Ethir Neechal: Dickensian!

Did I say before that Rajshri has a TON of Balachander movies for free on their youtube channel?  They do!  I don’t know why, but who questions a miracle?  So now I have seen another incredibly early and, I assume, classic Balachander movie.  Really early actually, this film is from 1968 whereas Moodru Mudichu was 1976.

This movie is SO STRESSFUL!  Our hero is so pure and so powerless, and the people around him are so venally evil.  Over and over again, the world tries to grind him down and he escapes by the skin of his teeth. Plus, it’s so episodic!  I keep thinking all his problems are solved, only to discover that was just the start of yet another problem!

And then about an hour in I realized what it reminds me of.  Dickens!  Noble poor hero, random group of people around him to help or hinder, series of episodes in his life, and ultimately, just barely, his goodness is rewarded.

(The whole “goodness rewarded” concept is one of the MANY MANY things that Fitoor did wrong)

I’m not terribly fond of Dickens, because I also find it SO STRESSFUL, but I appreciate the reasons behind that story structure.  Which, I suspect, are the same for both Balachander and Dickens.

They were trying to reach two audiences simultaneously.  The poor audience that needs hope and encouragement and something to believe in, Dickens and Balachandran are telling them that if they persevere and do their best and live through all this terrible stuff, they will be rewarded.

And they are trying to reach the rich audience, to tell them “Hey!  Look how noble and decent and sympathetic this poor guy is!  He’s just like that person you are treating terribly in real life, maybe you shouldn’t treat him so bad?”

(If you want the experience of sympathizing with someone poor and struggling, here is the link for the full film on youtube)

The episode structure helps to make this work.  The “bad” rich people are never quite so bad that the rich audience will stop seeing themselves in them.  And the poor people are never quite so downtrodden that they have no hope.  Everything is sort of 3 steps forward and 2 steps back.  Until the happy ending, when all of a sudden there’s a mad dash 50 steps forward and no steps back.

The story structure and filming techniques both looked rougher than what I saw in  Moodru Mudichu From what I saw on The Internet, this was one of his first movies (or maybe his first movie?) and it was based on a play he put on.  It has that feel to it, like Dial M for Murder, that sort of claustrophobic feel with only one set.

(A good movie, that is much more entertaining if you can manage to find the 3D version.  Not a joke, it really was originally released in 3D, and I’ve seen that version, and it is fascinating!)

Although there are still interesting camera uses within that one set, it isn’t just a stationary camera sitting in the front row, as it were, watching the play.  There are close ups and lighting changes and there are a few really lovely scenes set in a kind of rooftop garden area in which the lighting and tone and everything feels different.  Although, besides the close-ups, you could have still gotten that on stage I guess, if you had a really really complicated set design with multiple small areas and complicated lighting structures and so on.

And it also has a definite feel of a play with multiple acts.  I don’t know much about live theater in India.  Actually, I don’t know anything.  But I’m wondering if it is common to have multiple act breaks?  Rather than the single interval we get in film?  Because that’s what we get here, multiple unrelated sequences with distinctive break points in between.

The one thing that was really great about this style of film, trapped in the one set with a whole series of different stories, is that it let us really really get to know the characters.  Which brings me back to Dickens again, with his serial story structure, it was always the characters that tied it together and carried the story through.

But to talk about how that works in this film, I have to get into SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our hero is an orphan who lives under the stairs.  Which sounds less Dickens and more Harry Potter.  But it’s Dickens-y because this isn’t treated as a terrible tragedy, just life, and our hero is surviving it as best he can.  That was Dickens point, by the way, that a lot of his characters aren’t suffering some remarkable filmy and fake tragedy, but just life in modern times and the solution isn’t to go into this fictional realm and beat up the bad guys, but rather to try to change society so this kind of thing won’t happen again.

Our hero is one of many orphans who have survived by finding a place to live as a servant, and a group of people who will care for them in return for faithful service.  And, the film suggests, we need to treat them as people, to care for them, to let them grow to their full potential.  The “bad” people are the ones who are jealous, who try to stop their growth.  And the “good” people are the ones who care and help a little bit.

This also answers some questions for me, because these orphans are recurring figures in Indian films.  Like Kunal Khemu in Raja Hindustani.  And I know it’s different from when they are actually adopted, I’ve seen plenty of old-school Amitabh movies where he truly literally considers someone his mother or his sister or whatever kind of responsibility it is.  But I couldn’t figure out exactly how it works when there is just some random orphan boy who comes along on all the adventures.

(Question that is still open: why do the servants have to sit on the top of the car?)

But now I think I figured it out!  In this case, they are simply responsible for keeping the orphan alive and clothed and relatively healthy until adulthood.  But it’s not a family relationship, it’s not lifelong, it is merely a matter of taking some kind of social responsibility for ensuring that the next generation survives, and then they are on their own.

And this film picks up right at the tricky division point of that, the part we don’t usually see.  You see the cute kid who helps out in the fight scenes.  And you see our tough hero who talks about how lonely it is having no family.  But you don’t see the part in the middle, when the cute kid has to awkwardly transition out of the unofficial group that has sponsored him and go forth into the world alone.

I saw the plot description of “orphan boy” and was ready for another one of those cute kids.  But instead it is this gangly youth.  He still acts like a kid though, apologizing when he is late and explaining too much and running around at everybody’s beck and call.  And most of the families he serves (all of the people who live in an old mansion that was turned into an apartment complex) are happy to keep him as a kid.  They want him to stay obedient and always there.

But there are two “good” people who are trying to teach him how to be a man.  The old Major who our hero has taken on as something of an elder father figure.  And the “Nayar”, who is terrifying and macho and our hero has taken on as something of a big brother figure.  They want him to finish the schooling that he has struggled with for so long, to stand up for himself and demand his rights from the other tenants, to just generally accept that he doesn’t have to live his life waiting for permission.

(Yes, the Nayar is from Kerala.  And I felt a little thrill when I realized I knew enough to put that together and figure out what he meant by his last name and talking about the strong women of his “homeland”)

And, the most important part of growing up, is of course love and marriage.  Early on in the film, a new tenant arrives, a beautiful young daughter brought back by an older couple.  Our hero is shy with her at first, and she seems nice though, giving him her name and laughing a little, not treating him as a servant or below her.

She is beautiful, and the older couple immediately arranges her marriage with a promising young government employee who lives in one of the flats.  Only, at her marriage, the gossiping young wife loudly tells her husband that she recognizes the girl from when the visited a relative at an asylum.  The groom immediately calls off the engagement and her parents are left ashamed and embarrassed.  Our hero overhears them discussing the possibility that maybe, at this point, they should marry their daughter to our hero.  He lives under the stairs now, but he is studying and will get his degree soon.

This is just one of multiple story threads that weave in and out of the film.  There is also a sneak thief in the building, who our hero is wrongfully accused of being, before it is eventually revealed to be one of the tenants.  Our hero struggles in school and almost fails because jealous classmates try to stop him from reaching class.  At one point, our hero’s estranged father arrives, and he learns he is wealthy!  Which seems very Dickensian and kind of against the rest of the tone of the film.  But in the end, it turns out to all be a fake, concocted by his Nayar friend to force the tenants to be respectful to him for at least one day.

But wait!  It was actually concocted by the beautiful girl he plans to marry.  I’m not clear on why she was supposed to be in the asylum, by the way.  I think maybe just a slight developmental disability?  She seems a little childish in her efforts to make friends, and quick to anger in the way a child would be.  But she is capable of understanding how the world works and talking to people, and she has no psychotic episodes or drugs she is on.

Anyway, the point is that she is another person in society who is seen as “less than”.  And our hero sees her as that as well.  It isn’t until he talks to the Nayar character that he decides he will try to befriend her and understand her, because if she may be offered to him as a bride, better that he learns to love her first.

This is such an interesting idea!  That instead of bemoaning his fate, he should learn to pretend as though it is what he wanted all along.  To will himself to want it.  It’s not that he fell in love with her at first sight, or even wanted to love her, he was as afraid as everyone else.  But he decides he will force himself to change, not just accept his fate, but welcome it.

(Very similar to this, but several years earlier and in Tamil)

And then their romance is awfully sweet.  There is one set that is only used for their private talks, and unlike all the other areas of the building, it is a set we see rarely.  Just twice, I think, the first time and last time they talk together.  She is eager and happy to have a friend and responds immediately to his advances.  He is shy and a little scared, but her response quickly makes him eager and confident as well.

Their romance secretly weaves in and out of everything else that happens to him, gives him a real purpose and goal.  And it starts to come to a head slowly at the end.  First with a little misunderstanding, when his flirtatious language to her is overheard by the wrong person, and he keeps silent to protect their little romance.

Then when his favorite college professor offers to marry our hero to his daughter.  This is a fascinating scene, because our hero is so uncomfortable with it.  It’s a great honor, sure, but it’s one that doesn’t sort of “fit” on him.  He isn’t ready for it yet.  And then it changes to be “she hasn’t made him ready yet” when our heroine comes running out to chase him away, arguing that SHE is the one who has kept the other tenants away when he needed to study, SHE is the one who takes care of him, SHE is the one who deserves to marry him.

Our hero isn’t developmentally disabled, the way our heroine is.  But he is in his own way.  After years of being the overlooked child of the household, only given things when he acts childish and helpless, he has a hard time accepting his own rights and responsibilities.  That is the point of the whole sequence when he is wrongfully accused.  First, he isn’t able to fully defend himself because he doesn’t have the tools for it.  But later, when he is willing to take the blame in order to hide the shame of the tenant’s mother who is the real thief, that is a manly decision.  Which is respected and acknowledged by his hero “Nayar” who welcomes him into adult manhood and friendship with him.

Romance, in Indian film/society, is often the biggest drive towards maturity.  Whether you are talking about Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak or Shree 420 or OK Jaanu/OK Kanmani, it is falling in love and committing to each other which make a boy and girl change into a man and woman.  And ultimately, that is the case here, it is just hard to see through everything else that is happening.

(Since I’m probably not going to get around to reviewing OK Jaanu, might as well use this as a reason to put up the song one more time!)

Our hero determines to talk to this strange girl because he might be given the chance to marry her.  She is delighted to have someone willing to talk to her, not afraid.  And woven in and out through the other stories of the film are the ways she grows in maturity and confidence and she finally has someone of her own to take care of.  And as he grows in pride and self-confidence and he finally has someone to take care of him.

Culminating in two sacrificial actions.  First, she coordinates the scheme to make him appear wealthy to the other tenants so that they will finally treat him well, the way she knows he deserves to be treated.  She no longer simply enjoys taking care of him and having someone of her own, she has achieved the point of wanting others to care for him as well, to have the whole world see him and treat him as he deserves to be treated.

But this backfires, because the same promising young government employee who previously rejected her is impressed by her scheming and agrees to marry her after all, and her parents approve of him as a match rather than our young hero, just graduated and looking for his first job.

Which is when our hero gets to make his sacrifice.  He gives up his rights entirely, having someone who cares just for him, and tells her to forget him and learn to care for someone else, someone better.  And this heartbreaking scene takes place in that same roof garden area where they first came together, pulling together the two ends of the romance plot to make a nice little bow to tie the whole plot into one.

I could have been happy if the movie ended here.  Well, not “happy”, but it would have had a certain beauty to it.  The love story is what made him grow up, and as an independent adult, his first action is to sacrifice the very love that brought him here.  In the same way, her love for him made her attractive to another man, causing her to lose the love that brought her to this point in the first place.

But, it’s a Dickens story!  Our noble hero has to be rewarded for his sacrifice (well, unless it’s Sidney Carten. Carten? Cartier?  You know, the “Far far better thing” guy, whoever that was.  Wait!  He wasn’t the hero!  He was the flawed anti-hero!  My original point stands).  He has to be rewarded not just because people like happy endings, but because we are supposed to be learning a social lesson here.  The poor people have to have faith that if they work hard and struggle and sacrifice and always try to do the best they can, then they will get a good job and the girl they love will refuse to marry someone else just in time to marry you.

And the rich (well, middle-class) people watching it who see themselves in the other tenants have to learn that those they ignore can succeed overnight and suddenly be their equals.  Or higher than them, even.

And also, yeah, I like a happy ending!  The sort of O’Henry twist of their love driving them to be better people, which ends up driving them away from each other would have been beautiful and brought a tear to the eye and all that.  But, sad!  I much prefer this ending, where our heroine was determined all along to only marry the man of her choice and sabotages her own wedding, just in time for our hero to return in triumph.  And their marriage finally happens, his last event before leaving his “childhood home” for success in his new job and new life.  In the end, just like I said at the beginning, it is a coming of age movie.  Going from that overlooked orphan boy who has to beg for scraps, to a grown man with a wife and a job going off into the world alone.

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6 thoughts on “Ethir Neechal: Dickensian!

  1. I didn’t read past the spoiler warning, as I have hopes of seeing this myself. Did you say this and the earlier Balachandar film have subtitles? I find that fantastic, because usually the Rajshri channels in whatever language don’t come with them.

    I have a suggestion for you. Unless it violates some legal requirement, can you please post the youtube links when you review a movie from there. It makes life a little less complicated for those who want to follow in your footsteps. 🙂 Thanks.

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  2. Youtube has a ton of great Balachander movies. My favorite Balachander is Apoorva Raagangal. It’s a beautiful movie and it’s Rajinikanth’s debut. Here’s the synopsis from Wiki, “Apoorva Raagangal was controversial upon release as it examines relationships between people with wide age gaps, which challenged Indian social mores. The film is about Prasanna (Kamal) who falls in love with the older Bhairavi (Srividya) while his father is drawn to Bhairavi’s daughter Ranjini (Jayasudha). The rest of the film revolves around the four characters and their problems.” The movie is just as interesting as it sounds, and Rajinikanth’s debut role as a cancer patient is fantastic.

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    • Oh, I really want to watch that now! And it looks like there is quite a bit of cast overlap with Ethir Neechal too. Hopefully I can find a version with subtitles.

      On Mon, Jan 16, 2017 at 12:01 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      Like

  3. Pingback: Thursday Tamil: Major Chandrakanth (Not the NTR One, the Other One) – dontcallitbollywood

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