Isn’t this amazing, that there is a whole Indian genre of “women escaping relationships that aren’t terrible, but aren’t what they deserve”? I watched this movie and could compare it with Queen, English/Vinglish, How Old Are You?, and plenty of others. But this film has a twist, this film ends with the “unthinkable” actually happening.
I don’t want to just start with the twist, because some of you might want to see it! So I will start with general discussion. Hmm, what can I say? Well, it’s a very evocative movie in terms of space. Some spaces feel so miserable and crowded and unhappy. And some spaces feel so free and open and full of possibility. I don’t know if I’ve seen a film that has done quite such a good job with that before.
The title location, a mostly untouched forest area, is lovely. A lake, a tree house, some tents, you can feel the sunshine and the clean air and the general sense of earth in balance. But what I find more impressive is the urban spaces we see. The film is not arguing that you have to run off to the wilderness to find freedom and happiness and health, but that you can find it wherever you are.
Our hero, Kunchacko Babon, lives in his idyllic forest, but leaves it regularly to build similar forests within urban settings, in parks and corporate offices and apartment buildings. That is the meaning of the film, that you can take that freedom you find somewhere else, back to your home and make it part of your daily life.
(He also looks really good in this film. Just saying)
And the other meaning of the film is to wonder if perhaps the “pollution” in your regular life isn’t just there because it is life, because there is no other way. There is another way. Your vacation doesn’t just have to be a vacation, it can be something you bring home with you somehow. And pollution isn’t something we have to live with, we kind find a different way.
What makes this film really brilliant is that we start by looking at the film from the polluters perspective. We are introduced to the world by someone who sees getting drunk, having sex, lying about money, as just “normal”. He doesn’t think he is doing anything wrong, because he thinks this is just how the world is. If anything, he is on the “good” side of the world, for the little virtues he allows himself, loving his wife and being “honest” about his desires and so on. One of the first character moments is when a friend offers to go with him to the hospital to see his wife, and he translates that as the friend reminding him about an offer to give him a bottle of scotch in his car. Because for him, that is where his mind would always go, what he can get from someone, not how he can help them.
This polluted character is one of those great/horrible parts for the actor, Joju George. Great, because it gives him a lot of amazing scenes to play and really interesting dialogue. Horrible, because he is just an all around unattractive and irredeemable person. And I’m not sure if I can buy Joju as a decent person ever again. He really goes all out, even his body is kind of disgusting, t-shirts and shorts that never quite fit him, sloppy hair, unshaven fat cheeks. You can feel the sweat and the smell of alcohol oozing out of him, and just all around unpleasant. And that’s before he even opens his mouth!
(This guy, you’ve seen him in stuff)
Meanwhile, this is an amazing role for Kunchacko. If Joju just oozes unpleasantness, Kunchacko oozes freshness. Gentle smiles, soft voice, sweet eyes. And he wears clean loose clothing, a soft clean hair, you can just feel that he smells good, and would touch you softly, and over all is an pleasant presence. Which is also a tribute to acting, I know that Kunchacko can play the over-bearing unpleasant presence when he wants to, because in How Old Are You?, he had Joju George’s role.
And then there’s Anu Sithara. Who was very very good! Of course, she also had the author and director backed role, that helped. But she did a lovely job showing happiness, inner conflict, anger, freedom, all kinds of things in her character’s journey. And it can’t be just the writer/director role though, because I also saw her in Fukri a few months back, and she neatly stole that movie, even though her role was not the largest. And she is only 22!!! I had no idea, she comes off as much more mature onscreen. But not a lot more mature, it is important for her character that she is still very young seeming, under 30 for sure.
Okay, I think that is all I can say without getting into SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Like I said, we open from the “polluted” perspective. Well, the real opening is Anu making a video message on her phone while she drives, talking about how she can’t wait to see the trees, the lake, the house, and “you” again. The next 4 days will be wonderful. And then her video message is interrupted by an accident, and suddenly we are watching Joju George play tennis with a friend.
This whole first seen felt “off” somehow. I kept watching it thinking “wait, that thing he said, that isn’t right.” But, this is our protagonist! We are seeing everything through his eyes, it must be right!
The wrongness comes in 3 areas, drinking, money, and women. Which, not so coincidentally, are also all the main reasons that marriages break up. Joju is confidently telling his friend that he doesn’t have a problem with drinking, his routine is to drink, exercise, then drink again, then exercise again. That way you have worked it off before you go home, and you don’t have to go to the gym in the morning.
But, this is all wrong! First, alcohol works by dehydration, seems like running around after drinking would make it more effective, not less. Unless you drink a ton of water at the same time. Second, staying out all night to exercise and drink is not something that healthy people do, going home and going to the gym in the morning means more time with your family. And third, this guy clearly isn’t exercising enough, he is bloated looking, not healthy (this isn’t an actor note, I’ve seen him in other things and he just looked large, not unhealthy. They clearly styled him in this film to appear out of shape). He is fooling himself if he thinks drinking and working out are replacing regular healthy exercise.
The conversation keeps going like that. He doesn’t pay his bill, says that he is running a tab and will pay first thing in the morning. But if he can pay in the morning, why not now? That doesn’t add up either. And finally, the entire conversation revolves around him half jokingly talking about how he is married, very happily married, but he just can’t stop looking at other women. And sleeping with them. After all, it is his nature, he can’t seem to stop himself. He is presenting this situation to the other man (a doctor) as a problem he wants to solve. But he doesn’t seem really serious about it, the way he kind of smiles when he talks about his women makes him seem proud more than anything else. It’s the third and final moment that is just sort of “off”. What we are seeing doesn’t make logical sense. This isn’t a guy in a happy marriage, this is a carefree cheater who pays lip service to some kind of awareness that he should try to stop, but doesn’t really care. The most interesting thing he says is that he would be happy if his wife found similar relief from their marriage, it is only her right, if she puts up with and understands his little slips.
Skipping ahead to the end of the film, eventually we will learn that this entire conversation was a lie. He has a serious problem with drink, he drinks all the time and he turns into an ugly angry drunk. He has no money, he will never pay that bar bill. And his wife is not “okay” with his little slips, they hurt her deeply. And most of all, he is very much not “okay” with his wife finding her own escape. This is the problem with this character, he lies to everyone else, and he lies to himself, until he can’t even understand the truth any more. And Anu, his wife, is trapped in his lies and can’t see the truth herself any more.
The rest of the film plays out in a story we have seen before. The details are familiar, but the mood feels different. Joju gets a phone call while with his friend and, after stopping for another drink, goes to the hospital to see Anu who was in the accident. He is upset and worried. Until he gets her phone from the nurse and sees the video, at which point he forgets to worry about her health and is consumed with anger and jealousy. His friend (a different friend than the drinking doctor friend) reluctantly helps him put together the pieces and figure out that this must be related to the family vacation they all took together 2 years ago.
What’s kind of neat is that we spend enough time in the present day before flashing back 2 years to know that a lot of things must have changed. In the present day, Anu is a famous dancer who runs her own dance school with the help of her best friend. In the flashback, her dancing is a forgotten thing, brought up almost as a joke. She is “just” a housewife. Joju is a failed film producer, his latest film has just flopped, and to try to get away from it all, the family has come to this strange resort in the middle of the wilderness, just big enough for one group of guests. There is an overly talkative tour guide, and a smiling silent servant type. And, on their second day, a new person appears to drive their jeep to the cliff. The moment he sees Anu, and she sees him, something undefinable passes between them.
That is what is different, that undefinable thing. Anu doesn’t do anything “wrong” on this brief holiday getaway. Her husband is impossible and refuses to participate in the activities that are planned, so Anu, along with the other couple and both their daughters, ends up going. the group naturally breaks down to Anu and Kunchako, the guide, and the two little girls, and the other couple together. That night, with her husbands drunken encouragement, Anu sings a song and Kunchako naturally plays accompaniment on his guitar.
Another time, her husband refuses to make space for her in the boat because he wants the seat for his freezer of beer, and so she ends up talking with Kunchacko. And on their second to last day, her husband and the rest of the group go off to see a filming nearby, Anu doesn’t want to go, and her husband takes off without a second look. And so she spends the day with Kunchacko. They don’t say anything terribly significant to each other, but again there is that unspoken something. And he invites her back sometime for a 4 day course on happiness.
After she leaves, weeks later, the cheerful tour guide guy shows up at her house with fresh vegetables. She takes them out of the basket, to find a note at the bottom and sends a note back. He nags her to go back to dancing, she eventually does, starting with a simple class in the community room of their building. And she nags him to install a cell tower at his resort so they can talk. Which he eventually does, and they text and talk everyday. He gives her the support she needs to go from teaching classes in the building to renting her own space and putting on public programs. And she gives him the support he needs to just be a little happier.
See, that’s what’s different! It feels like the first innocent interactions that are the beginning of an affair, but then it doesn’t go that way. First, it never feels non-innocent, even when they are sending notes back and forth and talking on the phone under her husband’s nose. There is a sudden shift at the interval, which kind of breaks a lot of narrative rules, we go from watching the perspective of Anu to Kunchacko and he is surprised in his lonely resort by the arrival of his cousin, Aju Varghese (yay Aju Varghese!). Aju is lovesick over a girl who says she just wants to be friends. The other tour guide is lovesick too, for any girl at all. And the three of them form a cheerful support society, Aju sending love notes in blood, Kunchacko inspired to send his notes in vegetable baskets, and the tour guide skyping with women. See, Kunchacko’s love is just as pure and happy and shameless as the other two. The fact that Anu is married has no effect on him, and somehow if he doesn’t feel guilty, it doesn’t feel wrong to the audience. Or to Anu. She has no hesitation in responding, in calling him, none of that. It all feels natural and right and unrelated to her marriage or her marriage vows.
That’s what makes this different. It’s an affair which isn’t an affair. It’s just a love story. Or, more accurately, a soulmates story. Early on, we learn that Kunchacko is a widower. And his wife has the same name as Anu. And sang like she does. It’s just sort of sketched in, but we get the idea, Kunchacko is lonely and has been living with the memory of his wife for years. Anu brings her back to him.
But, Kunchacko isn’t greedy. He straight up says that to Anu later. She has finally come to visit him, after all those phone calls. And the day before she has to leave, she is angry and sad and angry at him for not being sad. And Kunchacko tells her that he will always be here, and he is just happy for the time she can give him. He doesn’t want to make any demands on her, he just wants her to be happy.
And so this isn’t an affair in the usual way of things. There are no hand touches or even longing gazes. No longing at all, not for physical connections, or even physical presence. We can see that a part of Kunchacko (the sexy part) died with his wife. Anu has woken him up again, but just his heart, not anything else. He loves her and wants good things for her, but is incapable of wanting anything for himself.
I was thinking while watching it if this film could have been made the same way if Kunchacko was a woman. And it could have, absolutely. Anu could have made a new female friend who encouraged her to dance again, to be free, to be happy. Heck, Kunchacko essentially fulfills the Lisa Haydon part in Queen.
The only person who cares that Kunchacko is a man and Anu is a woman is Joju. Because he cannot see things except in sexual terms. Way back in his first introduction scene, he says that he is happily married, very happily married, “in every way”. Which was such an odd thing to say. The implication is to clarify that he has a satisfying sex life with his wife. But he is saying this in the open bar room of his club to some guy he doesn’t know very well? Even if the other man is a doctor, he isn’t in his consulting room, this is just a semi-casual conversation with somebody he clearly just met. And the first thing he tells this stranger about his marriage is related to his sex life.
The more damning moment comes much later, after they have returned from the family vacation to the resort. Anu is teaching her daughter some dance moves. Anu is smiling, clearly enjoying the beauty of the dance and her skill, and enjoying sharing this moment with her daughter. Joju sees her, and immediately sends the daughter away and tries to have sex with her. His only reaction to this mother-daughter moment, and moment of skill from Anu, is to see it as sexual. That’s how they met, we learned in dialogue, he saw her at a school performance and presented a proposal. All along, it has only been sexual for him.
That’s what Anu has been trapped in. Seen as just a body by her husband, but unable to escape him, always expected to be at his beck and call. And so worn down that she can’t see a way out, a way back to being herself. That’s what Kunchacko sees, a woman who reminds him of his beloved wife, who is dying inside, and he has to rescue her, to help her rescue herself.
And she does rescue herself! All on her own. The flashback ends, her husband and discovered that she visited Kunchacko a year ago, and was planning another visit when she was in the accident, that they have been in constant contact by phone. Joju brings her home, and immediately confronts her, hits her. His friend, the same friend we have seen all along who also went on that vacation with them, drags him out of the room. And when they come back, Anu is gone. Joju rushes to confront Kunchacko, and a small part of me really wanted the romantic fantasy ending, for Anu to be revealed, for Kunchacko and Joju to fight over her, for Kunchacko to “win” her. But that wouldn’t be true to the rest of the film. It was never about Kunchacko versus Joju. It was about Anu needing that catalyst to come into her own. Which is what Kunchacko tells Joju. He is happy here, on his land. Anu is happy somewhere else. If she has left Joju, she has left him to go where she is happy.
And that brings me back to my original point, the spaces in this film. The family apartment where Joju lives with Anu is cramped and dark, few windows. You can see how Anu feels, like there is no way out and nothing outside for her. But the dance studio, which we get a loving introduction to here, it is huge and light and airy. The possibilities are endless, and Anu is completely free here. When we see her revealed there, it feels like a huge sigh of relief. Because she is where she belongs, finally. Kunchacko was right, she doesn’t really belong with him. His home is beautiful, a nice place to visit, but it isn’t where she is supposed to be.
And that’s the end of the film. Anu confronts Joju all on her own, and gives him divorce papers, suing for full custody, and using that as a threat to get him to agree to joint custody and a no contest divorce. She sees Kunchacko again some time after, he comes into Kochi for a flight and she gives him a ride to the airport. They are happy to see each other and there is still something there, but we can see that it isn’t really romantic. Maybe it will be someday, but not now. Now she doesn’t need any romance at all, that’s the end of the film, her alone in her dance studio, dancing.
I love that ending, and I love that she actually gets a divorce and rescues herself through the legal system, not through a fight scene or anything filmi and dramatic. But I have this one small thought that the ending with her getting a divorce, but not being with another man, kind of makes her not really divorced, you know? She is still being “faithful” to her husband, the idea of an Indian woman having only one “love” is still maintained. But I don’t know if there is a good way around it, besides showing her having one night of passion with Kunchacko, and I don’t know if I would like that either.
A couple final things that I didn’t have a good place to put in somewhere else. One thing I really liked was the comparison between Anu and Joju’s best friend couple and themselves. On the surface, the other marriage was in worse shape. The wife complained about the husband, the husband complained about the wife, they were always humorously sniping at each other. At the end of the film, when Anu files for divorce, her friend argues that she can’t walk out on a marriage just because she is unhappy, everyone is unhappy. And Anu says no, their marriages are not the same, have never been the same. Which is true! While their friends may snipe around at each other, we see plenty of other moments of kindness between them, genorosity, liking each other. While Anu sings, and her husband drinks in the corner, their friends naturally stand up and start dancing with each other. He may criticize his wife, but as soon as someone else starts to say anything, he shuts it down by pointing out that she might have a sharp tongue, but she keeps him amused, and how many husbands can still say that years after marriage? I appreciate that, the acknowledgement that you don’t have to have this perfect soulmate kind of connection to have a good marriage. You just need mutual respect and caring and you can be happy together. But without that, it is all worthless.
The other thing I appreciated was, at the end of the film, I didn’t know if Kunchacko and Anu would ever be more than friends, and I also didn’t know that I particularly cared. I felt at peace with their relationship, just like the characters did. Maybe Anu would keep dancing, and someday meet a dance reviewer at one of her shows, or a doctor who worked in the same city, or anyone else. And she would form a different kind of bond with him than she had with Kunchacko, but would be happy and agree to marry him, and while Kunchacko would always be her friend, she would be in love with her husband. And maybe some young woman would come to Kunchacko’s resort, some woman who wasn’t like his dead wife/Anu at all, but he would fall in love with her for her own sake. And Anu would happily come to his wedding. And I would be happy with that too, I just want these characters to be happy, not necessarily happy together.