Second week for this, going okay so far! Having a schedule to stick to is really driving me to watch movies. That was the initial purpose of the To-Do List, but then it just got so big I couldn’t deal with it. But needing to have a new Malayalam film watched and reviewed every Monday is good for me. Oh, and this movie in particular I have been wanting to watch since last Onam (at my local theater, we got Oozham instead).
Fairly early on, we learn the year of birth of our “very very old” heroine, and I had a moment of shock when I realized she was YOUNGER THAN MY MOTHER!!! My mother, who isn’t even a Grandma yet, works part time, volunteers all over the place, and last week helped some people push their car out of a snowbank.
But then, is that the point? That in one context, someone age 64 is done with her life, fragile, to be ignored and cast aside. But in another context, she is still an active member of society, doesn’t need anyone to take care of her, and can run around pushing cars out of snow banks. It’s all about perception, not age.
(Hema Malini, for instance, is 68)
Well, at 64 it’s all about perception. I mentioned this before in my review of Thanmathra, but my family lives a very very long time. My mother is 66, and she has spent most of the past 10 years running around taking care of my grandparents who all lived well over 80. My grandpa is still going strong, age 95. When you have 95 to compare with 66, then 66 really doesn’t seem that old.
That’s part of the context that changes the meaning of age, but the bigger context is that Rajini Chandy, our heroine (by the way, was this actress in Ozhimuri? I thought I recognized her, but I can’t find confirmation online), is trapped in a world that has no purpose for her. She has passed childbearing age, and even childrearing age, and is still trapped inside a household with no outside interests.
In essence, Rajini is going through here something similar to what in the West happens when the kids leave for college. The primary caregiver transitions from spending all her time and finding her identity through raising children, into other interests. And it happens when they are young, not just “young in that context”, but actually young, in their 40s or early 50s at the most. Young enough to start a second career, to go back to school, to remarry, to climb Mount Everest, whatever!
But in this movie, it seems as though Rajini went straight from raising her son to raising his children. And now that her youngest grandson is 8, and caught up in phones and computers that she can’t understand, Rajini has no more purpose in her life.
This isn’t a criticism of Rajini’s family. I found nothing short-sighted or uncaring in how her son and daughter-in-law and grandchildren treated her. She really didn’t give them any openings to be kind to her. All of them were equally guilty in being trapped in a certain style of interaction, not seeing how things could be better.
I didn’t feel like this movie was necessarily even saying “see old people as people” (although, yes, that was its explicit message), but more “see all people as people”. Rajini was only seen as a grumpy old lady, not as a person with thoughts and feelings and memories and the ability to contribute to the world. But at the same time, Rajini only saw her granddaughter as a spoiled brat who always talked on the phone. Rajini’s son Suraj Venjaramodu only sees his own son as a kid who wants to go back to school and cut their vacation short for no reason. And on and on. Rajini discovering herself is the switch that changes everything, lets her see everyone else clearly and them all see each other. Just because they are family doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make an effort to get to know each other.
Okay, now, SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
The opening credits sequence is really cool. Right up there with the opening credits for Kuch Naa Kaho. It’s a normal family waking up. And saying things like “Mom, where’s my shirt?” and “breakfast is ready!” and “you’re late for the bus!” Only, replacing those usual phrases, while keeping the same tone of voice, are the names from the opening credits! So, “costumes by So-and-so” instead of “where’s my shirt?” It’s really clever!
And then it starts to go downhill. Oh, I don’t mean this is a bad movie! Far from it. Just that the first 15 minutes or so is a lot of painful set-up. But I held on to those opening credits and believed it would get really smart again. And it did!
There were some kind of cute touches in this opening. Mostly revolving around the youngest kid, the little boy. He has a crush on a girl in school. His friend tells him that he should try to meet her first, be friends with her. So he does, and she is happy to be friends with him. I’m not telling this right, just trust me, it’s super cute. And also different feeling, they are really little kids, like 8, and the romance is treated as real for them, not just a cute kid thing. But also not like Devdas and Paro “I will die for you!” meaningful. I don’t know if I’ve seen an Indian film before with a childhood romance that truly was a childhood romance, not some strange foreshadowing of a lifetime bond.
The rest of the family though, they just had the same kind of standard middle-class problems I am used to from these films. The father likes to talk to his boss and then go to the bar after work and complain. The mother has a job but also takes care of the household and wants to spend more time with her husband. The oldest child, a teenage daughter, is always on her cell phone with her secret boyfriend. And then there’s the mother-in-law, who is the typical mother-in-law, always complaining, and always driving away servants.
Things start to shift slightly when they finally find a servant she likes, a Bengali man servant (sidenote: Is there something I should know about West Bengal-Kerali migration? I think Annmariya‘s servant was Bengali too). But they get bad again when she gets angry in front of the father’s boss and embarrasses the whole family.
It seems like these two things aren’t necessarily related, but I think they are. First, there is a certain kind of tension with two women in a household that just isn’t there with a woman and a man. Having a male servant who was willing to just go along with what she said softened grandmother Rajini, made her open up a little. Which made her start to feel hurt again at the way her family constantly ignores and neglects her. Which causes things, finally, to change. At first the father is angry at Rajini’s blow up, but after talking it over with his boss, he decides that maybe this is a sign that things need to be different, maybe they should take a trip, as a family.
In a different movie, this family trip would be the solution. But in this movie, it’s the family that is the problem. Or rather, the way they have all been locked into their family roles. What needs to happen is for them all to spread out, get away from each other, try something different.
And so, instead, Rajini refuses to leave. She insists that she would rather stay there, with her new servant that she likes, they go away. And the mother insists that they travel after all, instead of waiting for her. And the oldest daughter (although this initially does not seem significant) also insists on staying, that she has exams at school.
And so we have a divided family, the daughter at school, the grandmother at home, the husband and wife and youngest son traveling. And a new arrival, the wife’s mother, arriving to stay in the house while they are gone. Everything is shooken up (is that a word?), which is all that is needed for things to change.
I was dreading some kind of “magical Grandma” thing with the new grandmother, that she would be just perfect in every way. And she was pretty great, able to use cell phones and Facebook and always cheerful and happy. But she wasn’t sooooooooo great that it became unbelievable. She got confused by some of the cell phone stuff, she types slowly on the computer, and we learn that she can’t drive for long distances. All of this wasn’t played for laughs or even really emphasized, it was just a reasonable and realistic depiction of how people over 60 are. Their fingers aren’t as nimble and cell phones are hard. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be active and happy people and part of the modern world.
That little bit of sort of reality check is what makes the rest of the film work. The two old women get drunk together, which is kind of cute and surprising, that they can both drink so much. But then they are super sick the next day (leading to a cameo by Nazriya’s Dad from Ohm Shaanti Oshaana, yaaaaay!), because older people may enjoy getting drunk like everyone else, but there is a consequence for it that is harder for them.
While they are drunk, Rajini and Bhagyalakshmi make a pact to fulfill all of Rajini’s desires, now that she has the freedom to pursue them. This bit was fun, but kind of felt pointless. The lead up to it was good, the slow realization that Rajini had spent her life serving others, never even having a chance to celebrate her own birthday, and so now that she felt useless, she didn’t know what her purpose was any more. But then the montage of dream fulfillment was just so-so and kind of felt like there was no bigger reason for it.
Thank goodness it didn’t go on very long before we got back to the meat of the story, the real reason for Rajini’s discontent. Before she was married, before she gave up her life for her kids, before her family started ignoring her, before all of that, she had a little love story that no one ever knew about.
Backing up a moment, did I mention that the actress playing the granddaughter is Aparna Balamurali, who was so great in Maheshinte Prathikaaram? Anyway, it’s her, and I was kind of surprised when I saw that on the cast list because she was so strong in Maheshinte, and then the granddaughter role her seemed so dull. But now it makes sense! Because she gets to play Rajini in the flashback as well!
The flashback romance is sweet, and also kind of cynical. Our heroine is only going to school because her parents can’t afford anything else. Our hero woos her by plagiarizing a magazine story to impress her. He tells her to wear a yellow skirt the next day, but she only has one skirt, so she has to fly a yellow handkerchief instead. It’s kind of messy and not perfect and feels all the more real for that. And in the end they were separated not by some great perfect tragedy, but simply because her parents wanted her to marry someone else.
There’s also some interesting money dynamics that are happening. She has to go to school far away with relatives, because her parents can’t afford it otherwise. They hurry her marriage, because it is a boy who doesn’t want dowry. She only has the one skirt. But now, just one generation later, her son is wealthy and successful with a large house and a servant and cars and all of that.
There were some money dynamics in the original romance too, but I’ll get to that in a moment. First, back in the present day, Bhagyalakshmi loves this story and is all excited to track down Rajini’s old boyfriend on Facebook and go see him. Which is surprisingly easy, or at least it is easy to find a different old school friend and start from there.
But the problem comes when they get up to leave and discover the Bengali servant has vanished. And neither of them can drive that far. And so they call on the teenage granddaughter, not because she is irritating or rude or all the other things they thought about her, but because she is skilled and strong in a way they aren’t. And she calls on her boyfriend to help, not because he is her boyfriend, but because he is young and can help them too.
It’s just a feast of “people seeing each other in different ways”! The most obvious of course is the two young people learning about this love story from the past and getting to see the two Grandmas as vibrant people. But it’s also about the two Grandmas seeing this teenage romance not as disgusting and modern, but just the newest version of what they went through in the past. Oh, and there is a nice little reminder to the audience to watch their assumptions as well, when the perfect handsome dangerous boyfriend rides up on his motorcycle, and then starts to talk and has a terrible stutter. But he’s still a nice boy!
Also a nice boy, Jude Anthany Joseph! He played one of the boys in the flashback who was always running after Rajini (as she remembered it). And in the present day, that is his grandfather while he is the young man who immediately starts going after the granddaughter. Only, he’s also kind of a nice guy. He offers to show them to Rajini’s old love’s house, he goes along for the rest of the ride when they don’t find him there, he even helps them hide from the rest of the family.
Oh right, the rest of the family! They are on a holiday tour. With wife happy, but husband worried about his mother back home, and son worried about his little girlfriend. Only, then they bump into another family they know from home who offers to have them join on a luxurious bus trip. Family togetherness, but with a man the husband can drink with and someone for the wife to gossip with and, best of all, the little girlfriend is there too! It’s her family that’s taking the bus trip! And so, everyone is happy. It’s family togetherness, but not quite.
And we also get a follow-up on the Bengali servant, who also isn’t quite what he seems. They knock on the door of Rajini’s lover’s house, and there he is! Turns out, he is renting the house from the old lover, he isn’t Bengali at all, he was just pretending to be a servant to help his own love story, with the girl who lives next door to them. See? No one in that house was what they seemed to be! You had to look past the roles, whether it was grandmother or teenage brat or Bengali servant.
And you have to look past the roles one more time with that sweet flashback love story. Because Rajini finally does meet her lover, recently returned from America (and played by Sreenivasan, while his son Vineeth played him in the flashback, which was a nice touch), she slaps him, and then walks off.
I find two things interesting about this reveal. First, Rajini explains that everyone wanted the sweet old romance. No one would have helped her if she’d revealed the messy truth. Again, the perceptions of the characters but also the audience are being played with. We are so used to that magical old-fashioned romance, we never consider anything else, and we easily believe the story.
Second, the flaws were there all along! He first admitted he “loved” her after she confronted him with plagiarizing. He even used that as his excuse for plagiarizing! She was so poor, and he assumed she was wealthier, at least enough to have two skirts. It’s still a nice romance, but it doesn’t come as a total shock to learn that he got the chance to study in America and wrote her a brush off letter saying it was fun, but he is moving on to better things.
And so we end where we began, at an old folks home where the director playing himself (I think) is waiting for the “chief guest” to arrive. And the chief guest is Rajini! And Bhagyalakshmi. They have arrived to do a little slideshow of the lives of the residents, and then to pick a name out of a hat and give that man or woman her deepest desire.
It’s sweet, and I also like that there seems to be some clear division between the really really old people at the home versus Rajini and Bhagyalaskhmi who are, as I have said all along, really not that old.
Oh, and then in the end they get in a car and fly to America. Which seems perfectly reasonable, because back when my mother was their age, she flew to India.