What an interesting movie! It’s about stuttering, but not really. It’s about growing up, but not really that either. And it’s also a little bit about Mukesh being a really nice guy. It’s all of these things combined, it’s just sort of about life.
Have I ever mentioned that I had a tiny speech impediment when I was a kid? A really cute one, and a really common one. Until I was 8, I didn’t have any ‘R’s. Or, as I would say, “I don’t have any ‘Aw’s”. I still don’t have them all the time, if I get really tired, or have to say certain words, they go away again. But it doesn’t bother me, because I was never taught that it was a problem. Actually, I wasn’t taught that it was a problem to the point that it kind of became a problem. My parents found it absolutely adorable, and so I got no negative feedback and it went on and on. Until I was 8 and other kids started to notice and tease me (didn’t help that my name was “Mawgwet Wedlich”), and then I asked my Mom to get me help and about 6 weeks later, poof! Cured! Well, except when I get sleepy, and then I say things like “I am so tiwed, but befowe I go to bed I have to showew and wash my haiw.” Which my parents still find completely adorable (adowable).
Now, this kind of speech impediment is completely different from stuttering. It’s common, it’s a developmental problem that can easily be cured (“cuwed”. Last one!). But what is the same is that a little kid doesn’t like to have anything that makes them stand out among the other children. And that my first instinct was that I wanted to be “fixed”. Of course, in my case I could be “fixed”, very easily and quickly before my little psyche had any permanent damage from the teasing. But what this movie is about is what you can do if your problem is permanent.
It is also about how Jayasurya looks completely different unshaven, with a mustache, and with a beard! It almost feels like the scriptwriter just happened to see him that way and went “Hey! We could do a story of someone’s whole life 20 to 40 without any make-up! Just make him shave and then slowly add the hair back on.” He does a great job with his acting as well, becoming increasingly confident and secure as he gets older and older. But that shaven-mustache-beard journey does a lot of the heavy lifting for him. And explains why I couldn’t recognize him between Classmates and Punyalan Agarbathis for the life of me.
(Versus this guy)
(Versus this guy)
It’s mostly Jayasurya’s film, but he is ably supported by Aju Varghese. Who I find more impressive in every film! I’m glad he opted not to be a “star”, but to stay as a supporting player, because he can be much more interesting that way. And his character here is fascinating, starting out as comic, but with a certain nobility and sensitivity that only slowly reveals itself.
Besides that, it is the usual stacked cast for a Malayalam film. Our heroes parents, his friends, his boss, all of them excellent character actors that I recognize from dozens of other films. And, of course, Mukesh. Who I know I have seen in things (yes yes, Godfather and Ramji Rao Speaking and In Harihar Nagar, I haven’t seen them yet but I will watch them someday), but I can’t think what. But his face is familiar and, more importantly, he feels familiar with the camera. He provides the sense of confidence and surety that we need to find the role believable.
It’s also an interesting choice to use a film star, one with a long career and a slightly unusual onscreen persona. Being a movie star is all about finding your identity and embracing it and being comfortable with it. Mukesh, Rajnikanth, Shahrukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, any one of them would have worked. They went through that process of looking for the best way to present themselves, confronting their flaws and accepting them.
Which brings me back to the theme of the film! Learning how to accept yourself as you are, and then to be the very best version of yourself that you can be.
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As always with Malayalam, this movie has a slow opening. But also as always (at least with the good Malayalam films), there is a reason for the slow opening. We get to see Jayasurya as just a “regular person”. He leaves for work in the morning, greets his neighbor, says “hi” to his co-workers at work, and then gets excited to see that a movie is being made in his office, and embarrasses himself when he walks in on Mukesh (playing himself) sleeping in his office.
We even get the introduction of a bit of backstory, Aju Varghese arriving and greeting Jayasurya as his best friend who he hasn’t seen in ten years, before we learn about the central conflict. It is when Jayasurya is introduced to Mukesh by Aju that he loses control of his voice and says his name as “Su…Su…Sudhi”. Which causes slight snickers (“su…su”, I’m guessing is a universal onomatopoeiaic term for urinating?). Until Aju matter of factly explains that Jayasurya has a stuttering problem and everyone kind of nods and moves past that.
The initial “conflict” of the film doesn’t resolve around stuttering at all. It’s about that film shoot at Jayasurya’s office. It’s running over and Jayasurya has to leave to take a bus back to his village. Aju leans on him to let them go late and promises they will find a way to get him home on time. In the end, the solution the film crew comes up with is for Mukesh, who has to take a car that way anyway, to give Jayasurya a ride.
Like I said, the use of a film star such as Mukesh in this movie has some thematic resonance. He knows who he is and is comfortable with that. And he is not ready to adjust for anyone. So when Jayasurya makes them wait while he changes into nicer clothes, or starts chatting while Mukesh is trying to sleep, Mukesh sees him as taking advantage of the situation and trying to force Mukesh to react to him. It’s only when Jayasurya offers to take the bus after all and apologizes for getting so excited that Mukesh realizes Jayasurya isn’t trying to do anything to Mukesh, he is just being himself.
And it is that confidence in himself and self-sufficiency which gets Mukesh to start asking him about his life. And thus, the actual film begins!!! A good 20 minutes in.
I saw some promotion of this movie as covering his life from 4 to 40. And it sort of does, but not really. We do start with a flashback to lil’ Jayasurya’s first day of school. But we jump rapidly from there to Jayasurya as a young teen who is too shy to leave the house, to Jayasurya as a young man who goes from home to work and no where else.
The running theme is less that he stutters, and more that he is unhappy with how he stutters. We start with him at age 4, because that is when he started going to school and discovered that he was different from other kids. And we check in again briefly when he is a teen to show how his development has been stunted through his embarrassment and lack of friends.
When we find him again as an adult things are, seemingly, better. He has a place where he feels safe and comfortable, the school where he works as an administrator. He has some close friends there, of whom Aju Varghese is the closest. Jayasurya is even thinking about getting married, although he warns his parents that he only wants to see one bride, so the first one they pick has to be the one for him.
I’m going to skip through the rest of the plot of the first half really quickly here. Jayasurya meets a potential bride, she already knows about his speech impediment and doesn’t mind, he is comfortable with her so they spend a lot of time talking in person and on Skype and planning the wedding without any real fluency issues on his part.
They have their first fight when she wants to live in Bombay after marriage and he thought she would move to his hometown and work in the same school as him. And then at the engagement party, her friends ask him to make a video message, and he completely shatters, unable to even get a word out. His fiancee freaks out a little and tricks him into meeting a speech therapist friend of a friend (Jayasurya thinks they are just bringing an invitation card to her). The speech therapist bluntly tells them the truth that stuttering is not “curable” and the best they can hope for is to learn to live with it.
Meanwhile, back at the school, Aju Varghese is humorously trying to balance his responsibilities as the PE teacher with his acting ambitions. And the owner of the school, who inherited it from his father, has come to town to personally supervise their accreditation process, nicknamed “Hrithik Roshan” because he is so handsome. I think the actor is Arjun Nandhakumar? But I am not sure because the official cast list doesn’t use the “Hrithik Roshan” nickname and that is the only one I remember. I did recognize Muthumani who I have seen in SO MUCH STUFF, most recently Double Barrel, as the school principal who has a deaf daughter and took the job primarily so her daughter would be able to go to school.
All of this stuff is interesting but it doesn’t feel like it really gets going until the second half, at which point everything we have seen before starts to click in to place. Starting with Jayasurya’s fiancee, Swathy Narayanan, breaking off their engagement because she can’t live with him if his stuttering will never get better.
What is great about this is that she is clear it isn’t the stuttering itself that bothers her. She knew about that all along and was fine with it. It’s the realization at their engagement party that his stuttering makes him incapable of interacting with strangers or large groups. She can’t have a life with someone where they are so isolated. And that comment clicks into place with other things, how Jayasurya doesn’t want to move to Bombay, wants her to work at the same place as him after marriage, and generally is keeping his life very very small.
Jayasurya has seemingly learned to manage with his disability. We didn’t see the no doubt arduous path to get here, but now he has friends and a job and is even ready for marriage. Only, this is all really just a facade. He is “managing”, but he isn’t really living.
Everything around him is an allusion. His fiancee leaves him, once she realizes what his life really is. His friends leave him as well, as soon as he lashes out at them in anger, the admit they have only been “tolerating” his presence and his disability. And even his job, we discover close to the end of the film that he has been covering up or at least looking the other way while the chief administrator steals funds. It’s not fully explained, but it is clear that the administrator picked him as a patsy because he literally cannot speak up for himself.
The only things in his life new life that are real (not counting his parents, because they’ve been around the whole time) are his friendship with Aju Varghese and Muthumani and her daughter. And it is as that realization sinks in that we, the audience, are finally able to appreciate Aju Varghese and Muthumani for what they are.
Aju represents what he was and Muthumani represents what he needs to get there to a better place and “Hrithik Roshan” represents that better place. Aju is limiting himself too, he really wants to act but he can’t give up his safe job at the school to fully commit. Muthumani refuses to accept limits. She pushes her daughter to go to school and succeed despite her disability. Jayasurya’s biggest turning point comes not through his romance, but through his friendship with these two figures.
Aju, we can intuit, was the first person to bring him out of his shell, to really care for him outside of his family. Aju is the only friend who always sticks with him through thick and thin and never makes fun of his disability, but always instinctively gets how it makes him feel. And we see that even in the “present day”, how Aju casually explains it to Mukesh. It’s been ten years since he had to make such an explanation, ten years since he saw Jayasurya, and yet it comes out so easily. Which tells us how often he must have made it on Jayasurya’s behalf for years back when they were friends. And Aju’s bravery in finally leaving the school and going out on his own helps Jayasurya make the same decision.
Muthumani, on the other hand, is the first person to have no patience with Jayasurya’s disability. She gives him no special treatment at work, and when he is at her house, he is treated like any other guest. And finally, she challenges him to be better when she discovers the malfeasance of the school administrator and points out that Jayasurya should have caught it and reported it.
Once Jayasurya is challenged to be better, he gets his final lesson, from “Hrithik Roshan”, on how to live that better life. There is an accident at school, “Hrithik Roshan” is rushed to the hospital, and Jayasurya learns that he has a congenital heart problem. But it doesn’t stop him from living the life he wants, he sees it as just another part of himself, and everyone has something like that. Jayasurya needs to learn that acceptance, and that bravery.
But the biggest relationship is the one in the background that hardly even appears noticeable, that between Jayasurya and Muthumani’s deaf daughter. We see all the adults interacting with her, all the people who work at the school. Jayasurya is just one of many. But when Muthumani is wrongfully arrested for the theft, it is Jayasurya who first remembers her daughter, who brings her home with him, who is patient with her. And who is inspired to clear her mother’s name and force the school administrators to reinstate both her daughter in classes and Muthumani in her position.
Back at the beginning, I talked about my tiny tiny barely even big enough to remember it speech problem. It only started to bother me when other kids began to tease me. And then it was fixed before their teasing had any permanent effect. But it was the childhood teasing that made it a problem. Even today, my occasional slip-ups are no big deal because I am an adult and I can just laugh it off. Kids can’t laugh off stuff like that.
And so Jayasurya has to be inspired to really change his life and be brave by seeing how a little girl with a worse disability is managing to keep going. And by seeing how even in his “weakness” he is still able to defend her. He sees the value of having reached adulthood and safety from that damage that childhood can cause.
Oh, and also there’s a love story. It’s a cute love story, don’t get me wrong, but it also feels less meaningful, to me, than his relationship with Aju and Muthumani. And I think that’s on purpose. The point of the film is that he has left that life at the school in the past. His wife is his new life, the life that came after.
Although we also see how she isn’t completely disconnected from his previous life. His romance is with the speech therapist Sshivada who broke up his engagement, the first person to tell him the truth (unlike the kind but ill-informed doctor who kept giving him homeopathic treatments) and show him that he shouldn’t be looking for a “cure”, but for acceptance and management.
More importantly, she is introduced as staying in her grandmother’s house, near the school and his hometown. She is from the city and plans to return to the city. But she is also tied to his home and loves it. Unlike his first fiancee, who never wanted to live there. And, also unlike his first fiancee, Sshivada gets to see his school and his friends and his whole little life that he shares with them all. She helps him escape from his shell by first fully understanding that “shell” and why he feels safe there.
But, ultimately, it’s about doing things for himself. Sshivada gives him the tools, but he has to be brave and work hard and get there on his own. Not just the speech therapy tools, but the tools of live, of being brave, of making snap decisions and speaking the truth no matter what. It’s tidy, having the same character give him the speech lessons and the life lessons, but they could have just as easily split her into two. Which is good, I don’t want a film saying “all speech therapists will also teach you how to live”. This one is pretty clear that “all speech therapists will give you tools to overcome speech disfluency” and separately “if a girl likes you for exactly who you are, she will help you become more confident”.
Oh, and this is also where we have our little “The Importance of Facial Hair as Character development” section. Jayasurya starts out clean shaven. After spending time with Sshivada, he grows a mustache. But it isn’t until after she leaves town, he gets a job out of town as well, and all this other stuff happens, that he finally grows the full beard.