Okay, I’m going to try something. Before, I would get a big DVD order or have a slow week at work, and post a ton of blog posts from Kerala or Tamil Nadu or whatever all at once. And then hit a point of being busy at work and running out of DVDs or whatever and post no reviews at all for a while. But that’s not good, this start and stop. So, now that the big Hindi release season is about to end, I am going to try to stick to a schedule, Monday Malayalam, Tuesday Tamil or Telugu. And then Hindi or whatever other random thing I am watching (Zindagi Gulzar Hai?) the rest of the week.
I watched this movie on Saturday, around when I was going to the Women’s march. The first half before I left in the morning and the second half after I got home that night. And it was kind of the perfect thing to watch that day. Because it showed a world in which all of society was focused on bringing happiness to one tiny little girl. Well, “society” meaning almost all the named characters in the film. Society at large, I can’t speak to.
Ah, it is nice to get back to Malayalam films! I took a break for the past couple months, which means when I went back to Einthusan, suddenly all the movies that came out last fall are now available! Yaaaay!
And one thing I forgot about these films is how everyone is in everything. The main character of this film looked vaguely familiar, so I looked him up, and I’ve seen him in like five things! But always playing the hero’s best friend or assistant, not the hero. In this one, good old Aju Varghese plays that character and Sunny Wayne gets to be the lead for once.
(You know, this guy!)
Well, “lead”. The real lead is a little girl, Sara Arjun. I was going to say that “this is obviously her first movie so I haven’t seen her in anything before”. But no! It’s like her 8th movie, and she’s already played the lead in several others. And now I want to track them down, because she was very very good in this. A good actress, and also a nice little girl that I kind of wanted to hug.
(This little girl)
Somewhere, I think back when I reviewed Jacobinte Swargarjyam, someone in the comments said that this is the kind of “family” movie that used to be more common in Malayalam cinema. Is that correct? Am I remembering correctly? If so, I think this is another one of those movies.
What really hit me with this film, partly just because the plot has a few similarities, is that this is the feeling that made Dangal feel so special. That it is a love story, but not a romance. A story about all the other kinds of love and how they can come together to achieve great things.
And, like Dangal, the object of all this love is the person whose needs and desires can be most overlooked in Indian society, a little girl. Only, unlike Dangal, this little girl isn’t told what to want and forced to want it and then helped to achieve it. Instead, she picks her dream out for herself and no one tries to change it.
That’s the big thing I loved about this movie. I loved a lot of other little things too, like that our “villain” is on the other end of the spectrum, a rich upperclass handsome and athletic man. The person whom society overlooks the least. I loved the message that a father’s duty to his daughter should be more than any other duty in his life. I loved that she wanted her father, but didn’t need him, in some situations she might actually be better off with a single parent mother. Oh, and I loved that the person who ends up caring for and helping this little girl is another one of the dregs of society, who is kind of a terrible loser person for the whole first half of the film.
Okay, I can’t say anything else without getting into SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
The movie opens with a voice over, and I am ashamed to admit that I did not recognize the voice. But I will tell you, because if you are reading this section of the review, it means you want SPOILERS. The voice is Dulquer. Who has a surprise cameo/friendly appearance later in the film.
Which, partly, YAY DULQUER!!! But also partly, yay a film industry in which there is such value placed on a film about a little girl!!! When Dangal came out, everyone Lost Their Minds over Aamir’s amazing humbleness in being willing to take part in a film about young women, where he had no romance or action scenes, where he was just there to support them. And here’s Dulquer doing that but even more so, like it’s no big thing at all.
To some degree, everyone in this movie is doing that, willingly playing second fiddle to a little girl. Both onscreen and off, if you see what I mean? The actors are giving up a lead role in order to let a little girl actress have it. And the characters are giving up their own happiness in order to bring happiness to a little girl.
And not a saintly little girl either! I mean, I love her, she’s great, but she is extremely naughty. Or to put it another way, human! This is not some kind of dying Dickens saintly angel child type heroine. This is a little girl who is sometimes a little selfish and a little proud and a lot bossy. And she’s rewarded for it! Not for being bad, but for the goodness that comes mixed in with the bad. And most of all just for being a little girl who deserves to be happy and supported purely because she is a little girl.
Ech, this is the SPOILERS section and I haven’t been putting in my nice little spoilers all in order! Sorry! Right, we start with Dulquer’s voice telling a story that Sara Arjun’s father told her about her grandfather. It’s confusing written out like that, and it’s kind of confusing when you see it onscreen, but that’s how family stories are, you know? You remember your parents telling them to you and you also picture your grandfather or great-aunt or whoever it is in the story they are telling and then you think about how it relates down in your life, and it all gets mixed up and confused.
The story goes that Sara’s grandfather (I think. Or else her father) won the gold medal in long jumping when he was in school. And before he did it, he went to the top of a hill near their ancestral house and he saw an Angel. And the Angel blessed him, and then he went on to win the match.
Now, Sara is determined that the same thing will happen to her. She practices day and night, joyfully jumping all over school and her house and her mother’s office where she stays after school sometimes. And dreams of meeting an Angel and winning the match.
This early section, as usual in Malayalam films, we are kind of dropped into things and have to find our way. But more than that, we are dropped into things as Sara sees them. All she knows is that her father calls her own the phone a lot and sends her presents, that her mother takes her to work with her sometimes, that she sometimes gets distracted when the teacher calls on her in school, that there is a little boy who always sits with her own the bus, all of this stuff is mixed up in her head without context.
And then she sees her athletic’s teacher confront and threaten her beloved home room teacher in a storage closet at school. We, as adults, can read between the lines and know that the athletics teacher dated and dumped the home room teacher and now is threatening her that if she reveals their relationship, he will have her fired using his connections. But all Sara knows is that it was scary and strange. And when her home room teacher doesn’t come to class the next day, she tells her principal, because he is supposed to fix things. And when her home room teacher comes back just long enough to tell Sara good-bye and that she is resigning and “not to worry”, Sara knows just enough to know that an injustice has somehow been done.
Seeing this all from Sara’s view is what makes us take her side so firmly on what comes after. Because she is just a child and she truly has no power or knowledge, because children don’t. More than that, this was the first time darkness had touched her life, and that is the highest price one can pay, to lose childhood innocence. She deserves to be protected from any further aftermath of this. Which is what her home room teacher tried to do by claiming the resignation was her own decision and everything is fine (a good attempt, but children are too smart to be fooled by that kind of lie), and what her principal did by not following up with her and explaining that the athletic coach is connected to the school board, and so evil has triumphed.
But now the athletic coach is not only so petty that he is taking revenge against someone who was in the right, he is doing it against a child. And by doing so, he is teaching her forever that the world is an unfair and dark place. Eeeeevil athletic coach, evil unthinking privilege athletic coach (did I mention I just went on a march against Trump this weekend?), rigs the school trials and claims that Sara fouled and so can’t be on the long jump team. The other teacher, the one keeping time, tries to object (showing that this is ultimately a moral universe, except for our one terrible exception). But the athletic coach over rules him and sends Sara off.
(Remember how we talked about how this song is brilliant for showing how the girls aren’t really damaged by all this? Their world is still over-all caring and just? Yeah, this movie isn’t like that)
Now, in a different movie, Sara would have gone and complained to her mother about this, or quietly cried to herself. But this is a movie about a real human little girl with real human problems, and so she reacts differently. But in a way that comes naturally from all those little bits we saw of her life earlier.
Sara may not have the ability to fully understand what is happening in her life, but she does have the ability to react to it. Her father has been overseas doing mission work for a year, her mother has been struggling a little to keep the family together. And her father, in his guilt, has been sending Sara overly generous gifts.
And so Sara has learned the lesson that her mother has too much going on and Sara should not put more on her by asking for help. And that her father is unavailable to her and cannot be counted on. And finally, that valuables can be currency, can get you what you need from people. And so, instead of asking for help from another authority figure, Sara determines to solve this on her own by taking one of her presents and using it to pay a gunda to beat up her coach.
There’s a nice little sequence putting together all the strings that bring her and Sunny Wayne together. The little boy who sits next to Sara on the bus has a crush on her, which she doesn’t really know, but she senses. And so she puts it on him to find her a gunda. The little boy’s big brother is a burgeoning tough guy, only 12 years old but trying to be macho. So he asks him for help. The big brother can’t admit that he isn’t a “real” tough guy, so he spins a story that he knows a real tough guy, Sunny Wayne. And finally, Sunny himself is a sort-of rickshaw driver who really spends his days sitting around at home trying to find a way to make easy money.
One of my favorite stylistic pieces is in this sequence when the 12 year old tough is trying to talk up Sunny. He tells a story about a robbery gone wrong in which Sunny beat off half a dozen assailants single-handed. We see this story later “for real”, only to learn that the characters were reversed, Sunny was the faithless one who set-up the ambush, and the other man in the car was the one to fight them all off. But more importantly, in the first version told by a 12 year old to a 10 year old, everything is animated. Because that is how kids grasp violence, like it is a cartoon or a comic book, not something “real”.
(Yes yes, just like in Kill Bill)
Because that is how she grasps violence, the whole idea of Sunny beating up her athletic teacher isn’t something that Sara, or her little friends, can really understand. And, from the other side of things, Sunny can’t understand Sara either. Both sides have no problem using the other, Sunny thinking of Sara’s feud as just a “little kid thing”, having forgotten how painful those childhood issues can be. And Sara thinking of Sunny as just a tough who can fight her battles, not as a person with his own problems, who can be hurt.
While I was watching it, the movement from them seeing each other as a tool to be used versus real people felt contrived. But looking back on it, maybe the details would have been different, but ultimately this change was always going to happen. Because they both were real people, and caring people, so it is natural that both of them would be hurt at some point and the other would see their pain.
In this case, Sara contrives to blackmail Sunny into fulfilling her desire, after he had already taken her expensive cell phone from her father in payment and planned to cheat her. Sunny is immediately severely injured, because he isn’t really an invulnerable tough, he is a human who can be hurt. And Sara immediately calls her mother to take him to the hospital, because she isn’t really a heartless crime lord blackmailing her underlings, she is a little girl who has never seen someone seriously hurt before.
And because they are human, they both feel a bond from this incident. Sara gives money to him to help while he is recovering. And Sunny decides to try to get her cell phone back, because it isn’t “fair” for him to keep it if he isn’t going to do what she paid him for.
And this is where, again, it becomes either contrived or simply human. Sunny is ready to try some elaborate system on the wealthy man who bought the phone. But in the end, the man is a little unconventional (likes to be called “Baby”), but ultimately a good person who simply hands the phone back as soon as he hears that it was sold under false pretenses. Not only that, he so appreciates Sunny’s efforts on behalf of his friend who lost her phone, that he hires Sunny as a driver.
(The second song that comes to mind when I hear someone called “Baby”. The first is “Baby Doll”, but I decided that wasn’t appropriate for a kids’ movie)
I said at the beginning that this is a story of two powerless overlooked people helping each others. Sunny was powerless because he was an unemployed youth trying to pick up money on the edges of society. But Sara cared for him and helped him, and that inspired him to try to do the one small thing in his power for her (to get back her phone), which resulted in him being rewarded by another small bit of power, as a working member of society.
Sara is powerless because she is a girl and a child. And she tries to use money to get her way, and when that fails, she uses connections (having her family friend the cop arrest Sunny). But ultimately, her real power is in her good heart and innocent view of the world, taking care of Sunny when he is injured which drives him to try to help her more than anything else would have.
And it is this same power that, slowly, is working in her home life. This is where the themes come into play more and more. At one point her mother explicitly tells her father that Sara is obsessed with the long jump because she misses her Dad and somehow thinks it will bring them closer. Sara can’t see that, but her mother and the audience can.
And we can see all the other ways she is trying to fill that gap in her life. She latches on to Sunny as her defender and friend, because she wants a male figure. She sees the coach as a symbol of everything that has gone wrong in her family because he is trying to keep her from competing just like her father and grandfather did. She easily gives away the presents she received from her father in return for Sunny’s support, because she knows those presents were always just a substitute for a father’s love. And so, when her father returns home only long enough to sign the papers and tell her that he and her mother are divorcing, it makes her flee all the more into her friendship with Sunny and the new kind of support he gives her.
I kind of wanted the ending of this film to be the divorce going through. I knew for Sara-the-character it would be sad. But I would have kind of liked the message of the narrative that her father can, ultimately, be replaced by the rest of society if they step up and take responsibility. Look at the people around Sara! There’s Sunny, there’s his friend who he drags along (Aju Varghese, again), there’s Sara’s little friend who’s in love with her, they are all men! Even her “Angel” Dulquer is a man. It may take 4 of them to begin to fill the gap left by her father, but they are filling that gap. Maybe she is, if not exactly better off (her father is never seen as abusive, just absent) without her father, at least able to move on and have a happy childhood thanks to everyone else helping out.
And I also would have been happy for her mother. We see her mother being a capable single parent. Sure, she can’t know everything going on in her child’s life, but no one person can. What she can do is attend the parent teacher meetings, confront fearlessly both Sunny and the evil coach on her daughter’s behalf, understand why Sara is so fixated on this long jump competition, do 90% of the work in keeping Sara’s life happy and safe. It’s just that remaining 10% that requires everyone else to step up. And wouldn’t it have been nice if the end of the film had been a narrative rejecting a father who can’t seem to care enough to provide even 10%?
That’s what made me think they might be going that way, that it was so clear he just didn’t care. He wasn’t a bad man, he loved his daughter and his wife. But not enough to put them ahead of everything else in his life. And it wasn’t even like he was chasing after money and fame! He was doing good in the world, working at a rescue camp. But, as his wife pointed out in their meeting with the divorce lawyer, if he couldn’t put his daughter who needs him ahead of doing good in the world, then he shouldn’t be part of a family.
And the resolution to it all was so sudden! We had him show up just long enough to break his daughters heart before rushing off again to his patients. And then he doesn’t come back until the very end. And the segment where he was gone was the happiest part of the whole film!
Sunny has a job, and in between times he goes to visit with Sara, giving her the male figure she wants, being her friend, encouraging her. And so he is the one that she turns to to fulfill her dream of meeting an “Angel” on the hill by their family property. It’s a small request, but when he is considering it, Sunny has a conversation with his boss “Baby” which could be considered the thesis for the whole film.
He is debating whether it is worth it to play into Sara’s fantasies, and his boss tells him about his little girl. How she wanted to take part in the school play, but he refused, because of the cost, and instead sent her on a school outing. And the bus was in an accident, he was able to see her in the hospital, and then she died. And he asks himself, “why not always fulfill a child’s desires? They are so little and their happiness is so precious.”
That’s the point of this film. Sara’s desires may be “silly”, to win a school sports meet, to see some fantasy of an “Angel”, to have her athletic coach beat up. But she is a child and for that reason alone, she deserves to get whatever she wants. Because to break a child’s heart is a sin, whether you are her athletic coach who cuts her from the team for no reason, or her father who can’t be bothered to spend time with her.
And so Sunny takes her to meet the Angel, and arranges with his friend to dress up and meet her. Only, before the friend can arrive, DULQUER!!!! In a white hoodie and white shoes with wings on them. It’s never clear if Dulquer is really an “Angel”, or just a nice guy out for a walk who plays along with this little girl’s fantasy.
And the end of the film argues that everyone is and is not an “Angel”, it just depends on the effect you have on others. In the end, Sara wins the long-jump and Dulquer magically shows up to cheer her on (how did he know and why did he come? Angel!). And as she wins, she sees her father show up in the crowd. He has, apparently out of the blue, decided to return home and be there for her again.
But in Sunny’s life, Sara was the “Angel”, forcing him to be a better person, get a job, get established. And, in his final scene in the epilogue, finally go up and talk to the lady at the bus stop that he has had a crush on all along.
And Sunny himself was an “Angel” to the athletic coach. After Sara faints with anxiety seeing the coach again at the sports meet, Sunny has finally had enough and delivers that long promised beat down, not giving up until the coach is finally humiliated and down on the ground. Which was a blessing for him, teaching him to be kind and respectful to everyone, even those he might thing as far below him.
Maybe the epilogue argues that all these people were Angels. But we know who the real “Angel” is, it’s Dulquer. The person played by a famous movie star who magically shows up at the end, who somehow knows how to help her win her sports meet, who somehow arranged for her father to come back out of the blue. Which means that our little girl heroine, the most overlooked character in most of Indian film, the kind of character that Aamir got accolades for presenting in Dangal, is the most important of them all.