In several parts of this film, I was reminded of Annmariya. Same single parent family, same kid with too many worries, same unusual relationship between an older tougher man and the kid. But while Annmariya took place in a world of magic and destiny where nothing ever went really wrong, this film took place in the “real” world, and was much sadder.
First, a wikipedia discovery: there actually was a “Mr. Guppy”! He was a British aristocrat whose father was a government official in Trinidad. He had an extremely interesting and adventurous life (shipwrecked for two years!), and discovered a small fish on one of his river trips. The fish had actually already been discovered, but Mr. Guppy didn’t know that and named it anyway. Now, technically, guppies shouldn’t be guppies, but should really be Poecilia reticulata. Or I guess “reticu” for short?
The reason I was looking up Mr. Guppy was because I wanted to learn more about guppies the fish, to see how closely the title worked with the main character. And it really really works! Guppies have a short life span, mature early, can adapt to almost any situation, tend to group together with their age mates in “schools”, and do the small but useful task of controlling the mosquito population.
(School of guppies)
Which is very similar to our hero. Young, but early to responsibilities and maturity. Extremely adaptable. Spends most of his time with his little group of age mates. And does small almost over-looked jobs which are vital to the community.
In a kind of meta way, our young star, Chethanlal, also ends up taking on outside responsibilities. An actor this young is usually not required to carry the entire film in this way. In Annmariya, for instance, Sara Arjun was wonderful. But there were long stretches where the adult actors had scenes without her. And the more complicated emotions were handled through voice overs or by signs such as her mother discovering a secret google search. The pressure was taken off of young Sara Arjun to do more than be her naturally happy self.
But in this film, Chethanlal must convey a wide range of emotions and reactions through his face alone. He must show us misery and anger and fear and all kinds of “grown-up” emotions that I feel sort of bad for a young actor to live through. But on the other hand, he does a wonderful job with them all! So I also kind of want him to keep working instead of enjoying his childhood, so I can see what more he does with his career.
I wonder if it was his talent that made the casting people look past his appearance? Or if his appearance is what they wanted all along? This is not a “handsome” boy. He doesn’t have a naturally appealing face, he looks kind of out of kilter. And he isn’t a naturally striking face either, you could look right past him (as most people do) and not even notice him there. I kind of suspect that the casting people wanted someone who kind of looked like this, because of how his costuming and hair and everything else served to accentuate the effect. Dirty torn clothing, crazy hair, nothing that would make him appealing or easy to like. Or notice. This is one of the “guppies” of Indian society, or any society, one of those things you don’t even notice or want to look at, so small they seem pointless. And yet they are doing small important jobs even if we don’t see them.
I was surprised to learn that this was kind of a big break for the supporting actor, Tovino Thomas, as well! He seemed so confident, if Chethanlal was someone for us to overlook, Tovino burst on the screen as someone we couldn’t look away from. I was sure he must be a big star, just from how he carried himself. But, no! He is an experienced actor, but one who has never been the lead in a film before.
Rohini, our 3rd lead, is by far the most experienced actor in the film. And a former child actor, which I always find interesting when people are acting opposite child actors. I wonder if she was able to easily build a rapport with Chethanlal because of their shared experience of acting as children? Certainly I found their mother-son dynamic completely real and tangible. Oh, and she looked SO FAMILIAR to me, and I finally went all the way through her filmography and found it! She is the adoptive mother in Bahubaali! No wonder I had such a strong good feeling about her when I saw her onscreen.
(This woman. Remember her?)
The whole film pivots on the interactions between these 3 characters. Our hardworking small animal in the pond, the soft and sweet Rohini (an angel fish?), and the shark like Tovino Thomas. Plus some added complications from Sreenivasan and others around the edges. That’s the other way the title works, putting us in mind right from the start of the old saying “Big fish in a small pond”, and then showing us that pond and how all the little fish manage to survive in it.
Okay, I can’t go any further without getting into SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS, so here I go!
As always with Malayalam films, we start with a sort of diffuse plot. We see our hero wake up his mother for the day. And we see him start out after lighting a candle at church. But then we move on to watching his whole little gang of kids, learning that one of them is in jail, seeing the local aspiring politician have to get him out of jail, finding out that an engineer is coming to town to build a long promised bridge, finding out that the bridge will go over the railroad where Sreenivasan currently lives and works along with his very protected granddaughter who is never seen without a veil.
By the time we finish with all of that, it’s kind of a shock when we get back to just seeing our hero again going around delivering his guppies in the city. And I think, this is more on purpose than usually with the diffuse plot opening. His mother prays for him to be watched over by God as he travels through the day, but he isn’t really. Watched over, that is. No one cares about him and no one notices him, not even the audience of the film. He is just one of those school-less and job-less young man who is always around on the outskirts of things but no one ever really thinks about him.
Even his own mother doesn’t quite think about him. The opening is a little shocking, because he treats her almost discourteously. He bangs a pot over her head to wake her, and then slaps down a tray of something (nuts to be opened and chopped?) for her to work on and give to him before he leaves for the day. She sings a prayer for him, but she doesn’t seem to help him in any other substantial way. Later we learn that she has given part of their small savings to help with school fees for a neighbor. Chethanlal doesn’t blame her for this, but it’s an odd thing for a mother to do, to give away money for school fees while her own child is unschooled.
But, as their relationship builds over the film, we get a clearer idea of why this is how they are. His mother loves him, as any mother would. And he loves her. But because of her injury, she is unable to get out of bed or leave the house without his assistance. Their roles have become strangely reversed, he is the caregiver and the safekeeper and the one to help her connect to the rest of the world. While she is the dependent one, the obedient one. And she knows they are reversed, late in the film she finds a porn magazine under his pillow and tries to punish him as best she can, but refusing to allow him to help her bath that day. It’s a punishment that is both too light and too harsh. Too light, because it does not restrict his freedoms in anyway. And too harsh, because it takes away from him his mother’s love, which is the only thing that keeps him going through out the day. If she were healthier, both physically and mentally, there would be a better way.
That’s the other thing we learn explicitly after we have already begun to see it. His mother is not just ill because she cannot walk, there is some mental issue as well. We learn that sudden grief brought on a stroke, a stroke which seems to have made her slightly childlike in her understandings. And conversely, a stroke which made Chethanlal begin caring for her as you would a small child, when he was very young himself. This is a boy who was suddenly thrust into adult freedoms and responsibilities with the adult reasoning ability that comes with it.
(See they way he dances with her? They love each other, and that is beautiful, but a little boy shouldn’t be so focused on making his mother happy that he forgets himself)
Which is where our second hero comes in, Tovino Thomas. Who is, as he himself acknowledges later, the “villain”. He is the engineer come to build the bridge in this town. We have a lot of anticipation for his arrival. And, knowing that our hero Chethanlal is a smart young boy who needs a father figure, and is already bonded with the local administrator, I was all ready for Tovino to become his ally. But instead, they hate each other at first sight! Chethanlal talks smart and refuses to give him change at the chai stall where he works. Tovino responds with a series of petty actions, from slapping him hard to bulldozing the ditch where he is raising his guppies.
It seems SO EVIL!!! Here is Chethanlal, barely getting by, talking care of his mother and trying to raise money to buy her a new wheelchair. And here is Tovino, with all the power in the world, using it to crush a pitiful little boy. Why can’t he just forgive him and move on?
But the more I think about it, the more I think it is because Tovino is the outside who actually sees Chethanlal clearly. Everyone in this town has gotten used to accepting his behavior, to thinking of him as just one of the boys and no more. Only, he isn’t. He is a lot younger than those other boys. And a lot smarter. And with a lot less supervision. His little gang roams around in a three wheel pick-up all over the area. But the other boys have mothers and fathers and people who occasionally yell at them to do something or not do something else. And the other boys never seem to come up with new ideas or original ideas, they are just waiting for Chethanlal to invent something. Tovino can see that, can see that this boy is out of control and shouldn’t be like he is.
I don’t think Tovino is acting out of “tough love”, I don’t think he is doing all these terrible things to try to make Chethanlal better. I think he is doing them because he really does hate Chethanlal. But his hatred comes from a real place, a place of clear seeing that no one else in this tiny little “pond” is capable of. That Chethanlal really is just a “guppy” and he is getting above himself. It would have been better if someone else had seen that sooner and stopped him more gently. But the lesson still had to be given.
While Tovino saw Chethanlal clearly, he failed to see Sreenivasan. And Sreenivasan failed to understand the boys who were always hanging around his granddaughter. And so on and so forth. Everyone is too set in their ways to see what is happening outside of their little world. And so Tovino saw Sreenivasan as merely an irritating old man, always offering them tea. And Sreenivasan saw Chethanlal and the other boys as distractions and irritations in his granddaughter’s life.
I guess, it’s not so much that they failed to see clearly, just that they only saw the worst aspects. Tovino is right, while Sreenivasan has a lot of pride and dignity in his little village, he is not really that important or worthy of respect. And the boys would distract Sreenivasan’s granddaughter and were only following her because she was a girl and they were boys. But on the other hand, Sreenivasan was scared underneath his pride, because he knew his post was temporary and he had to keep it long enough to finish raising his granddaughter and afford her education. And the boys were basically good underneath all their braggadocio. When Sreenivasan needed help, their eagerness to impress his granddaughter lead them to save his life.
(see? Sreenivisan is kind of right to try to keep these idiot boys away from his smart young granddaughter)
What makes the movie a lot darker than I would expect is the argument that it takes a violent shock to change any of these people. I was all set for gentle forgiveness, for Tovino to learn more about Chethanlal’s situation and come to understand him. But there is no gentle forgiveness here. Instead, Tovino has to be beaten and almost killed first. And only then will his eyes be opened to the troubles of those around him, through the two unthinking injuries he caused others which lead one to stab him and another to hire someone to beat him.
Sreenivasan, similarly, only learns to forgive and understand the local boys when he almost dies of a heart attack. And Chethanlal learns to be better after he hires a goon to beat up Tovino and feels responsible when Tovino almost dies. And then, I suppose, we could have ended the film. Everyone has learned the lesson, and will be happier and better and kinder in future, maybe Chethanlal’s situation improves slightly and Tovino leaves town. We have that improvement coming. The medical supply store is about to surprise Chethanlal and his mother with a new motorized wheelchair, free of charge, as part of their ad film. This whole sequence has all kinds of fun jokes about filmmaking and obsessed directors with a vision and so on. We are all ready to end on a happy note. Chethanlal being surprised by the wheelchair, and then maybe his mother’s increased mobility will mean that he can go to school, that he will be able to be more of a kid again.
We already had the big moment of happiness. When Tovino calls him over before he leaves town, and Chethanlal is ready to be beaten or arrested. But instead, is taken to see that Tovino has re-built the guppy pond, bigger and stronger than ever! Clearly, this will be followed by him going home and receiving the wheelchair and everything will be better.
But, life isn’t like that. These problems didn’t start yesterday and don’t have a simple solution. Chethanlal has been living on the edge of survival since his father died when he was a small child and he became the sole caregiver and support for his mother. And there is no end in sight, his mother will never truly get better and Chethanlal will never be able to realize his full potential, or get the kind of support he needs, so long as he is tied to her. More than that, the wheelchair, the arguments with her, the daily routine of feeding and bathing and everything else, it is just to distract from the fact that she cannot go on like this either.
And so, just as our happy ending is about to happen, while the audience is prepared for him to arrive home and be surprised by a wheelchair and a camera crew, instead he is surprised by the neighbors gathered around his mother’s body. He baths her one more time, and then let’s her go.
So sad! Even sadder, we learn that Tovino isn’t exactly the untouchable all powerful figure he appeared when he came striding into town. This is his first job after a two year sabbatical. The last bridge he built, he and his parents and wife and daughter were traveling to the dedication. When there was a car accident, and all of them died, except him. He has been carrying that anger and grief with him this whole time. Is it any wonder he was afraid to connect with anyone else, afraid to have sympathy or try to see an alternative perspective?
The film could have ended here too. With the sadness of these two lost souls. But the actual ending, while surprising in the moment, makes more sense the more I think about it.
Tovino’s introduction was riding a motorcycle with a little girl in Nepal. And promising her that he would come back for her after he finished his work. In the final shot, we see him on the motorcycle with her again, in the mountains of Nepal. And on then the bike goes past the camera, and we see Chethanlal holding on behind him.
This is the only tenable solution for this poor boy. He needs someone who will force him to reach his full potential, who will teach him to be a child again, who he can respect and trust. And Tovino is the only one who can do that. Everybody else in his life would give him too much freedom, and not enough at the same time. But Tovino will control him and see through his schemes and games and not be afraid of his intelligence. And he has also taken him out of his “small pond” and will let him flourish and grow to be more than just a “Guppy”. At the same time, Tovino may have looked for this sweet Nepali girl as a replacement for his lost daughter. But he didn’t need only her, he needed something new, he needed to stop trying to recreate his lost family and instead build a new kind of family.