though Kamal is just a lowly film dancer.  And then she spent all his money and fought with him for no reason and was generally unreasonable and horrible, and now is divorcing him and taking his daughter and moving back into her father’s house.

(This is his intro song, which is very cool in the movie-within-a-movie way.  Reminds me a lot of “Smiyai” from Kandukondun Kandukondun)

We see all of this in flashback at the opening, within the framing device of their divorce case.  Their early romance, when Meena defied her father to marry him (although, it’s definitely structured a little more as him “winning” her and defeating her father, than her making the decision on her own for herself).  Followed by a clever bit when he takes her to get the blessing of an idol, and it turns out to be just a fake statue from a film set.  I really like the little backstage jokes in this around him being a film dancer.  I wish they had carried that a little further, done a little more with the idea of the fantasy and reality and how that relates to their mutual expectations from marriage, but instead it’s more kind of a one off gag.

A few years after marriage, he comes home, ducking the landlord because they are behind on rent, to find Meena has just purchased a color television on installments, because they had one in her home, and it will help their daughter learn to watch educational programs.  Now, this is like a parody of “dumb wife”.  She is spending his hard earned money on frivolities, spoiling their child, and trying to convince him through specious arguments that it will actually save them money and that it is for the good of the child, not her own selfish desires.  And, of course, Kamal is a saint, so he just accepts it all.

In this case, of course, Kamal is right.  I’m not trying to argue that a color television has a vital educational quality.  But I could so easily see the same exchange happening about, say, music lessons.  The mother, who is the primary caregiver for the child and most aware of their needs, insists that this is necessary.  And the father sweeps in at the end of the day and says “Waste of my money!  I forbid it!”  It’s not that this actual argument shown in the film is wrong, it’s that the pattern it follows is so dangerous if it makes people accept as a given that the wage earner always knows best and the homemaker is bad with money.

And the same with their later argument, Kamal has brought his daughter to work, and she is happily performing as the lead dancer in a song.  When Meena sweeps in to take her away and yell at Kamal, Kamal tries to reason that they have already started filming the song, it doesn’t make sense to stop now, the child is enjoying herself!  Again, in the context of the scene as shown in the film, Kamal is certainly in the right.  There is some expense and preparation that went into this, and there is nothing wrong with a child acting (heck, it’s almost 4th wall breaking, considering the child is herself an actress.  By the way, Meena was a child star as well).

But, on the other hand, in the normal course of things, if one parent does not want their child to be in films, and the other parent knows this, then it is SUPER WRONG to go ahead and put them in a movie!!!  This isn’t the mother being snobby or super protective, this is her giving her perfectly reasonable opinion and restrictions as a co-parent, and not being respected.  It might make me want to take my kid and move back home to my parents as well!

One the divorce goes through and Kamal starts his charade as the new “nanny” it changes from “well, this is a kind of normal dispute for ‘real’ life married people, only in ‘real’ life it would be less clearly one-sided” to “okay, Meena isn’t even capable of taking care of herself, let alone her daughter!”  While Kamal is able to easily balance a promotion at work with taking care of his daughter at his “other” job, Meena isn’t able to even run one household.  The servants are stealing, the daughter is injured, or forced to participate in things she doesn’t enjoy, Meena can’t even manage to hire a new cook without turning to Kamal!!!

And everyone falls in love with Kamal!  It almost feels like the main point of his disguise is to allow everyone in the film, no matter their gender, to fall under his spell.  His friend falls in love with Kamal’s disguise persona, his other friend and fellow dancer falls in love with “real” Kamal, Meena’s father falls in love with him as well (which, was that part of the plan?  Kamal specifically asked for his disguise to be based on Meena’s deceased mother.)

But, like I said, all the disguises and misunderstandings are kind of remarkable for their complexity by the end of things!  Kamal has brought his friend in as the new cook for the household, pretending that he is a Brahmin when he is actually Muslim.  He is pretending to Meena’s father to be married to one man, and to his friend to be married to another.  He is pretending to the dancer with a crush to be in love with his female version.  He is pretending to his friend that his female version is a servant woman who comes in daily for him.  And in the end, his wife thinks that his female version is a loose woman having an affair with all of these people.

And that is what drives her back to Kamal.  This bit I actually kind of liked, because it was so accidental.  Kamal was going along playing the wise older woman gently nudging his wife back to him (I have a whole other thing about using the sacrosanct all female space to push a patriarchal agenda).  And then, without any planning, totally by accident, she finds out her father is in love with Kamal, and so are the other men, and thinks she sees Kamal stripping (he is really opening his blouse to show his male chest to his friend).  She is so distressed by the discovery that this woman she looked up to is seemingly so immoral, that it makes her question all her other assumptions, and drives her back to the security of Kamal’s arms.  And the final touch is provided when she visits Kamal’s house and sees the saris and so on draped about and thinks a woman is living with him.  All unplanned!  Total coincidence and outside of Kamal’s control.  Yes, it all conspires to have his wife literally bow down before him and touch his feet and re-affirm his excellence.  But I like it better that this all works out because the universe is on Kamal’s side, not because Kamal seemingly controls the universe.



9 thoughts on “Aval Shanmughi: Once Again, Kamal Haasan is the Best, and Everyone Else Therefore Has to Be The Worst

  1. 1. In the traditional narrative, the nayak and nayika (in modern parlance, hero and heroine), do start out perfect. It is their perfection which qualifies them to be the nayak and nayika and be an inspiration to the people around them and to society in general. In modern cinema (starting from about the 1980’s), the heroine stopped being the “nayika” (i.e., the legitimate feminine ideal) and became whoever is the love interest of the hero, hence giving rise to the flawed heroine who has to change to become worthy of the perfect hero. The other kind of story, where the flawed hero has to change to become worthy of the perfect heroine, which was around quite a bit before then, pretty much vanished. There are many reasons for this, but by the end of the 1980’s it became established. One of the fall-outs of what is commonly known as “the worst decade of cinema.” 🙂

    2. A film is made with actors. As in, they are acting, and whatever they do on screen has nothing to do with their real life. Each is a separate, and parallel, universe, and must be dealt with on its own. They do not cross-over. I am surprised I have to make this point. As a student of film, I am surprised that you think an actor’s personal life has something to do with his or her performance on screen. So there is no question of Kamal being a “hypocrite” by being against divorce on screen, while being divorced in real life. There was a very famous Telugu actor who was renowned, among other roles, for several portrayals of legendary “bhakts”, or pious devotees of god. In real life he was an atheist, and said so in many interviews. He was even asked how he could portray devotional roles so well when he doesn’t believe in religion or god or devotion, and his response was that he is devoted to his craft, which demands that he give his best to the portrayal of the role, whatever it may be, and that has nothing to do with his real life beliefs. That’s why it’s called acting. 🙂

    3. I can’t remember when Avvai Shanmughi released, but if, according to your review, it was before 2002, then it was during a time when in India divorce was extremely rare, and had a tremendous stigma, for both men and women. It was felt that a marriage, once entered, must endure, no matter what. You may not agree with that position, but it is what it is. It’s only lately, I would say beginning in the 1990’s, that people came to slowly accept divorce in cases of abuse. Divorcing because you’ve discovered you made a mistake, or no longer care for the person, especially if there are children, is not acceptable. I am talking of social attitudes, not legalities. For Hindus, there is a category called “divorce by mutual consent” which is pretty much equivalent to the American catch-all of “irreconcilable differences.” For Muslims and Christians, the law is different (and much more restrictive). This is for ordinary people, not the rarefied strata of society occupied by movie stars, so whatever they do is not a norm. Even today, when people complain of the tremendous rise in the divorce rate, the rate is about 10% nation wide. But this *is* still a tremendous rise from the days when it was less than 1% a mere 20 or 25 years ago.

    4. You insist on seeing this film through a feminist lens, when, from your own summary, it is more clearly a criticism of class and caste discrimination. Thus Kamal being right and his wife being wrong is not just a resolution of a personal battle, it is actually the underdog of society (a “lower” caste person in a “lowly” profession — film dancer instead of film hero) winning against the socially more powerful and discriminatory people. To show that Kamal’s character was wrong, and learns to correct himself through the masquerade, would be to affirm that the “lower” people are not worthy of interacting with, or marrying into, the “higher” level people, which would be a very dangerous dangerous message to give.

    5. BTW, Kamal Hassan does have a personal agenda, which he constantly inserts in his movies. He himself is an atheist (from having worked for a Christian missionary agency in his young days), which is fine, but he is also anti-Brahmin, and he makes a point of showing Brahmin characters as hypocritical and having their “Brahminness” destroyed on screen, usually through subterfuge. Here it is via introducing a Muslim cook by claiming that he is Brahmin. Now if he was actually criticizing hypocritical practices among Brahmins this would be fine, but he merely humiliates Brahmin characters for being Brahmin. This is something I learned through reading several reviews of his films, because a lot of it apparently is done via word play/language use in Tamil, which I’m not well-versed enough in Tamil to pick up. In real life Kamal was born and brought up in a Brahmin family, but his objections don’t seem to stem from any personal experiences, but from a political stance. He doesn’t do this in every film, and it’s usually very subtle and almost a throw away kind of line. And of course he has given great portrayals of both Brahmin and very pious characters, being the great actor that he is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • 1. I hadn’t heard this interpretation before.

      2. I am a student of film, and a student of media studies and popular culture. Media studies requires that the public persona of a star be considered when discussing their roles. As you say, part of Kamal’s public persona is to be very modern and free-thinking. So it is odd for him to be the mouthpiece for such a traditional view of marriage. I am surprised audiences were able to put aside what they knew of him, and that he thought it wouldn’t be an issue for them.

      3. I believe I acknowledge the differences in divorce in India in the post. I specifically want to make it clear that there is no need for the Indian audience to learn about a “good” divorce, and that I wouldn’t expect that. But I would have appreciated a more even handed view of both sides of the couple needing to change before they can come back together.

      4. I see movies how I see them. I can’t write something different than what I see. The caste message was the obvious one, the one the filmmakers wanted me to see, but for me, the gender issues were much stronger than the caste ones.

      5. As I said, the anti-Brahmin stuff was the obvious issues addressed in the film, but I found it less interesting to discuss than the gender issues. Maybe because it was so obvious? In media studies, the idea is that the obvious issues are the less powerful ones, because the audience is able to recognize the message and set them aside. It is the other messages that are more dangerous, and worth discussing and bringing to light.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. i dont believe you havnt seen any indian films with hero being right always and the best ever..no point in blaming kamal hassan alone for it..


    • I haven’t seen it to this degree often, where no other character is ever in the right. If I see it in a different film, I will blame someone else for it in that film, but Kamal is the star of this particular film.


  3. For some reason, the film that popped into my head when you asked about double roles and one character not learning from the other was Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. I love that movie, but every time I see it, I hate the part when Suri insists to Bobby that he won’t change to be more like Raj in order to win Taani’s love. In the credits, he seems to have become a bit more fun-loving, but in the rest of the film Suri and Raj are so separate that they actually feel like too different people. RNBDJ could have used a bit more Mrs. Doubtfire or Tootsie.


    • Huh, I hadn’t thought about it that way before. That was always one of my favorite scenes, because I saw it as Suri rejecting self-hatred and being proud of who he is, even though he knows that’s not the big romantic hero most girls like.

      But you’re right, he could have learned from Raj, learned to express his feelings and be a little more free and uninhibited. And, as you say, it does look like that is part of the message, that he had to be more comfortable with Taani and more fun, as we see in the end credits and even a few scenes with them before that (for instance, at the Japanese night), for their marriage to work.

      I love Rab Ne, but maybe it would have been better if Taani had directly said something to Raj like “You express your feelings to me, not like my husband”. Something to let him learn why she was able to come closer to him as Raj than as Suri and what “Suri” needed to do to change that.


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