I gave in! I re-upped my Netflix DVD subscription! Just because they have 2 dozen Malayalam films listed, and I am so sick of dropping subtitle files onto youtube videos, or waiting for international shipments, or paying $2.99 for googleplay videos, or squinting at eithusan on my laptop screen. Anyway, now I am cranking through all the random films Netflix happens to have available. Like this one!
This movie hit that perfect sweet spot for me of unambitious but well done. It isn’t trying to change the world, or revolutionize film. It is just trying to tell a simple single story as well as possible.
Or rather, 4 simple single stories. I guess that’s why they all got to be so simple, because they each just had to fill one quarter of a film, not a full movie. It also let the characters be a little less extreme. No one did something really really bad, or really really good, just for the sake of moving the plot along. Everyone just kind of lived their lives in a small way in their own small corner of the plot, and then it all worked out for the best in the end.
It was a small and simple movie, but I still found it interesting to watch because of the little things it did that were just slightly radical. Like, for instance, 4 out of the 5 main characters were women! I mean, Mohanlal was definitely the main-main character. But Sukanya in particular got almost as much screen time, and a lot more backstory. And Meera Jasmine wasn’t far behind her. While the male characters were relegated to comedy bits and the occasional scene, the women ruled all. Even the most prominent child actor was a little girl!
Even Mohanlal’s profession was female oriented! I don’t know if this was on purpose or just a coincidence, but making him a clothing salesman sort of brought his work into the female realm of clothes and fashion. It also explained why his one employee, Meera Jasmine, was a woman, which could have been the only reason for it. But it did kind of feel in that same family of the sari salesman or cloth merchant who would be allowed to display his wares within the female quarters in olden times.
(remember the set up for this? The bangle salesman is coming to the household?)
All of these things, plus the focus on relationships, children, the home, all make this a “feminist film”. Just meaning that it shows a female version of the world. But then it is also a “feminist film” in the message it gives. I wasn’t sure it would be, a lot of the set-up and stuff for the plot made it look like the usual “marriage above all!” kind of message. But there were these structural things, making the kids and the home life and the female so important, which gave me hope. And in the end, my hope I was justified! I love how the conclusion plays out. After some rough bits in the middle.
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We start with the usual “oh, the world today!” kind of opener. But the dialogue has ever so slightly a light touch. Like the narrator doesn’t really believe all these things are that bad. Which gave me hope and kept me watching it (since I am going blind with what Netflix sends me, every film is an adventure!).
Actually, now that I think about it, that isn’t the opening. We start with 3 wedding ceremonies, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian. It’s such an unusual opening, putting all three with equal weight and respect, and ending with a really nice Christian ceremony (not at all the ceremony I am used to, not sure if that is because I don’t go to a lot of Catholic ones, or if the Malayalam ceremony is really that different). The Christian ceremony gets the most focus, and that couple will get the most focus through out the film.
We go straight from their wedding to when things are “bad” years later. The husband, Mukesh (Hey! I was just saying in my Ormayundo Ee Mukham review that I was sure I had seen him somewhere!) is a successful dentist. But, the narrator tells us, he can’t resist a pretty face. We see him bump a young woman ahead in line and take her in right away.
Meanwhile, he has the perfect family at home. His lovely wife drives over to pick up their daughter at school and then him. They come home, and the daughter runs around and he chases her. Neighbors passing mention something about them being “the perfect family”. And then, while getting ready for dinner, Mukesh gets a phone call and starts flirting. His wife, Sukanya, catches him and yells at him, then starts scrolling through his cell phone. Big fight, tossing the phone back and forth, it falls on the ground, and they look up to see their crying daughter watching them.
On the other hand, in another household, there is too much attention from the husband. Mohini, who looks super familiar to me but from her filmography I have only seen in Punjabi House, is married to Vijayaraghavan, who was in Bangalore Days as Nivin’s father and I have no memory of him. The voice over explains that Mohini married him based on his Dubai money and success, and then he loved his new beautiful wife so much, he couldn’t stand the thought of leaving her. So now they live in an apartment in Kerala and he won’t let her alone. We see him picking out her shoes for her, carefully walking her by a crowd of other men on the street, finally turning away a female neighbor who comes to the door, because he wants her to spend all her time only with him and their kids. This is the last straw, big fight in their house as well.
And finally, Muthumani who I vaguely recognized, and I think was the best friend character in How Old Are You?, is recently married with no kids. She is married to someone who is such a non-entity, I can’t even figure out the actor from the cast list! They have the most straight-forward problem. She wants to work, his family doesn’t want her to. There are a couple of layers to it, his family is prestigious and wealthy but less educated, while her father is a doctor and she is a lawyer, so there is a little touch of value and class difference as well. But basically, if she could work, she would be completely happy in her marriage.
(It’s like this a little, but not nearly as dramatic and tragic)
After learning all 3 of these stories, we get to see all 3 of the marriages break up. Sukanya throws her husband out of their house. Mohini goes back to her father’s house. And Muthumani leaves her in-laws and sets up her own law practice. And only at this point do we learn that all three of these women are friends, and former college classmates.
It’s a very nice touch, tying them together like that. I mean, obviously, they have to be tied together somehow or there would be no movie. But similar to How Old Are You?, there is the idea of calling back to a past when they were similar independent and brave and starting their own lives. It’s different than if they were childhood friends, or friends from married women’s groups.
I also like the establishment of how they build their lives, post-separation. Sukanya gets a job as a driving instructor, nicely picking up on the indication that she was a bit of a driver in her own life already. Her husband wasn’t around, she was the one who drove back and forth to school and store and everything else. And now that one skill can help support her and her daughter. Mohini’s father sets her up with a coffee shop, putting her out in the world to the biggest possible degree after her husband tried to hide her away. And Muthumani becomes a powerful lawyer, with her own clerk and office and all. Unlike in her husband’s house, where she was just the newest bride and the lowest on the totem pole. Really, I would have been fine with this being a 40 minute movie, and us already at the happy ending.
But, of course, “marriage above all!” So it can’t end like this. And who appears as the agent of change and happiness? Mohanlal! It very much reminded me of his introduction in Manichitrathazhu. Everything is terrible and confusing, here’s Mohanlal to make it all better and happier! Also reminded me a little of Shahrukh’s intro in Kal Ho Na Ho (watch it with me on twitter in 34 hours! 10 am central time, 11 eastern, just look for the hashtags #KHNH and #DCIB).
At first, and for like the whole first half hour of screentime, his intro really really felt like a meet cute with Sukanya. He shows up to move into her house, which he has just legally purchased from her husband. Only, of course, Sukanya and her daughter and their young maid servant are still living there and don’t particularly want to move. What to do?
Mohanlal is at least decent about it. He stays with his house broker for now (Innocent, who I have seen in a million things), letting Sukanya and her daughter have the house. And he goes to Mukesh and throws the whole thing on his lap, blaming him for selling a house with people living in it, let alone those people being his own wife and daughter!
Mohanlal’s first thought is that the easy solution will be to involve the greater community, get this couple reunited and out of his house. And, now that I think about it, this attempt is sort of the standard “marriage is compromise but what I really mean is that women should take all sorts of abuse” message. Only it doesn’t work, because that’s not the real solution in this situation.
Mohanlal learns that Sukanya wants to stay in the house because it is her house, she sold her jewelry took make the down payment, and then trusted her husband when he put it in his name. He also learns that she can’t just go back to her parents, because she trusted her husband and eloped and now she has nothing. And he learns that her 2 best friends are in a similar position.
Even though he learns all this, he doesn’t really process it, he still thinks it will be a simple fix. He gets their adorable daughter to call her father to come see her at school. And arranges for Sukanya to arrive at the same time. And then confronts them with the necessity of compromise and coming together for the sake of the marriage, etc. etc. Only Sukanya isn’t willing to look the other way and forgive her husband for not being present in the marriage, spending all his time flirting on cell phones instead of talking about how their daughter is doing in school. And in the middle of the fight, Mukesh storms off, and their little daughter calls after him, and then calls off the top of a jungle gym! Yes, just like in Kramer vs. Kramer!
I thought “oh, okay, now they will come together over their daughter”, and then I checked the DVD time and realized we were barely an hour in, so a bunch of other stuff was clearly going to happen. Instead of Sukanya and Mukesh coming together over their daughter, Sukanya and Mohanlal come together. He is the one to rush her to the hospital, he is the one to pick up the medication and keep her company in bed, he is the one to really join all 3 women’s lives and become the warm and supportive partner they need in raising their children. But mostly Sukanya.
This was the part that felt the most like it was going to head in the direction of Mohanlal and Sukanya ending up together. They had really great chemistry, they clearly enjoyed spending time together, why not? Make it like Kuch Na Kaho, the happy ending is a new relationship. Plus, Mukesh really seemed irredeemable at this point. Not evil, like I said, there was no one really bad in this. But just a little too thoughtless to ever improve. He didn’t seem to care about where his daughter would live after he sold the house, he was unapologetic about flirting his marriage away, he didn’t even show up after his daughter was taken to the hospital! Mohanlal had to fill all those roles.
(Now that I think about it, Kuch Na Kaho also had the couple who broke up and had to be brought back together!)
But just when the film seemed to be going in that direction, it took a hard turn driven by Meera Jasmine. She really is fun onscreen, isn’t she? This is the first movie I have seen her in, but looking at her filmography, and going by her confident performance, she is a bit of a star, I am guessing?
Anyway, she’s great here! Shaking up the status quo. She arrives to be Mohanlal’s assistant in his fashion business, hired before the whole house problem came up. And now she needs a place to work, since the office was supposed to be in the house. Mohanlal asks Sukanya to let them use one room for their offices, Sukanya agrees, then is immediately turned off when she learns it will be Meera using the office, not Mohanlal.
Sukanya is jealous and petty, making her for the first time a less than perfect character, and therefore no longer worthy of Mohanlal. While Meera is spunky and forthright and maybe comes on a bit too strong, but is otherwise perfect. So, she is worthy of Mohanlal and they are destined to end up together. And poor Sukanya, along with her friends, has to be driven back to her husband.
Which is the second half of the movie, the slow driving of the 3 couples back together. Not in some big speech about a woman’s role, like Mohanlal thought he could use at the beginning, but by really addressing their underlying problems. And, along the way, addressing Meera’s underlying problems too.
It’s in the Meera sequence where I finally relaxed and decided the ending wasn’t going to make my stomach turn. Because they wouldn’t bother with this story, of the other stories weren’t going to be related in some way. Especially since Meera’s story isn’t even really needed for “plot” plot reasons. We can tell that she kind of likes Mohanlal and he kind of likes her, we can see that her aggressive and confident attitude is a good fit with his laidback manner. And we she is already working with Mohanlal on reuniting the other 3 couples. The only reason to give her a backstory is if there is some thematic meaning to that backstory, it isn’t needed to make us like the character or believe in her relationships.
Meera’s backstory is also not terribly related to the “marriages today” theme, since it takes place in a small rural town, far removed from modern life. But it is related to the theme of women not being appreciated or allowed to live as they wish. Meera’s father dreamed of her going out into the world, getting a degree, moving to the city. But when he died, her mother wanted her to marry her cousin and stay in their small town. Meera stood up for herself, the whole town got involved, finally she insisted on receiving her part of her inheritance from her father (reform of Indian inheritance laws! Woo, Nehru!), and took it to go to the city and study. And she hasn’t been home since.
It took me to the end to get the thematic significance of this. At first I thought it was something about choice, how Meera made the choice not to get married, while the other women made their choice to get married, and now they had to stick with it. But no, it’s really a story about leaving so that things can get better. Meera had to leave. She comes back now, and her family still rejects her. But Mohanlal tells her not to give up, at some point they will come around.
And that’s what happens with our 3 couples. Mohanlal orchestrates things not so that the women forgive their husbands and go back to them, but so that situations will arise to show their husbands how wrong they are and force them to change.
Mohini is the simplest, Mohanlal just realizes that her husband misses the kids and arranges for him to spend time with them. And then arranges a fake kidnapping of their son while under his father’s care. The couple is reunited in concern, and then in happiness when he is found. It’s pretty basic, but it could also be seen as addressing their central issue. He was putting all his protection and concern on his wife, and she was resenting it. Now, they both have a healthier attitude, as co-parents focused equally on each other and on their children.
Muthumani is pretty simple too. There’s an earlier scene when Mohanlal dresses as an upperclass wealthy Muslim merchant to meet with her in-laws, and plants the seed that the current movers and shakers in the Muslim community appreciate more outspoken and outgoing women, there is no need to lock their daughters and daughter-in-laws away. I thought this would turn into something more elaborate, but unless I am missing something, it really was just to plant that seed (and give Mohanlal and Innocent a fun set-piece to play) and nothing else. The real solution is when one of Muthumani’s in-laws gets into trouble in Dubai and they need her legal expertise and her father’s connections to get him out. This solution really does address the basic problem in their marriage. Her in-laws and her husband have to see her value as more than just the newest kitchen assistant, have to let her do the work she was trained to do. And now they do!
Sukanya’s marriage is both the hardest and the easiest to fix. It is also the marriage with the biggest backstory. Not like we get a flashback or anything, but we know it was a love marriage, they both went against their families and eloped. Obviously, there was a lot of love there at some point. Which means there is now an equal amount of hate and hurt.
To get Mukesh back, it is just a matter of forcing him to see what he has lost. Get him to flirt with Meera, just like he flirts with every other young woman who crosses his path. And in the middle of the flirtation, confront him with the vision of Mohanlal taking his place in his home and his family, playing with his daughter and his wife. It gives him the direct vision he needs to put his casual flirtations on balance against his wife and daughter, and see how shallow they ultimately are. Really, it’s exactly what Sukanya was saying in their first confrontation! He has to learn to be present in the marriage, to care about what his daughter is doing and everything else that goes on in their lives, not to distract himself with phone calls and flirtation.
But, why should Sukanya take him back? He really was horrible, not just being unfaithful to her, but uncaring, not worrying about how she and their daughter would survive post-separation. She’s doing fine without him!
Or, is she? She refuses his desperate pleas at first, but is so upset by the conversation, that she accelerates too fast and hits a pole with her car. It’s a bit of a quick fix, to have her be in an accident, to make him realize how much he misses her at the same time that she realizes how much she needs someone to take care of her. But it was also kind of there all along. She was the only one of the 4 main women who was working out of necessity, not pleasure. She was getting by, but it was hard. And she needed Mohanlal most of all, someone to help with her child and her house and everything else in her life. Mohini had her parents, Muthumuni had no child or other responsibilities, but Sukanya was really feeling the loss of a husband. If it hadn’t been this car accident, it would have been something else, eventually she would have needed him enough to be willing to take him back.
All of this is very nice, but what really sells it is the end credits tags. We see the couples happily reunited and get confirmation that the happy ending is the women getting exactly what they wanted. Mohini’s husband casually accepts her going off for an event with their kids while he stays home. Muthumuni’s husband proudly drops her at work and promises to come back and pick her up no matter how late it is. And Mukesh hears his phone ringing while he is at home with his family and casually tells Sukanya to answer it and tell whoever it is that he is too busy to speak with them.
No matter what the rest of the film says, the ultimate lesson seems to be, if your family is making you miserable, whether that is your husband or your parents, then leave them and pursue your own happiness. Eventually, it will all work out.