I don’t quite know what to think about this movie. They left a lot of things open and a lot of things to our imagination, and there are no easy answers in it. But what I know for sure is, I love Mita Vasisht and am thrilled I finally got to see her in a lead role, instead of just showing up and giving awesome advice for a few minutes, and then going away.
You probably love Mita Vasisht and don’t even know it! She was Aishwarya’s divorcee sophisticated city aunt in Taal. And Aamir’s impossible to fool lawyer in Ghulam. And in this, she is…something else. It’s not clear.
Do you know the anthropologist’s conundrum? Or really any scientist? How can you observe something, and be sure that the very act of your observation is not effecting it?
That’s kind of the puzzle for the audience here. Mita arrives in her sister’s household, and does she change it by her very presence? Or does she merely serve as an observer, able to spot things that were already in process before her arrival?
Her sister sees her as just an observer, someone with no ability to affect what happens. Her brother-in-law sees her as the cause of the troubles, the source of them. How does Mita herself see herself? Who knows! Her character seems to change in motivation and personality based on who she shares a scene with.
Sometimes a character changing like that feels like the director and/or actor has lost control, like they gave up and just let the character change as needed for the plot, or never had a real firm grasp on the character to begin with. This doesn’t feel like that. This feels more Igmar Bergman-y, where the character is damaged and therefore susceptible to outside forces, quick to change in order to please others. And where the director wanted a character like that, because it is such an interesting film experiment, to have a closed in character revealing themselves through only the tiniest changes of expression.
(Also, David Lynch)
I do think the character is a little at fault. But I might feel differently the next time I watch it, or the time after that, or the time after that. And someone else may see something completely different in this film. It’s one of those movies, purposefully open to interpretation, more of a Rorschach test for the audience than trying to tell them how they should feel.
Which is very unusual for Indian film! Even for Malayalam film, which is so extremely meditative and calm. But there is usually a right and a wrong side, a clear decision by the end. And this one was just open, start to finish, with no real clear side or statement taken anywhere. And multiple moments when you could argue characters “went wrong”.
What makes the aesthetic all the more powerful, to me, is that it is dealing with marital relations. Where you often just don’t know where things “went wrong”. We just had a whole movie, Baar Baar Dekho, about a hero trying to find the moment when his marriage went bad. And learning that it wasn’t any one thing, but an accumulation of a bunch of small things. Only, the structure of the film itself kind of undermined that message, because of course we do know where things “went wrong”, because we had dramatic music cues and close ups and stuff to tell us.
This movie doesn’t play that game. You are never sure which moment is important and which isn’t, and you are left with an accumulation of moments that you know added up to something really bad by the end, but you aren’t quite sure how or why it happened. Which is exactly what happens after a relationship ends, that feeling of “how did we get from there to here?”
So, let’s look at exactly how they did get from there to here. What happens to this couple and is Mita to blame. And, SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
When we are introduced to them, Murali Menon and Jyothirmayi seem like the perfect modern educated urban couple. From their names, we know they are a mixed marriage religiously, he is Christian and she is Hindu. They both work, she as a teacher he as a journalist. And they are living with her aunt (not clear if it is her real or honorary aunt) but looking for their own place. And they are adorable! Flirting with each other on the bus, fighting about what place to rent, cuddling in their bedroom, and so on.
At some point, he gets a promotion at work, and they move into that new bigger place. The time in this movie is a little fuzzy, again very Igmar Bergman-like. The best way to see time passing is through Jyothirmayi’s appearance, she is barely pregnant when first introduced, and slowly shows more and more as time passes.
(Unlike Salaam Namaste, where Preity gets massively pregnant seemingly overnight. Also, Murali is arguably abusive in this, and I still like him better than Saif in Salaam Namaste!)
That’s another element that I find fascinating. Did you know that murder is the leading cause of death for pregnant women? And some research also shows that domestic violence, specifically intimate partner violence, often starts during pregnancy. That’s statistics from American based research, but I suspect it is true worldwide. It seems like such a basic human thing, that the possibility of a child suddenly brings to the surface all these things that you never felt before.
And this isn’t just on Murali’s side. As Jyothirmayi becomes more and more pregnant, she also becomes more and more morally firm. Their big fight is over Murali’s newspaper’s support for a proposal to privatize water service in the state. And I can kind of see how the pregnancy and future child plays a role in both their arguments. From Murali’s side, he has committed to this larger apartment, to his wife going on maternity leave, he has more people to take care of, he wants to keep his position at work and doesn’t see anything wrong in doing what it takes to keep bringing in more money. From Jyothirmayi’s side, she doesn’t want her child drinking poisoned water. This argument starts as something that will just blow over, but it keeps bubbling up again, under the surface, as the baby’s arrival comes closer and closer and both of them take a firmer and firmer stance.
And another thing that the pregnancy serves to bring more and more to the surface is their differing definitions of family. Murali is eager to start his own family, to get off by themselves in their new big apartment. Jyothirmayi is less anxious to move, and is delighted when her sister appears to join them in their new home, and even happier when their “aunt” arrives to stay and help in the last few weeks before the baby arrives. As Murali gets more and more tense and unhappy in his own house, Jyothirmayi gets more and more confident and powerful and unbending, feeling herself surrounded by support. In another movie, this would be huge shouting matches and trying to throw people out and so on. But here, it is in the smaller moments. Like when Jyothirmayi sits in the living room, doing Mita’s hair, and the two women share a moment of closeness while Murali stands and leaves the room, then watches from a doorway, feeling cut off and jealous, and ignored by his wife.
(This would be one of those movies that takes this idea and turns it into a big dramatic thing.)
And finally, of course, pregnancy is a life and death struggle. Which, in this case, they lose. Jyothirmayi survives, but the baby does not. Murali comes home, and let’s his hated sister-in-law comfort him, and what starts as a moment of emotional closeness, turns physical.
This scene should feel like it comes out of nowhere, he has hated her all this time and, besides one casual remark about how he had a crush on her in college just like all the other boys, there has been no sense that he was attracted to her. And she seemed to truly hate him. But then, this is such a messy moment with such messy emotions, it kind of makes sense. He has just lost his child, and needs a distraction and a comfort. She is so damaged, that any sense of need or welcome will make her change herself in response to it, trying to be what the other person wants (at least, that’s how I read her character). And the physicality of giving birth can’t be discounted either. His wife’s body has failed him, now he can erase that memory and put in a new one with someone who is like his wife but different. And when his wife returns, he now needs to erase this memory, to re-assert their connection and his power over her, which leads him to rape her. It’s not a straight line, pregnancy to rape, but it is all tied up with the idea of this massive change in their life that is affecting every aspect of it.
That’s just one way of looking at it, the first thing that struck me and what struck me the most. But the brilliance of this film is that there are multiple equally valid ways to look at it, multiple starting and ending points that track through the film. Well, really only one ending point, you’d have to make a pretty big argument to top rape. But where did it all start to go wrong?
What if you start with corruption and modernity? The pressures of city living make Murali money mad, desperate to get his wife and his family into a new large home. This makes him susceptible to the pressure from his boss at work, eager to please him and keep his promotion. Which leads to him sell his morals at an ever increasing rate through out the film. And as those morals were what initially attracted his wife to him, she begins to feel that she doesn’t know him any more, can’t trust him, and a wedge is driven between them. Which leads to him finally asserting his power over her, tired of her distance from him, through rape.
Or, what if you start even before the movie began? The decision to marry against their family’s wishes and start a new life in a new city? It removed them from any outside support or advice, even more so once they left the shared quarters with their “aunt”. And at the same time, it made them less willing to admit any problems in their marriage, to leave the denial that love would be enough. Murali doesn’t clearly express his issues with Jyothirmayi’s sister, and Jyothirmayi doesn’t see that her emotional reaction to his creeping corruption is hurting him, and their marriage. Inevitably, without a wise hand to guide them and support them, and without the security of a back up plan if they admit everything isn’t perfect, their marriage will lead to confusion and miscommunication, and the right kind of stressors will lead to rape.
(Just like in Saathiya! Only, a lot more violent and without Shamita Shetty)
Mita is the most obvious source of all this confusion. And her blank slate quality lets her give just the right amount of pressure in just the right place on each of the characters. But, like I said, I think that blank slate quality is justified both by the background sketched in for the character and the way the film is developed so that we are never quite sure what is happening for any character.
As I see Mita (and someone else may see her completely differently, that’s how the film is structured, to be open to interpretation), she is a victim of abuse so extreme that she has lost her ability to relate to people normally. She is introduced as Jyothirmayi’s mysterious older sister from the village, recently widowed and come to stay with them. Over time, she slowly drops hints to Jyothirmayi that her husband was abusive and that is why she is so different now. We also hear hints about the “uncles” who are taking her land rights from her. This is a woman who has been abused physically and financially by men and, as I see it, has reacted by being hyper aware of how she can manipulate situations through emotional weapons, the only ones left to her. I don’t think she is even aware of half of what she is doing.
And I think it may have started even before the movie began, the police believe her lover may have killed her husband. But, did she tell him to? Was he really even her lover? Or did she just manipulate him unconsciously into doing what she wanted?
The same is true with what she does after arriving in Jyothirmayi’s house. Just by sitting in a room, and observing their behavior, by her posture and expressions, she makes Jyothirmayi feel close to her, and alienated from her husband. She asks just the right questions to make Jyothirmayi start doubting her marriage, her husband. And the more Jyothirmayi denies that there are problems, the more she blinds herself to the issues that have come up in her marriage in reaction to her sister’s nagging, the worse those problems get for not being addressed.
At the same time, she becomes a lightening rod for all Murali’s insecurities and unhappiness. He learns from a police officer friend that Mita is wanted for questioning in her husband’s death. He confronts her, and she cowers in front of him. Again, reasonable behavior for an abused woman, to instinctively fear any man. But it just increases Murali’s frustration, to feel like he isn’t getting a straight answer from her. And it plays into his worst instincts, his hate for her mixed with power over her.
Her other relationship, with their friend Siddique, is the only one where she is unable to get what she wants. Because he is immune to her. Slowly, she comes to enjoy spending time with him, to dream of marriage, encouraged by her sister. Only, when it comes close to the point and they are alone, he gently tells her that he will never marry, because he is gay. Mita is legitimately shocked!
This is what makes me think all her manipulation of others is unconscious. In her mind, she is a good woman trying to live a quiet life, save her sister from the same abusive marriage she suffered, and maybe marry again some nice man who treats her kindly. She doesn’t even see how her presence is affecting others. And that is proved since she also doesn’t see how it is NOT affecting others, Siddique who likes her as a friend but wants nothing more.
Mita’s dialogue is dubbed in this, but that doesn’t matter, because the meat of her performance is silent. The most important scene, to me, is when she thinks herself alone in the house, while her sister is giving birth and Murali is at the hospital with her, and she dresses herself as a bride, not in a triumphal way, but slowly, like she doesn’t even realize what she is doing.
(Now, this is a triumphal and fully aware way of dressing like a bride! Although, now that I think about it, in the first half of the film Sridevi was just as hard to read as Mita is in this)
And in the same way, she hesitates before entering the room where Murali is, hiding how she appears, but then entering without shame a moment later, and accepting his embraces. In her conscious mind, she may not even know what she is doing, that she is desiring her sister’s life and her sister’s husband, that she seeks a man to protect her, any of that. But her actions show it, in the dressing as a bride, and accepting the embrace of her brother-in-law.
At least, that’s how I see it! This movie is so brilliant, and so open to interpretation! It can just as easily be seen as a statement on elopements, or consumerism, or corruption, or anything else! If I ever watch it again (which, who knows, I might), I could come out of it with a completely different idea of what it is about.