Well, I finally saw Oppam. Only 6 months late. Oh well, this is what happens when the theaters only give one screen to Malayalam films, and there are 4 (or 5?) major releases for Onam weekend. I saw Oozham, which was in a similar genre but not quite as good as this. Because Prithviraj is not quite as good as Mohanlal and Jeethu Joseph isn’t quite as good as Priyadarshan.
Before I knew anything at all about Malayalam film, even the word “Malayalam”, I liked Priyadarshan’s Hindi stuff because of how the characters were dealing with real problems and complicated situations, and then it got crazy and filmi. We didn’t start out filmi, we worked our way up to it.
Now, of course, I know that is more just the general Malayalam style rather than something Priyadarshan invented. But Priyadarshan still had some tricks up his sleeve for me, until I saw this film I had no idea he could do action! I thought comedy with a trace of bittersweet was his bailiwick.
I knew Mohanlal could do action, of course. This is an interesting part for him, because it lets him combine generally tentative body language (literally feeling his way through the world), with certainty when in the midst of combat. Which makes sense, as a blind man and a trained fighter, once he is actually in the middle of a fight and making contact with an opponent, everything would be very simple.
The action scenes are the least of it for his character, it is the none action scenes where he really shines. Showing all the layers to his disability, not just how it is as a clever twist on fight scenes, but how it affects every part of his life, making him willing to step aside over and over again, to fade into the background and serve others.
The early establishment of his character reminded me more of Nagesh in Ethir Neechal than anything else. Nagesh in the earlier film was an orphan who had known nothing but service for his whole life. Mohanlal is a twist on that, a man with family responsibilities he has to fulfill, but a physical infirmity that limits his ability. He ends up taking the lowest job, errand boy for an apartment building, but also finding a new family and sense of responsibility in the tenants.
It’s not as extreme as Nagesh, we don’t seem him struggling against this role or anything. But it does pick up on the same idea, that this busy shared living complex has one person who knows all and sees all, but is never seen. Well, in this case, “sees” all.
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This plot is so twisty and confused, I think the only way to describe it is to just go straight through in one paragraph, and then get into the discussion.
Mohanlal works as a general handyman for an apartment building, and also has a small repair shop. He is blind, but has gotten so good at using his other senses, many people don’t even believe he really is blind. His friend Nedumudi uses him as a go between and trusted assistant on various confidential trips. He has two responsibilities, first to visit Nedumudi’s daughter Baby Meenakshi regularly at her school and pretend to be her “uncle” and make sure she is happy and feels loved. And second, to travel with Nedumudi while he tries to track down the mysterious Samuthirakani, a convict he wrongfully convicted years earlier. Nedumudi is killed, one of several mysterious murders connected to people who took part in the case. Various people are arrested, including Mohanlal, there are a whole assortment of red herrings, but the audience is never really fooled because we know that Samuthirakani is staying at one of the apartments in the building, hiding in plain sight. The big reveal at the end is when Mohanlal admits to the police that Nedumudi told him ages ago his “daughter” is really Samuthirakani’s daughter. She survived the suicide pact (because of the same of the conviction) that killed the rest of the family, and Nedumudi hid her away from the scandal. But when Samuthirakani started killing the families of everyone involved in his case, Nedumudi realized he had to find him before Samuthirakani accidentally killed his own daughter. In the end, Mohanlal confronts Samuthirakani at Meenakshi’s school, telling him it is his own daughter. And then after the fight is over, lying to Meenakshi that of course that wasn’t her father.
Really interesting opening to this. We don’t start with anything that is seemingly related to anything else. Mohanlal is dealing with his younger sister’s engagement, only not really. His uncle is taking the lead representing the family, and Mohanlal is happy to step aside. Except, while he gets none of the public credit for anything, he still has to somehow find the money to pay for it, just like he has paid for everything else in her like, humbly and without asking anything for it.
After seeing him being humbly ignored in his home village, we see the same thing at his job, in the city, as the elevator man/errand boy/Mr. Fixit for a large apartment building. He helps everyone else, and never thinks to ask for anything for himself. But he isn’t exactly invisible either, he isn’t disrespected by the tenants, they like him and appreciate what he does for them. They just don’t really think about doing anything more for him, just as his family loves him but never thinks about arranging his marriage or trying to make things easier for him.
There is one person in his life who looks up to him, only she looks up to him a little too much. The fellow servant for the building, the cleaning woman shared between multiple tenants. She sees him as a marital prospect. But he would never see her that way (boy there are a lot of sight-based metaphors in the English language! I keep feeling like I need to correct myself). He is too gentle and dignified and sensitive to be interested in a made who flirts outrageously with him. He is friendly towards her, wouldn’t put himself above her, but he also wouldn’t want to spend much time with her.
The only person who truly sees and appreciates Mohanlal for his exact worth is Nedumudi Venu. It’s fascinating seeing the two of them acting together, and acting for Priyadarshan. There is a natural ease in how they are together, and in how the director knows how to use them. Which works well for their characters, who are supposed to be such old friends and so familiar.
Nedumudi is a retired judge, someone who should be far above Mohanlal. But he sees his role in society similar to Mohanlal, just more visible. He works in partnership with Mohanlal to solve the problems of the building, we see one example, when Mohanlal figures out that a young woman from the building has eloped, and after his ability to overhear things and put things together has found the problem, Nedumudi takes over and finds the solution, that the couple should be formally and officially married, with the blessings of both families.
The wedding brings up something else interesting. It’s a Punjabi style wedding with a Punjabi song. I saw that before in Oru Indian Pranayakadha. What is up with this? Is the Malayalam film industry acknowledging the popularity of Punjabi songs and wedding scenes cross-India? Or, is it that the Malayalam industry is cocky enough that they think they can break into the northern market? Or, are they trying to reach north Indians living in Kerala? Are there north Indians living in Kerala?
And then the interesting stuff is over with. The plot becomes a thriller, an incredibly complicated thriller, but still just a thriller. Not as much big social stuff for me to dig into.
Nedumudi is killed, and the police officer daughter of Mohanlal’s friend (a principal of a school for the blind) is separately investigating a series of other killings, everyone involved with an old case Nedumudi judged. Nedumudi had previously told Mohanlal a little about this case, only the audience didn’t get to see the end of the conversation.
Come to think of it, there’s a lot of stuff the audience doesn’t see! Which is just plain cheating. We don’t see the end of this conversation, which the director easily could have showed us and would have solved one of the big twists. We also don’t see Mohanlal sell his business and therefore semi-suspect he suddenly had money because he stole from Nedumudi.
And then there’s other stuff we do see which kind of undercuts the suspense. We see the killer early on and see his associates and so on as well. And, it just doesn’t feel planned. Psycho, for instance, Hitchcock knew he wanted to reveal the killer until just the right moment, and he wanted to play a bit of a shell-game with the protagonist. He broke all the rules, but he broke them to something even better.
This film, it really just feels like Priyadarshan lost his way a bit. He wanted Mohanlal as the unnoticed blind guy who can almost sense danger. He wanted the final scene. But in between, he wasn’t sure just how to juggle the cutting between our heroes and the villains, and keeping the plot moving at the right pace instead of feeling like it kept starting and stopping and going down blind alleys and getting lost in cul-de-sacs and so on. It’s still much better pacing and characters than Oozham. And Mohanlal and Nedumudi add a lovely grace to their scenes. But it’s just not all that it could be.
The final scene though, that’s great. And it would have worked on top of a complete different kind of movie. The essential themes have been there all along, Mohanlal as the giver in every relationship, never fully appreciated even by his own family, even by the younger siblings he helped raise. And then there is a whole action sequence that distracts us from this theme.
But it comes back at the end. Mohanlal is ready to give everything up. His sister is getting married, his family land is going as part of the marriage arrangements. He has sold his business to pay for the wedding, and his only friend Nedumudi is dead. He has given everything he has to give, and is ready to just fade away.
But, he isn’t allowed to do that. Because Baby Meenakshi, the little girl he has no true right over and no real responsibility towards, she is the only one where he was free enough to reveal his true self, to give her not just money and support, but affection. And Baby Meenakshi is in the same position as him, the family that should have felt the responsibility didn’t, she has no one who is really her own. And so she and Mohanlal are in the unique position to choose their family. This is where the title comes from “Oppam”, “Togetherness”. That is what Mohanlal and Baby Meenakshi share with each other.