Well, I finally watched VIP! Because I really really wanted to watch that teaser with Kajol, and I decided I couldn’t let myself watch it until I saw the first movie. Anyway, it is just as good as you all said it would be! And the plot and themes and stuff hold together a lot better than it appeared from the Wikipedia synopsis.
It’s funny that I am writing this the same day I covered the beginning of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Because talking about the Nehrus brought me back to the very beginning of the modern era of Indian education, and this film brings us to the present day.
Way way way way way way back, when the Nehrus were first studying, the best way to succeed based on your education was through tests. The British civil service exam, passing the bar, these were tickets to power and success in society. Because the British had so arranged society that there were only a few narrow gates into power, with tiny little fenced off paths through them. This carried over into the Independence era, there are still a series of civil service exams, and if you pass them, you are set for the rest of your life/career. And so education became a series of tests, and preparing for tests. A set group of markers with a clear path through them, and if you passed them all, you “won”.
Only, the thing is, the world isn’t made up of tiny narrow paths with tiny little doors that open onto vast possibilities. It’s made up of, I don’t know, spaceships? Big open fields with huge flying saucers floating above them. You have to run through the field anyway you can to get near the edge, and then jump and jump and reposition yourself and jump again until you finally get on top of that first saucer, only to learn there is another one above it. And then you jump and jump to get to that next level, and sometimes you slip and fall back and have to start jumping again, and it never really ends, for your entire life.
But, that’s kind of the beauty of it. Sure, you slip and fall back, but you can always try again. And heck, maybe you find a nice little corner on the lower level of flying saucer, with some pleasant aliens working near by, and you end up building your own flying saucer that isn’t quite as high as the one above you, but not quite as low as the one you are on, and is all your own.
Speaking as someone fighting her way through this kind of journey at the moment, the most frustrating thing is when you try to explain why that narrow path to guaranteed success didn’t work for you. It’s not that you fell off the path or failed somehow, it’s that the path is an illusion, the gate is an illusion, it’s all a lie that we tell ourselves, and then tell our children, to try to explain why we didn’t succeed ourselves, how we can guarantee our children will do better. Thank goodness, I was lucky enough to have parents who did their own slipping and falling, coming straight out of college into a recession, and they understand that the world isn’t as simple as it appears when you plot out your perfect “career”. But I can see in my friends, and my friends’ parents, that same confusion of “we went to college, got a job, were set for life. We sent you to a better college, why didn’t that turn into a better job?” and the same frustration from the children of “I am trying as hard as I can and you can’t see it because you aren’t looking at it in the right way!”
Or, in the people I don’t consider my friends, they just give up, railing at fate, saying “well, if this door I was promised isn’t opening to me then I have no other choice but to maintain my dignity and just stand here outside it, immobile, and let other people prop me up”. Or, in other words, the people who get a series of grad school degrees not because they are interested in what they are studying but just because it is a more respectable way to kill time than getting a minimum wage job. Or who get their parents’ to buy them a boutique bookstore. Or who live off their wives/husbands and talk about how they have to be ready for the perfect job to appear and therefore can’t help with the laundry/cooking/fixing the house.
Finally bringing myself to this film! Our hero is one of those who slipped off his flying saucer and is desperately trying to jump back on it. Only his family (especially his father), doesn’t see it as jumping and falling and jumping and falling and jumping again, but rather as somehow having reached that guaranteed gate, which will open to glory and success, and then sitting down and taking a nap for 4 years instead of opening it.
Our hero has fallen off the set path, but he is working out a different way. He is taking the Indian equivalent of those menial jobs, instead of working at a movie theater (like I did) or driving a taxi (like my father did), he is helping out around the house, doing what they would have to pay a servant to do if he weren’t there. He is giving up his dignity and finding a greater dignity instead, one that doesn’t rely on social status and labels. And he is building up experience and resolve and strength, so that when he finally does get his chance, he is ready to let nothing stand in his way. The whole first 2/3rds of the film feel like “nothing is happening”, but that is when everything is happening, inside. And, by extension, what the film is saying is that the gap between your promising educational career and actually getting that job, is not just wasted time. It is another kind of preparation.
But to get into that in detail, I have to get into SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Truly, like, NOTHING HAPPENS!!! We are introduced to this household through humorous voice over from our hero. He is self-deprecating, but not embarrassed. He openly says that he is an unemployed graduate, like thousands of others. It’s been 4 years, and his little brother has a better job than him. He stays home and spends his days helping his mother around the house and sending in resumes. Avoiding his father and secretly smoking cigarettes.
Only slowly do we start to see a little more past the self-deprecating humor. That is the point of his romance with the neighbor, Amala Paul. For us to get to see him through her eyes instead of his own. He has reacted to his situation not with anger or hatred, but as an opportunity to grow, to accept, to find some kind of peace.
That sounds very noble, but what I really mean is that he watches soap operas. He helps Amala’s mother set up the electricity and get other parts of their house arranged. He helps his own mother clean the house, with some funny inner dialogue about it, but no real complaints. And when he goes to Amala’s party, instead of being uncomfortable with her successful friends, he happily stands in the corner and talks with her mother about soap operas.
Think of it like a traveler stranded in a layover. You can either rail against fate and close your eyes and pretend you are where you want to be. Or you can accept where you are and explore the airport a little. Dhanush is taking the “explore the airport” route. His time at home has given him a unique kind of dignity, of at homeness in any situation. And we can see why Amala is intrigued by it.
A lot of this is also due to Dhanush being a really really really good actor. And a really specific kind of actor. He can pull off both the confident cocky lines during a fight, and the self-deprecating humor, and the funny drunk songs, and the strange kind of calm dignity with his station. This is just the perfect role for him.
A big reason I was avoiding watching this film was because I just have no patience with young people who refuse to work unless the perfect job falls in their lap. But, thank goodness, this film makes clear that it isn’t that Dhanush isn’t willing to work. It’s that he isn’t willing to be locked in for the rest of his life to something that will make him miserable. He would rather sacrifice his dignity than his happiness. Or, rather, he knows that true dignity can never be lost.
Dhanush’s choices are to take a job he would hate and be doomed to stay in it for the rest of his life. Or to stay home and pay his way by housework until a job he wants appears. Or, I suppose, to stay home and NOT pay his way by housework. To put on a false front, to order his mother around just because he is a man, to give big talk about how he is too good for the jobs being offered him and so on and so forth. And avoiding that third option is why I really like him. And why Amala Paul likes him. His attitude toward the situation, or perhaps the attitude the situation has inspired him (we do meet him 4 years in, after all), is what makes him stand out.
And then his mother dies. Which leads first to grief and separation in the family, and then acceptance. And it is what happens after acceptance that I find most interesting. Sure, Dhanush cleans himself up and gets glasses and goes back to the rounds of applications and interviews. But before that, he takes charge of making dinner in the kitchen and sweeping the front walk and everything else that his mother used to do. He is achieving his destiny, his place in the family. Not as the new authoritarian father, but as the mother. And it is only after claiming that position, as the humble support, and taking pride in these humble tasks, that he is ready to move on.
When the job does finally come, it happens almost too fast for the audience to understand. Which is how it is supposed to happen. The job isn’t a culmination of a series of steps, it feels random and coincidental. Which is how it usually feels in “real life” in my experience as well. But one thing my sister heard or read somewhere and passed on to me is that it isn’t about getting that one chance, it’s about being ready for that one chance. You put out dozens, hundreds, of feelers. You are nice to everyone you meet in the world. You are always ready to be hardworking and intelligent and respectful. And then one of those hundreds of feelers and people you are nice to pays off. And you get your chance and you are ready to make the most of it. Dhanush had been preparing for that chance this whole time, being kind and considerate and strangely dignified in all situations. Being ready to work hard at any task given him, but also to make the most of it, not to take any shortcuts. The chance is inevitable, it’s the surviving until you get it, and making it count once it arrives, that’s what matters.
Oh, and there’s also a nice message about organ donation. I love it when movies do that, through in little social messages unrelated to the main storyline just because. Dhanush gets his job partly because his mother donated her organs to a college girl whose father owns a construction company.
The part where stuff happens, that’s the least interesting part of the whole thing. Dhanush gets the job, but he is up against the son of a rich man who wanted the contract. They are given cheap materials, the workers don’t show up, problem after problem. And Dhanush meets them all without despair, because he has been strengthened by 4 years of failure.
There are two things I really liked about this section, and they are related. Dhanush’s job isn’t just about him getting a job. It’s about him needing to accomplish something worthwhile. He is in charge of a slum replacement construction project. He is building homes for slum dwellers, on a shoestring government budget, and trying to do the best he can for the people because they deserve it. He isn’t building big luxury flats for the best people of society which will make him rich, he is building something that no one is going to make a profit on which will only help the very very poor. The film chose this on purpose, that all his suffering and education and everything else wasn’t just to get him to success, it was to accomplish something real and valuable for the greater good of society.
And it is because of that greater good that he is able to find help. When his workers are paid off not to show up, he puts out a call to the other unemployed graduates in his facebook group, and they show up. Because they want to use their skills and education for something useful, to do some good. Not for pride or money or anything else that could help them personally, but just for the greater good.
This is also the solution for those unemployed graduates in general. Look to the greater good, and you will find peace. Whether that is helping your mother in the kitchen, or taking a job outside of your field to help pay your bills, or volunteering. That narrow little path with that golden door at the end of it, you can’t let it blind you to everything else going on in the world. And thus, I spent 6 years working my way through grad school, just so I could learn, and now I am spending hours every day writing this blog, just because I want to put some thoughtfulness out in the world. It’s not a career, it’s not what I do for money, it’s just my own funny little way of trying to contribute to the world as best I can.