I avoided this movie because it looked scary, and I don’t like scary movies! But it really wasn’t bad, because it was less about the “scary” parts, and more about the character parts. The specifics of the danger weren’t the point, it was the way our heroine rushed headline into the danger that was the point. Because young women are very very foolish!
I’m working on moving right now, I’ve now seen 11 apartments in my price range and in the area I want, but rejected them all because I am very picky. I am picky, because I am smart and old. Back when I was young and stupid, I rushed into a new lease and a move before my old lease had even expired. I ended up paying for two apartments for 3 months and emptying my savings account because I couldn’t manage to sublet the other apartment. It was a foolish thing to do, being confident that it would all work out and I could just sublet the other place no problem. But that’s what you do when you are young, you just rush in and are sure that what you are doing will be fine, that it will all work out, that there is no downside to a great opportunity.
That’s what this film is about, at the core. A young woman who thinks she knows everything, versus an older man who is not used to being challenged. It takes a while to see it, because the young woman is so smart that at first she really does seem to know everything. And the older man appears to be modest and humble with no problems being put in his place. The slow realization that neither of these things is true, that’s where the tension in the plot comes from, the power dynamic being upended slowly.
Through out the film, our heroine is underestimating older men, because they are over-estimating themselves. This is a world of obnoxious self-important older men, and to survive it our heroine Aparna Gopinath has learned to discount most of what they say and have faith in her own judgement. And she has grown so comfortable with that, that she seeks it out, naturally relating more to older men than to women or to people her own age. She likes sitting around at the “cool kids” table with older seen it all guys, pretending that she has equal life experience to them. And the nicer older guys let her do it, enjoying her quick wit and her minor posing. While the less nice older guys constantly try to put her in her place, which just makes her less likely to respect them.
Shoot, I had a good closing paragraph to put here but I realized that it would give away too much information, so I have to put it under the SPOILERS.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
But what Aparna isn’t prepared for is an older guy who has learned the same lesson she has, to hide his feelings and let them fester and burn until it changes his whole ability to interact with the world. Who can be passive and humble over and over, biding his time until he has a chance to act.
That’s the end of the movie, but it only works because of how it is lead up to. As I said, the main message is the way Aparna is a smart young woman that is constantly putting up with being patronized and ignored by older men just because of her gender and age. She compensates by ignoring all their opinions and advice and assuming she knows better.
At the very opening, she is talking on the phone about a party where she will have an opportunity to impress one older man, when she is pulled over by another older man in power, a traffic cop, for talking on the phone. This is a really icky traffic stop, he gives her a hard time for a minor infraction, treats her like an incompetent because she doesn’t know the license number of the car without looking (confession: I don’t know the number of my car by heart), insists on talking to her “friend” who lent her the car, and so on. But on the other hand, she was talking on the phone while driving. And it is standard procedure for the police to ask for her car registration papers in a traffic stop. He is a lot in the wrong, but not completely in the wrong. And Aparna treats it as though he is entirely wrong.
(Her natural look is just right for this role, quiet voice and small height, but with something in her eyes that makes you think she thinks she is better than you)
Later, at the party, we see even more why Aparna has developed this thick skin and strong view of the world. The powerful editor who is throwing the party gets a call from a friend and talks about how he can pick out any random young eager journalist from the mob and get her to write a book for him. And he really does pick out Aparna randomly, and expects her to be charmingly grateful for the chance. Aparna has to be charming and grateful to get these opportunities, and she also has to be tough and smart to make the most of them. It’s a toxic combo that she has learned to balance, but it makes her almost incapable of relating with an older man without pre-assumptions about how he views her.
We see her talking over this opportunity with her group of mentors/friends, (Joy Mathew! Renji Panicker!). They are sitting around at a bar/tea place trading sarcastic quips, clearly thinking of themselves as kings of the castle. And Aparna wants to be like that, wants to be the cool older guys who lounge around in bars, not the hungry young journalists that she was part of at the cocktail party. And more and more, that is how she sees herself. She believes that she has all the power and wisdom and can handle everything, it’s just that not everyone can see it.
But, of course, this isn’t true. She goes to meet Nedumudi, the warden who wants her to ghostwrite his autobiography. She is smiling and respectful, just like he wants her to be. And she doesn’t even notice Mammootty in the room, serving them tea, until Nedumudi points him out. Because Mammootty doesn’t want to be noticed, he’s not one of those pushy men like she hates, he is as capable of fading into the background as she is.
The way this movie plays out reminds me a lot of Manichitrathazhu. Because there are little bits that seem like errors, that don’t quite make sense. And you ignore them and brush past them, thinking that it’s dialogue left over from an earlier version of the script or something. And then it comes back later with a vengeance!
(Like this song)
A lot of these errors rely on Aparna taking Mammootty’s word over someone else’s, especially Nedumudi. Nedumudi is self-important and a little tedious. But he is also right when he says that Mammootty was tried and convicted of two murders. And Aparna (and the audience) ignore him entirely when he says that Mammootty wasn’t “wrongfully imprisoned for 20 years”, he was offered and refused parole after a shorter jail term. Which directly contradicts the version of the story Aparna got from Mammootty and presented to the world.
Where things really become difficult is after Mammootty is released into the world. Aparna has gotten him a book contract, but he has to write his story, his full story. Not just the philosophical jail cell musings that Aparna had previously published in her magazine profile of him. And while Aparna frets and struggles to get him to write, we see Mammootty begin to stretch his wings, to go out to bars, to spend time walking the streets, to convince the boy who brings him food to be his friend.
Aparna thought she was in control, because she was, so long as Mammootty was in jail. He had to mold himself into what she wanted in order for her to help him, to bow to her power, just as he had learned to bow to the power of the warden. And it was that dynamic which made her happily accept a book contract, sign her name to it as his guarantor.
But then once he is out, she learns that he is the one with the power. His refusal to write can destroy everything, and there is nothing she can do to force him. And that is the terrifying part, to watch her struggling and struggling to deal with an awareness that she is in over her head.
Aparna thinks she is cool and confident and can handle everything. But we saw in that very first scene with the cop that she actually can’t. Yes, she got out of the traffic stop, but she resisted just a bit, showed her hand just a little, that she thought he was just a petty cop. And so when her double talking and brave face stop working with the publishers with whom she has a contract, she doesn’t know what else to do, retreats to total lies, turning off her phone, burying her head in the sand. And one by one, even her supporters give up on her. Her friendly mentors are tired of pumping up her ego when she resists simply admitting that she made a mistake. They try to tell her that she can’t just assume people will do what she needs them to do, that she can run roughshod over Mammootty. And she sees that as them ganging up on her, the “old boys” club coming together, instead of as them giving her advice on how to handle a difficult writer.
Enter Prithviraj! I didn’t remember he was in this movie, if I ever even knew, and he was such a breath of fresh air! Happy and easy, not with cynical world weary attitude, but a bright smile and optimistic view of everything working out. It’s youth, happy youth, that’s what we were missing. Aparna’s youth has been curdled with all of the struggles she has had in her career, all the older men she has had to deal with, all the frustrated ambitions. But Prithviraj, the NRI with the promising career, he has none of that. As a young man, in a different profession, it has all worked out for him, and he has no need to hide who he is and what he wants.
(Prithviraj, not hiding anything. But in a different way than in this film)
There is one other young man in the film, Aparna’s agent who plucked her from semi-obscurity to write a book with Mammootty. And we get to see him in direct contrast with Prithviraj. These are her two futures. Bending over and apologizing to someone her own age who just happens to be more successful than her. Or giving it all up, and marrying Prithviraj and leaving the country, joining that free happy life.
There is another contrasting character in the film, the other female reporter, who we hear about more than see. She is another young Malayali woman. But she has succeeded, moved to Delhi, has a book contract already. She is Aparna’s other possible future, using her charm and femininity to get interviews. We see that this other reporter wears a sari, smiles, pretends to be flattered that Mammootty remembers her. Unlike Aparna, who wears jeans and shirts and short hair with glasses, resists using her feminine advantages, resists acknowledging that she is female, resents the situations in which she has no other choice.
Without the twist ending, we would still have an interesting story, a man who is a bit of a blank slate that Aparna has put her own visions on to, who ends up forcing her to feel her own helplessness and frustration with her life. Aparna seems to be on a clear path by the end. She will make one final push to fulfill this book contract, if it doesn’t work out (or maybe even if it does), she will marry Prithviraj and just give up on the whole life. It’s too much for her, Mammootty’s intransigent refusal to write has worn her down.
But then there is that twist! It was such a brave decision on the director’s part to do it this way, to never really fully explain everything, just trust the audience to work it out. Aparna brings Mammootty, in one last desperate attempt, to a remote cabin where there is nothing for him to do but write. We see Mammootty sitting by a fire, walking by a stream, picking up a pipe that blocks his path on his walk. And then she returns, the day the book is due, and demands whether he has anything at all for her to read. And he calmly says that yes, he does, it is all written.
This kind of surprised me, I was thinking there would be a different twist. She initially thought he was such a sensitive soul because he had given her his jail house diary. I thought the “twist” would be that he had stolen the diary from another prisoner and could never write at all. But instead, the “twist” is that he has written it, but it is not an explanation of how he was framed, it is a confession of how he killed two people.
Maybe if I could read Malayalam I would have gotten the details, there are a few shots of the actual pages she is reading. But they are quick shots, and a little blurry. So even with Malayalam reading abilities, it would still have been a little unclear. Which is good, this is not a movie about tantalizing details of bloody murder. It is about assumptions and desires and power. We never got the details in any other scene either. Just half heard explanations that one woman was his employer’s daughter, the other his wife. His wife was thought to have died of asthma, until the second murder, and then she was considered his victim as well. And he always proclaimed his innocence. Like Aparna, the audience is waiting for his explanation. For some story that explains how his wife really did die of natural causes, and that he found the body of the other victim and saw someone else running away, or something. But instead, what we get is his confession. And all that matters is that Aparna, and the audience, were taken in, believed his act of innocence and gentleness, ignored all the clues along the way because we were blinded by our own assumptions.