This movie is about a lot of different things, but what leaps out at me is they way it handled the hero’s childhood adoption into an American family. It managed the difficult task of avoiding any easy answers, acknowledging the challenges of the situation without blaming anyone for them.
Really, that’s what this film does all along, acknowledging challenges without placing blame. It handles the problems of the diaspora community in America, without saying that it is America which is to blame, or which is to save them. It just deals with the reality of the situation. There are a lot of good things about America and a lot of reasons that you should stay here, and there are some bad things that happen too. And you have to decide, for yourself, if the good out weighs the bad.
That whole last paragraph was from the perspective of an Indian-American. Which is how the film is made, from that particular perspective. Or, with that focus? It’s not exactly that we are seeing everything just like an Indian-American would see it, but more like we are watching the world as it would be experienced by an Indian-American every day.
But at the same time, the “white people” are fully 3 dimensional as well. Not good and not bad, but with their own unique concerns. There are certain things that they will just never be able to understand about the Indian-American experience. And there are also certain ways in which the Indian-Americans will never fully be able to understand them. And that’s just how it is.
It looks like the writer of the film has done multiple projects set in the diaspora? A sitcom about a Malayali family living in America, a movie about an assortment of Malayali characters in London, and now this. My very minimal research (skimmed an interview) shows that he was living in New Jersey for over 12 years at the time he started working on his successful youtube sitcom, which eventually lead to a film career. So he really really knows what it is like to live between two countries!
That sense of living in between is kind of brilliantly used in a thriller. Thrillers and film noirs and crime films all have a long tradition of using the setting to help set the mood. Originally, at least in American film noirs, this was because it was often cheaper to film on location than to use studio lots. And film noirs were all about being cheap.
But it ended up being kind of a virtue-out-of-a-necessity situation. Films like Call Northside 777 or The Third Man ended up being much deeper thanks to the sense of danger and chaos in their real world settings. Northside 777 used the backalleys, corruption, and poverty of Chicago. The Third Man used the tragedy of post-war Vienna with all its faded glories. They weren’t showing us the glamorous side of these locations, it’s not like when Raj Kapoor took Indian film to Europe in Sangam, they were showing us the dirty and ugly bits of real life.
(Although The Third Man and Sangam did both have famous soundtracks, so that’s something in common!)
Ivide was filmed entirely on location in Atlanta, and you can feel it in the bones of the movie. This isn’t the clean and beautiful backlot version of America. Or even the “a few location shots for the songs, but the interiors are back home in the studio” version from Dhoom 3 or Kal Ho Na Ho. This is 100% America. And beyond the authentically bland high rise apartments, and authentically tidy suburban homes, there is just this vague sense of “different” through out, that this isn’t the right place, or the usual place, for these characters/actors.
(Tragically, this is not what my childhood block parties were like)
This unease carries through into the thriller plot perfectly. I spent half the movie wandering why we were following all these different and unrelated threads, and if they would pull together at the end with the actual murder that opens the movie. And then I finally figured out that they are already connected, because it is this sense of unease and unhappiness and confusion that all the characters are feeling to a greater or lesser degree that is a symptom of the same kind of shifting world and identity that lead to the murderer’s actions, that lead to his victims putting themselves in harms way,.that lead to the investigation going down dead end paths. They aren’t connected in the end, they are connected in where it all begins.
Speaking of which, it’s time for my SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER part of the review!
We start with a voice over in Malayalam. And I am not 100% sure if it is said by Nivin or Prithviraj. I’m pretty sure it is Prithviraj, because he has voice overs later, but it also talks about a saying and a lesson learned in Malayalam, and Prithviraj is identified as being far removed from his roots while Nivin is tied to them. This is mostly me just not being experienced enough to recognize their voices in voice over. But it could also be a purposeful choice, letting the voice play with no image so it is just the anonymous voice of the immigrant.
And then we go right into the opening sequence, which perfectly captures all the complexities of this particular immigrant experience. A mustached slightly over weight desi is meeting a young blonde woman after arranging the date on the internet. She is clearly a little turned off by his appearance, and his general air of confidence. Confidence as in, he sees himself as a catch, and she does not. I can sympathize with her. And I can also see that the guy took off his wedding ring before he picked her up, and he posted an old photo on his profile, clearly he was looking at this as a quick hook-up with an easy American girl.
But, on the other hand, she is ever so slightly in a better position than him. She talks less, is more comfortable in the restaurant, is just a little bit more in control. There’s a gender tone there, her being the woman on the date and him having to impress her. But also just the slightest hint of an American-not American to it. She knows the cool songs to listen to on the radio, she knows how to sit in a restaurant, she doesn’t have an accent when they speak English together.
It’s perfectly done, so I can see both sides of the interaction how they both feel in the right and are seeing it completely differently. Him, seeing himself as the powerful wealthy cool guy and her as a young blonde woman who would be lucky to be with him and is clearly sexually available, and her seeing him as just a strange old man trying to be cool who she has nothing in common with and can say “good-bye” and never see again with no regrets.
(Unlike, say, Baby Spice in this song. Not the most 3 dimensional character)
This same balance continues through all the interactions in the film, not just American-desi, but male-female, boss-employee, all the power dynamics always cut both ways. For instance, our hero Prithviraj. He is introduced on his birthday. He wakes up in bed with a white woman. He meets his little daughter, who gives him a picture she drew with her mother for him, but the mother is not in the picture. Because she asked not to be there. Prithviraj is the husband and father, usually the position of power, and he is even able to spend his time having sex with white woman while his wife raises his daughter. But in terms of these little emotional jabs, he is at the mercy of his little daughter and his wife.
And then he goes to his mother’s house. And this is where the adoption theme is introduced, and handled beautifully. His mother is white. She greets him warmly, gives him a tie she bought him, offers to make him his favorite meal “meatloaf” and leaves him in the living room, which looks just like any suburban living room in America. And he has an awkward conversation with his stepfather, who complains about all those “immigrants” taking the American jobs, another company outsourcing to India.
On the one hand, Prithviraj is clearly loved by his mother. In that way, he is in the strongest position in the household, he could even throw out his stepfather if he needed to. But on the other hand, he is a “guest” in America, he has to sit there and listen to this white man lecture him about the economy, because old white men in America are always in a position of power over everyone else, even the son of their wife.
And then Prithviraj explains his backstory. He was 7, living in an orphanage in Kerala, when his mother “Mary” randomly picked him to come back to America with her. He was brought here, to Atlanta, where he was the only brown face on his school bus. And, he wonders, what would his life have been like if he hadn’t been picked?
It’s such a nice clear speech. Gives us the exposition, of course. But also gives us the hints of survivors guilt that will drive his character through out the film, and have probably driven him through out his life up to now. He was picked, just because it was his birthday when Mary visited the orphanage, and it was his birthday because that was the random day the Priest had assigned him. All those other children grew up in India, to be beggers or doctors or storekeepers, and he is in America, living a charmed life.
It also tells us how he has learned to hide his Indian identity, to deny it. For one thing, the speech is in Malayalam, and later a character will mention that he “doesn’t even speak” Malayalam. It’s great for the audience that all his internal monologues are in Malayalam (there is a disclaimer at the beginning of the film apologizing for all the English), but it is also a nice character note, that on the inside, when he is talking to himself, he still thinks in Malayalam.
But we can also see, from his memories of his childhood and his interaction with his mother, how she just never quite got what he was going through. But also, that that’s okay. She loves him, she is his mother, she did the best she could. And if she doesn’t see how hurtful it can be to be the only brown boy on the bus, or to constantly listen to people complain about “immigrants”, that’s just something he has to learn to live with.
Really, his mother’s perspective and his are talking about color-blind versus color-aware. Mary is color-blind. She sees him as her son and that’s all. He plays baseball, he reads Kipling (there’s a whole other post I could write on the significance of a Kipling book being part of his childhood keepsakes), he loves her meatloaf. It wouldn’t occur to her to think about his Indian identity, his life before the adoption, any of it.
(I love Kipling, but he had a very complex relationship to the Indian identity)
But that leads her to hurt him, unknowingly. Because even if Mary is color-blind, the world is not. And in the world, Prithviraj is treated as an “other”. And to have that ignored by his mother, instead of her giving him tools to help deal with it, ends up just doubling the hurt. That would be interesting enough, and would be the case if this were an infant adoption. But since it was a childhood adoption, Prithviraj also feels “other” inside himself. His deepest identity is still Malayalam, his earliest memories are of those other children who didn’t get the life he was able to have. And that’s something he just cannot share with his mother, the person closest to him, because she will never be able to see it.
But this blindness to it all is a part of his mother’s love for him, and I feel like the filmmaker gets this even if it takes Prithviraj’s character a while to see it. She loves him so much that all she can see is her “son”, she can’t conceive of the shallower view of him as just a brown skinned American. And to acknowledge or deal with his life before her would be to acknowledge that she once wasn’t her son, to say that he isn’t really “hers”, which is the biggest fear and hurt for any adoptive parent. She loves him too much to put aside her own feelings about the situation and deal with his.
And then there’s the next generation. I am just jumping around in the movie like crazy, by the way, all of this Prithviraj character development is mixed in with other scenes, but I think the best way to deal with it is all at once, and then look at the other character bits and plot separately. Anyway, Prithviraj married a Malayalam woman, Bhavana. She says she met him in a student group at Brown University, and she mentions that he attended the Indian students group, even though he didn’t speak Malayalam. And that she thinks she may have married him more for his American identity than anything else. Not like a green card marriage, but like he represented escape and freedom to her.
That’s interesting, but what did she represent to him? I think the clue is in that they met at the Indian group. He reached college, and started searching for some kind of identity, some resolution of the forces within him. So he joined an Indian group, and he married an Indian woman. And now he has an Indian daughter. One who is raised with traditions and language and all that culture and background he was denied. But at the same time, he continues to think in a language he denies being able to speak. And he continues to fight with his American mother. And, most of all, he never brings his Indian daughter to see his American mother.
This struck me right away, in those very first scenes. His family is celebrating his birthday, but separately. His mother gives him a tie, and his daughter gives him a picture, but he doesn’t bring his daughter to see his mother. For the rest of the film, we see him periodically stop by his mother’s house, and we see him share custody of his daughter, playing with her and taking her back to his apartment on his nights, and so on. But we never see him bring his daughter to visit his mother.
Now, this could just be a filming conflict, the little girl wasn’t available at the same time as the “Mary” actress (who is really not that great, by the way. All of the non-desi actors are fairly stiff and uncomfortable. Or maybe it’s just that the English dialogue isn’t the best?). But then, way at the end, the last thing we see, the resolution for his character, is he and his daughter bringing a birthday present to his mother, a present labeled “Mom”. That’s the resolution of his identity crisis. His mother is his mother, even if she can’t relate to certain parts of his life. And his daughter is his daughter, even if he can’t relate to certain parts of her life. And he is bringing both of these aspects together, finally.
That’s Prithviraj, what about the other main characters? There are 3 of them, each given almost equal screentime and focus. And they are very different versions of Indian Americans. Nivin is a rising young executive. He is kind of an “Uncle Tom” version of an Indian-American. That’s not quite the right analogy, but he is very worried about presenting the “right” view of the Indian-American executive to the wider world, the view that the white folks won’t find threatening. We see him be all smiling and kind and warm at a staff meeting, announcing the successful acquisition of another contract, and a birthday celebration for a staffer. The staff is notably mixed between desi and white. And then, in private, we see him lay into his Indian second in command for hiring another desi, because they need to make sure they have enough white faces to show to be unthreatening. It’s not just the content of this conversation, it’s the way he acts. The facade of sweet and smiling and charming drops away, and he is just vicious and powerful and threatening all of a sudden.
But, is that a facade too? Later, we see him talking to his mother by Skype, we see him slowly start a relationship with an old friend from school days, we see him be sweet and kind and understanding. Is that the “real” Nivin? The sensitive and considerate boyfriend and son? Or the authoritarian control freak boss? Or the supportive and unemotional boss he is to the greater office? Or are they all equally real and equally fake?
Prithviraj’s problems are obvious, because he isn’t as good at putting on that facade. He is still more “comfortable” in America that Nivin. He lets his mask slip, he lets his anger show, he isn’t always aware of being on display in the same way Nivin is.
Nivin is fascinating, because there is a long time there when you actually think he could be a serial killer. That’s the plot thread that ties all this together, Prithviraj is the cop investigating the murder of the middle-aged guy with the internet date way at the beginning. His investigation leads him to Nivin, he had business contacts with several victims. And Nivin is also just beginning a relationship with Prithviraj’s ex-wife, Bhavana, who was just hired at his company.
Like I said way at the beginning, I kept looking for a way in which Nivin would be tied directly to the investigation. It felt like he could be the killer. He had so many different faces he showed the world, and the more we saw of him, the more disturbed he appeared. But, he’s not the killer. He’s just an ambitious NRI who has lost track of who he really is in the world and what he really wants, and where his moral compass falls.
That danger that we sensed under the surface was there all along, but it hadn’t reached the point of murder. Just pimping. Again, I love the way they handle the white women in this movie. Prithviraj’s girlfriend, for instance. She could easily have been just a random white woman who he was sleeping with. But they gave her a personality and a voice in her own life. First, while Prithviraj may indeed see her as just someone to have sex with, she expects more of him. She calls him and complains about her work and wants to talk about her day. It could have been done as the usual “lame irritating girlfriend interrupting my job” kind of call, but the dialogue they wrote for her and the way she delivered it made it legitimate. She just wanted to have a quick conversation complaining about her day, that’s it, no big demands or expectations. And he couldn’t even give her that.
By the time she breaks up with him, telling him that she was tired of being a stopgap as he tried to move on from his marriage, I was completely on her side and glad she was leaving him. And I think we are supposed to be on her side. Prithviraj just sort of sits there and takes it, like he knew he was using her. And when he tries to talk to her later about a work related thing, he doesn’t quite apologize, but he is clear that he knows he has no right to talk to her and wouldn’t, if it weren’t an emergency.
That’s Prithviraj and white women, but Nivin and white women is much much worse. He has a white assistant, who wears revealing clothing and is a little handsy with him. It isn’t clear if they are having a relationship, or are just friendly at work. Until one night when he tells her to go in and bring some papers to the big boss, visiting from India. And then leaves the office, to come back 15 minutes later, in time to see her leave, with torn clothes, crying, and slap him.
We saw that the big boss had a thing for non-Indian women (he had starred at this woman before, and he made jokes about the Korean air hostesses on his flight). We saw that Nivin gave him a drink and got him comfortable before sending in the woman. But the whole story wasn’t clear until much later, when Nivin showed his boss the video he had made of him molesting the assistant until she managed to escape the room. And Bhavana checked Nivin’s phone and found sexy photos of the assistant.
(It’s all very 22 Female Kottayam)
Nivin flirted with her, got photos of her, set up his boss to be caught molesting her, and then blackmailed the boss in order to get a promotion. All of that is bad, but the worst of it was sending a woman in to be sexually attacked. A woman that had learned to trust you, that you had become close to yourself. And the film doesn’t turn away from that just because it was a non-Indian woman. We see her crying, we see her later looking a little sick as she realizes that she was always Nivin’s side piece, being groomed to be handed over to his boss. And Bhavana leaves him over this, because ultimately, her identity and loyalty as a woman to another woman supercedes any ethnic or racial barriers.
I was kind of happy with this as Nivin’s resolution. That he may be the sweet good boy to his mother and his desi girlfriend. But underneath, he is corrupted by American culture, or put it another way, his underlying corruption is what attracted him to America to begin with, the rot was always there, being in America just let him feel freer to explore it.
That’s not Nivin’s resolution, but it is kind of the resolution for his boss. That this is a guy who sees America as a place to visit, a place to suck resources from, but not a “real” place. He can molest the women, he can stuck his worthless son as the manager of the American office, none of it matters because it isn’t in India. That’s the real villain of the piece, not the Indian-Americans who are just trying to survive however they can, but the ones who don’t make any effort to engage with the place as anything besides a fantasy.
Bhavana is engaging with the country as a bit of a fantasy as well. She mentioned wanting to marry Prithviraj because he represented freedom and America to her. We also see how she seems blind to all the bad things that happen in America. She doesn’t realize that her hiring in Nivin’s company was against his express instructions, since he didn’t want another desi. She just accepts that she has this great new job with this really nice boss that she used to know from school. She doesn’t hesitate to give an interview on TV, even while their are protesters in front of her office and a madman killing immigrant IT professionals through out the city. She only sees Nivin as her old friend and this nice guy who cooks her dinner. She doesn’t think about what he must have had to do and what he must have gone through to go from being a poor kid in Kerala to a top executive in Atlanta. Yes, he is only showing her the nicest side to him, but shouldn’t she have guessed there was another side, just from looking at his accomplishments? Their break-up is her waking up from the fantasy. Not just the fantasy of him, but of the whole country. She throws away her tech ID, she doesn’t even want that job any more.
Now, in a worse movie, her break-up with Nivin would have driven her back to Prithviraj. She even says that Prithviraj may have been violent and angry, but he never lied to her. But this movie isn’t going to ask the heroine to choose between the lessor of two evils, or always return to her husband. She breaks up with Nivin, but her next interaction with Prithviraj isn’t any better. He confronts her and demands that she protect herself and their daughter because the killer is threatening them. And Bhavana points out that the biggest danger to them is from him. That she doesn’t want their daughter growing up, seeing his father yell and grab her mother. And that if he comes around again, she will call the police.
And she’s right! This isn’t the standard “oh, action heroine, doesn’t see the bigger picture!” thing. Prithviraj is a danger to her, and their daughter. We’ve seen through out the film how his anger is out of control, how he doesn’t seem able to let go. He may be a wonderful loving father, but he is not ready to be a romantic partner to any woman, whether it is Bhavana or his white ex-girlfriend. This isn’t a “love heals everything” movie. This is a “love can sometimes be the catalyst that makes you examine the very real problems you have within yourself” movie.
In the end, Nivin is the first to heal himself. He writes a resignation letter to his boss and an apology letter to Bhavana. He is done with America and what it has turned him into. And Bhavana responds, realizes she loves him as well and would rather marry a nice guy and go back to India than stay in America. Well, she doesn’t get much time to realize it, because it is all folded into the action-y ending with the killer attacking Nivin and Bhavana, but in the end she does go back to India with Nivin.
And, like I said, Prithviraj goes to visit his American mother with his Indian daughter. The killer gives him a chance to kill Nivin, to take back Bhavana and “win”, and he gives it up. He would rather she be happy with Nivin, the man and life she wants, than that he keep fighting for it. And, in a larger sense, he is giving up his whole struggle. No more ideal Indian family with the ideal Indian wife. He is able to move on now.
The wikipedia synopsis or something I read somewhere says that the movie ends with Bhavana and Nivin and Bhavana’s daughter moving back to India. But, that’s not true. And that’s kind of the point of the whole movie. The daughter stays in America, with Prithviraj. This is his new family, the American family, a single father, an Indian-American daughter, and an American grandmother. Bhavana and Nivin can go back to India, can rediscover their identities and find happiness there. But Prithviraj, and his daughter, belong in America now.