This is a nice small idea film. But it is a real gem of an idea, and one I very much appreciate, especially since it is following the highest ideals of communism and treating the world as a community by highlighting an issue totally unrelated to Kerala.
I know this film has already been out for like a week in Kerala and other places, but it just arrived at my theater. And I also know that the general reaction was “eh”. So I am going to go ahead and put my “SPOILERS” paragraph right at the top, for all those people who just want to know what happened and then go on with their lives without seeing the movie.
WHOLE PLOT IN ONE PARAGRAPH: Dulquer is an active member of his local communist party in Kerala, while his father is an active Congressman. But at heart, they are both the same, feeling a sense of duty to the community, but also a sense to have a life outside of strict party lines. His father runs a rubber plantation, Dulquer is finishing school and planning to teach eventually. Dulquer falls in love with a girl visiting from America. After much back and forth, she agrees to marry him. But is then tricked to returning home, she calls him from America and begs her to come before she is married off and talk to her parents. But Dulquer can’t get a Visa in time, so instead he comes up with a plan to fly to Nicaragua, travel through Guatemala to Mexico, and from there get help from a Coyote to cross the border to America. He does it, and along the way we the viewer get to see how desperate the travelers are to reach America, all for different reasons, and how terrible the journey is. Most of them don’t make it. Dulquer finally gets there, only to learn his girlfriend never thought he would come and didn’t really want to marry him after she thought it over. He goes to her wedding, wishes her well, and then comes home. And on the plane home, he sits next to the young woman who was his fellow traveler on the border crossing, and it is implied that a new relationship might be starting.
The closest parallel is Arabikatha, in fact it was so similar, that I had to come home tonight and watch that Arabikatha opening song sequence again. Still not you youtube, but I was able to find the whole movie on The Internet and just watch the first part. (stupid Fox owns the rights and, like their HotStar website and Koffee With Karan, it is not available in my region. Also, Lal Jose!!! If you were a true communist, you wouldn’t sell your film rights to such a restrictive and money grubbing distributor! Next time, share the wealth and put it on youtube!)
(Not as good as the Arabikatha opening song, but pretty good)
But the thing with Arabikatha is that it was dealing with an issue that directly affected the Malayalam audience, life in the Middle East for immigrants from Kerala and elsewhere in South Asia. This movie isn’t dealing with that, it is dealing specifically with issues affecting Americans. And there is no special justification for that, beyond our hero being a Communist and a moral person and therefore concerned with these matters. Okay, there is some romance backstory to get us there, but once we are there, our hero is naturally concerned and aware just because he is a concerned and aware person.
This was kind of the perfect week for me to see this movie, because earlier this week someone made in incredibly ignorant comment about immigrant in the US on my blog (don’t worry, it wasn’t you, because only one of my commentators would even think to comment on such an inappropriate topic and no one else even comes close to brushing up against such a thing) which made me suddenly think “Is everyone in India completely uneducated as to US immigration issues, and yet feels the right to have an opinion on them?” And then I saw this movie which was like balm to that wound, saying that people are smart, and people are caring, and the immigration question has such a clear and obvious right and wrong to it that anyone, even on the other side of the world, can see it.
Everyone knows that America has spent the past 200 years, since the Monroe Doctrine, using South America like that messy part of your backyard where you throw all your old junk you don’t want to deal with. Toxic waste, torturous working conditions, violent crime, etc. etc. etc., it is the gift that we, North America, have kindly given to South America. Since forever, and especially since lately.
And at the same time, we have also been using South America as our latest source for slave-like labor. Ever since slavery was abolished, those poor plutocrats have been struggling to find a workforce as socially ignored as the slaves were. Legal immigrants worked for a while, but then they got the right to vote and unionize and eventually things got harder. Former slaves and their descendents are of course always ripe for structural oppression (Drug War=Over imprisonment=felon=no right to vote ever for the rest of your life. Plus chain gangs plus the draft plus so many many other things). And then there are the illegal immigrants. Who can be forced to work without the protection of all kinds of labor laws, like minimum wage and 8 hour workdays and safety regulations and not being raped and all that stuff. It’s on the high end too, if you have ever tried for a job with an H1B Visa, you know how ripe for abuse that is as well.
And thus we have arrived where we are now, as a country. Legal immigration is all but impossible, and yet there is a desperate need for new cheap labor to care for our children, clean our houses, take care of our elderly, make our food, build our buildings, write our software code, etc. etc. Essentially every reasonable person in America is aware that there needs to be a safe and easy path to legal immigration for all. And that this path does not currently exist. Reagan (one of the main architects of the “dump our trash in South America so we don’t have to think about it” foreign policy) also offered a general amnesty to all undocumented immigrants currently in America, because it was so clearly the only reasonable solution. It is only the lunatic fringe that believes in a border wall, in there not being enough “space” for more people, in any of that stuff. And I had assumed that this lunatic fringe, while irritatingly big-mouthed, was still limited to the US.
(Ad made by an American major lumber company, who paid to air it during the Super Bowl, the most watched and most expensive air time in America. Where it received near universal acclaim because, again, this is so clearly the right way to think of things)
And this film tells me that yes, it is!!! Thinking people can easily spend five minutes to do a little research and think things through and figure out that the answer is that people are human and every life has equal value. And if you start from there, you can’t go wrong.
Oh, this film also told me that Dulquer is beginning to be a bit of an action star! Not like in Kali or Kammatipadam, where it was rough and ready action, grounded action, but more like he was way back in Vikramadityan, or like Telugu heroes always are. He gets a big slow motion intro, he kicks a guy through the front window of a truck, he is fearless and perfect and never loses a fight and always wins a conversation.
More than that, it should be he was getting to be a star because in terms of acting partners, he was sitting at the “grown-up” table. The little random actresses, he barely talked to them. It was all about those old character actors, the ones I’ve seen in tons of other films, the ones who know exactly how to deliver a line and hold it just the right amount of time and then let loose. Dulquer got to go sit with them. Very different from, again, Vikramadityan. Where he spent most of his time opposite Namitha Pramod or that guy who doesn’t wear shirts (Unni something), and the “adult” actors got their own storyline and their own interactions.
Dulquer even got his monologue drunk scene, which I always think of as an “Amitabh-in-Amar-Akbar-Anthony scene”, although I am sure there is a Malayalam equivalent I don’t know about. This is a clever one, with Dulquer drunkenly talking to Lenin, Che Guevara, and Karl Marx about his romantic problems. Stalin was there, but he left as Dulquer arrived, because the other 3 through him out. Which is a nice knowing little nod to the issues with some of this Communist icons.
In general, this film is a nice mixture of not taking Communism too seriously, having a bit of a sense of humor about it, while also showing through action how those beliefs live in the every day. Whether it is sharing water with fellow travelers, or bravely confronting men with guns, or defending students who aren’t allowed to use their bus pass, Dulquer tries to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.
And the same is true in his romance. The romance is super fast because, as I said, Dulquer is all about sitting at the grown-ups’ table now. But it is nicely done, what little of it there is. He sees her when he stops by his old college, and they smile at each other and then can’t stop smiling. They keep seeing each other, finally talk to each other, he introduces her to his friends, but they are always interacting as equals. He doesn’t say, “this is what I believe and want and you should to”. He says “this is what I believe and why-full stop”. And he listens to her responses and thinks about them and takes them seriously. This different kind of romance is highlighted really cleverly when he takes her home to meet his parents. His mother is watching a soap opera in the background, with a mother bemoaning “Why are you with my son? You have blighted his life! He is arrested because of you!” and so on and so on. And then she shuts off the TV, and they have the exact opposite of that TV conversation in the exact same situation, with his parents being pretty much “well, you young people decide these things for yourself, we’re fine with anything.”
And it is this openness which makes her “betrayal” sting. Really, which makes it a betrayal. She doesn’t turn him down because of family pressure or anything else. We saw all along that she was resisting the idea of moving to Kerala, and knew he would never leave. But instead of honestly saying “now that I am back in America, I don’t want to leave”, she pulls this game of calling and crying and begging him to come, and then forgetting about it. She even meets with his uncle in America shortly after and says straight up that she has realized the whole thing is a mistake and she doesn’t need to see him after all. But she didn’t have the decency to tell him that himself, she had to send it the long way round, to make one last dramatic phone call just to make herself feel better with no thought to what would happen on the other end.
The other girl is fine, whatever. Looks like she has been in slightly more films than the first half heroine, but none I have seen. The real stand out for the second half, both in terms of acting and character is John Vijay, who plays an ex-LTTE fighter who ended up in Nicaragua dreaming of America. He brings such a lovely kind of wistfulness to the character. You really feel someone who has lost everything, who feels adrift in the world It highlights how much our hero has which, again, ties back to Communism. Or really, ANY kind of civic involvement. He is a communist, his father is a Congressman. But it’s not just a set-up for “ha-ha, misunderstandings!” They are very similar people, both of them trying to be involved in the larger world and community. Both feeling connected to the larger world and community. The tragedy is people like John Vijay, who have lost that. And others, like the Dulquer’s girlfriend, who hasn’t fully grasped it.
And, by extension, that lunatic fringe in America who doesn’t see that we are all immigrants and we can always make room for more.
UPDATE: Forgot the most important part! Here is where you can donate to a group that is helping undocumented immigrants survive and become documented in America.