Monday Malayalam: His Highness Abdullah, Comedy is All About Shock

I just cycled through a whole bunch of variations on that title, “unexpected”, “juxtapositions”, “breaking boundaries”, but really it’s just shock.  That kind of “I can’t believe they went there!” shock.  Which is why it is really too bad that I saw this film after having already seen a whole bunch of other movies that went to the same kind of shocking place.  Since all the others were just imitating this one, it should have had the privilege of shocking me first.

First, a disclaimer: I watched this movie when I was complete exhausted from moving books and bookshelves around this weekend (all the work I had to do before I let myself do the fun part and put up posters).  So I may not have paid as close attention as I should. I’m sorry!  I know this is a classic, and I am not going to give it the kind of review it probably deserves.

Although, even if I were fully awake and alert and with no mysterious bruises and nagging ache in my lower back, I think I would still have a hard time with this film.  Because it is just so so so so so so clever.  And it is clever because it is so so so so so so specific.  Specific in everything, the setting, the character backstory, the costumes, the sets, and the dialogue.  Every little turn of phrase had a joke in it.  Which of course went completely over my head.  The setting, the character backstory, the costumes, the sets, the dialogue, I was only getting like 10% of what they were supposed to mean.

(Like, what is going on here?  Mohanlal is having a musical duel with another musician who is a “real” classical Brahmin trained singer.  But that’s all I’ve got.  and I know there must be more)

I kind of love that about Malayalam films.  Hindi films are so, I don’t know, ingratiating?  “Please like me, please like me!”  Very few in jokes, very few anything that feels like it might make you feel like an outsider.  The stuff that is there, it is all kind of super quick and superficial.  You can understand Dostana completely without getting the humor of that little exchange about Gabbar being gay in Sholay.  But this movie, if you don’t understand ancestral royal Hindu families in Kerala, and different classical singing styles, and everything else, they just don’t care about you. They are content with their own audience and place in the world and feel no need to go chasing off after anyone else.

I mean, I was able to understand the basic outlines of the plot.  I just didn’t fully get why it was funny.  Ugh, that sounds like an insult!  It wasn’t meant to be.  I know it is a clever movie.  I could see enough to see that, but I can’t understand why it was clever, because I don’t know everything I need to know yet.  Just for an example, the title “His Highness Abdullah” sounds perfectly normal to me.  But I am pretty sure it was supposed to be funny?  That “Abdullah” is not something we would normally expect to come after “His Highness”?  Yeah, that completely went over my head.

One thing that did not go over my head is that Mohanlal is DREAMY!  The little moments of romance he gets, with the heroine gazing at him with her heart in her eyes and him looking back, uff!  It was a great character for him in general (I think? I’ve only seen like 4% of his filmography), kind of a nice smart gentle guy who liked fighting, but also really liked talking.  And who could understand and befriend anyone from any place in society.  Just made you go “Oh Mohanlal! Come here and make my life better!”

And that’s why the film works as a whole, kind of similar to Manichtrathazhu.  We are introduced to this complicated layered world.  But we need a flash of brightness to cut through it all, or else it will feel all diffuse and grey.  And that’s Mohanlal.  The whole screen perks up once he is there and everything kind of comes together.  He weaves in and out of everyone else’s stories and pulls them together into one tidy bow.

I did follow the plot, I think (tell me if I missed something important!), and it’s kind of an amazing plot for how everything dovetails together.  But mostly for how it takes all the most sacred elements of society and just skewers them.

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

 

 

 

 

 

Nedumudi is an ancestral king.  Very Hindu, very cultured.  Loves music and musicians.  Also loves his wife, who has been mildly deranged ever since the death of her son.  And loves his foster daughter, Gautami.  She is the daughter of a maidservant, at her birth it was rumored that Nedumudi was her father and he took her in and raised her.  The truth is that her father was a traveling man who was already gone, Nedumudi just took responsibility because he was that kind of guy.  Nedumudi and his wife also have a bunch of grasping relatives, the worst of whom is the very high Brahmin priest, who is also blind (shades of the Mahabharata!).  And the most likeable of these terrible people is Sreenivasan.  A grandson who is also the most modern seeming of the family, having traveled to Bombay and not casually referencing religion all the time.  All these horrible relatives get together and decide to kill Nedumudi.  And Sreenivasan volunteers to hire a killer in Bombay.

And of course, the killer is Mohanlal!  Who is a very good very Muslim Qawalli singer.  The plan is for him to shave his beard and masquerade as a part of an old respected Brahmin priest/singer family.  His talent and his “high birth” will get him into the household.  And then, once he has gained the trust of Nedumudi, he will kill him.

So, you can see the shocking breaking of social norms, right?  Religion as something that can just be put on and off, high Hindus as the least moral people, a noble wise aristocratic king who spends all his time with the illegitimate daughter of a maidservant and a Muslim singer who was hired to kill him.

And the shock keeps piling on!  Gautami falls in love with Mohanlal, but so does the daughter of the high Brahmin family who doesn’t know he is Muslim and also a hired assassin.  Nedumudi starts to fall for Mohanlal a little to in a paternal/platonic way, not knowing that he is Muslim and sent to kill him.

There’s something bigger going on here, I think.  You know the Marx Brothers?  Part of the reason we find their films so amusing is because they are literally revolutionary.  They argue that the lowest craziest nuttiest members of society are the most sane, are the ones who should be running things.  That’s what this film is doing (I think).  It’s arguing that the noble king has more in common with a lowly Muslim singer than with his own family.  That the illegitimate daughter of the maidservant really does deserve to inherit everything.

And that even the noble king is a little foolish.  Which is what makes him good.  If that makes sense?  He is willing to be fooled.  Willing to trust this stranger who shows up on his doorstep.  Just like he was willing to accept that Gautami was his daughter even though he knew it wasn’t true.

Because that is the gift of madness.  To be able to ignore all the rules of society and all the surface things and simply follow your heart.  All of our “good” people in this movie are able to do that.

Gautami, because she has nothing else but her heart.  She takes Nedumudi and his wife as her parents, because she doesn’t have anything or anyone to stop her from doing so.  And she falls in love with Mohanlal, despite their differing statuses (she thinks) because she has no reason to stop herself.

That’s why their romance is so sweet.  Because Mohanlal sees her and cares for her, and she never expected it.  Because she never expected anything.  Gautami, in a lot of ways, is the center of this film.  I said that Mohanlal is the bright thread pulling it all together, which is true.  But the pattern he pulls is all around Gautami.  It was the threat of Nedumudi leaving everything to her which caused his family to act.  And it is her love for Mohanlal which helps call him back to the household over and over again.  And finally, Mohanlal’s reward for choosing the right side and defending Nedumudi is to be married to Gautami.  That moment at the end when they half shyly finally let their eyes meet and silently admit their love is beautiful.

But Mohanlal’s relationship with Nedumudi is almost as sweet.  Nedumudi has given up on expecting things from people too.  Because he is offered too much instead of too little.  His family keeps wanting to give him false gifts of respect and love, and Nedumudi has learned to distrust that.  But Mohanlal’s gifts, almost ashamed to offer them, those he can trust.  Nedumudi and Mohanlal grow close without ever really acknowledging it, afraid that if they say it outloud it will go away.

And Mohanlal has the least of all of them.  Knowing he is there under false pretenses, but also finding friendship and love with these people in spite of himself.  That’s what underlies all the comedy.  I mean, it’s funny, don’t get me wrong.  But also funny in a “society is so ridiculous!  These people who clearly fit together are being kept separated by artificial boundaries!”  And thus the ending is Mohanlal, “Abdullah”, becoming the heir to an ancient Hindu family.

Now, how have I seen this in movies that came out since this one?  Fukri is the most obvious example.  Only, it’s this with too many complications.  Our hero sneaks into both a high Hindu and a high Muslim household under false pretenses.  And there are two unnoticed heroines in the household.  Only, the one who really cares about and loves everyone isn’t the one the hero ends up with, which feels odd and wrong.  Because in this film it is just so right for our hero who finds these people and learns to love them across artificial boundaries to also fall in love with the one person there who already loved them.

The other movie I kept thinking of was Avvai Shanmughi.  Which had a similar Muslim snuck into a high Hindu household bit.  Along with other tricks.  But that one felt, I don’t know, mean spirited?  In this film, there are a random assortment of good people, scattered between religions and social statuses.  And not-so-random assortment of very bad people, all of them high Hindu.  The lesson is that social privilege does not necessarily cause evilness (Nedumudi is still good), but it can encourage it.  And the bad people are really really bad and deserve to be tricked and have their minds played with.  They aren’t just sort of bad, but not bad enough that we should all point and laugh at them.

I think that’s the big difference with this film.  It’s not pointing and laughing at any one person.  It’s laughing at society and the rules we leave in.

Oh, also, same director as Kireedam?  Very strange!  Although explains the really good use of Mohanlal, and that kind of underlying sadness.

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31 thoughts on “Monday Malayalam: His Highness Abdullah, Comedy is All About Shock

  1. Hi, This is my first comment on your blog, though I have been religiously following it since your Baahubali series started. I have watched His Highness Abdullah enough no. Of times to remember every detail. Diving right into your question on the song Devasabhathalam which is a face off between Mohanlal & Kaithapram (the accomplished singer). Kaithapram has been (wrongly) told (by Jagadeesh who likes the girl too & wants the competition out) that Mohanlal dissed his singing. So in the face off, Kaithapram sings one swaram & throws another swaram (in sa re ga ma pa da ni sa) as a challenge to Mohanlal. While Kaithapram sings in southern classical style, Mohanlal sings his bits in Hindustani style. Since Mohanlal isn’t as accomplished he tries to remember whatever his late father taught him. Which is why he pauses & thinks and is eventually overwhelmed when he succeeds. To his credit, Kaithapram is suitably impressed by Mohanlal and by the end there is no hint of anger, agression or arrogance just complete acceptance of his talent.

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  2. I liked this movie more for its melodious music than the story. Of course everyone acted well esp. Mohanlal and Gauthami. I like the Mohanlal-Gauthami pair. A somewhat similar movie is Aaraam Thampuran (Mohanlal and Manju Warrier).

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    • I really liked Gauthami. Looks like I have only seen her before in Iruvar, where she had one of the smaller parts but still made an impression on me.

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  3. Hi, This is my first comment on your blog, though I have been religiously following it since your Baahubali series started. I have watched His Highness Abdullah enough no. Of times to remember every detail. Diving right into your question on the song Devasabhathalam which is a face off between Mohanlal & Kaithapram (the accomplished singer). Kaithapram has been (wrongly) told (by Jagadeesh who likes the girl too & wants the competition out) that Mohanlal dissed his singing. So in the face off, Kaithapram sings one swaram & throws another swaram (in sa re ga ma pa da ni sa) as a challenge to Mohanlal. While Kaithapram sings in southern classical style, Mohanlal sings his bits in Hindustani style. Since Mohanlal isn’t as accomplished he tries to remember whatever his late father taught him. Which is why he pauses & thinks and is eventually overwhelmed when he succeeds. To his credit, Kaithapram is suitably impressed by Mohanlal and by the end there is no hint of anger, agression or arrogance just complete acceptance of his talent. They all feel blessed by the glorious power of music.

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    • Thank you for commenting! And welcome!!!! I hope you keep commenting. I love talking to people, and I love learning from them.

      That is a fascinating commentary on the scene! So, it’s about music, but also about their different backgrounds. And a character moment, showing Mohanlal struggling and finally being surprised by his success. Which goes back to the general feel I had for his character, that he isn’t someone who really expects a lot for himself.

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  4. This film was remade in Tamil as Mettukudi, starring Karthik, Nagma & Gemini Ganesh.

    A lot of good Mohanlal movies have been remade in Tamil, I think. Gandhinagar 2nd Street was remade as Anna Nagar mudhal there(Anna Nagar 1st Street) in Tamil.

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    • I still haven’t seen a Gemini Ganesh movie. I am ashamed to admit that I am mostly curious about him because of the Rekha connection. But I am a little curious about him for his own sake too!

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  5. Okay so about Devasabhathalam, the backstory seems to be that a courtier who is jealous of the attention Abdullah is getting spreads rumours about him claiming to be better than the older respected singer. When the singer enters, he tells Nedumudi Venu that Mohanlal claimed that all the awards he (the singer) won had been bought, which he finds very insulting. Mohanlal tries to reassure him by telling him he is a mere child in the art form compared to the older man, but the older man doesn’t believe him. This jugalbandi is actually really a work of art because each man takes turns exalting the seven swaras (Sa – Shadjam, Re – Rishabham, Ga – Gandharam, Ma – Madhyamam, Pa – Panchamam, Dha – Dhaivatham, Ni – Nishadam. Western equivalent would be Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do). At the end of the jugalbandi, seeing how much Mohanlal reveres music, he reasons that a man with such a love for the art will not taint it by spreading falsehoods about fellow musicians.

    I love the reunion scene between Mohanlal and Nedumudi Venu at the end of the movie especially, where Venu realises that Mohanlal is his deceased best friend’s son.

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    • First, hey! Welcome back! (or maybe you’ve been here all along but haven’t commented in a while?) And thank you, you are the entire reason there is a Monday Malayalam/Malayalam reviews. You told me to watch and review Manichtrazhu (sp?) and I loved it and I got ten million views on the review and a whole bunch of new dedicated Malayalam readers.

      Moving on from the creepy blogger-is-stalking-commentator part, thank you for the explanation! I knew there was more going on in that scene. And now I want to have the same background for everything! Because I know there is more layers to basically every scene that just didn’t come through to me. Also, really interested that the duel is purely about music, not content. So there is no difference between a Qawwalli singer and a Hindu classical singer, once it is brought to the level of the pure notes.

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      • Aww man, that’s the best thing I’ve heard all week. I’ve been lurking for the past few months (I don’t think I’ll ever stop checking this blog haha). Long story involving a fractured pinky toe while on a trip home to Kerala, followed by a very bad case of slipped disc and sciatica. I’m currently taking treatment at an Ayurvedic centre here. But things are getting sliiiiiightly better now so I can get back to commenting here like I used to 😀 My my, how the Malayali film section has grown!!

        Regarding the point about music being a unifying force here, bang on! In fact the very last line of Devasabhathalam is “Anandam anandanandam jagathaanandam sangeetham” which roughly translated means that music is joy, extreme joy, universal joy. And as Mohanlal sings those final lines the camera gives closeups of all three faces – the Thamburan, the accomplished singer and Mohanlal – to reveal that they have indeed reached almost a state of nirvana and have become one with the music. And if you notice, just preceding this all of them sing together for the first time in the song, in a trancelike fashion.

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        • I feel like there are a lot of movies with the plot of “old landed family whose redeeming trait is their love of music” in Malayalam films. It’s something I don’t remember seeing in films from other areas. Classical music being treated as something with the power to unify and connected the landed families with lower people in society, instead of something to set them apart from the rest.

          On Tue, Jul 4, 2017 at 11:24 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

          >

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          • You know,
            “Old landed family with love for music kinda sounds like the beginning of “The Sound of Music” where Captain von Trapp listens to his kids sing and becomes nicer 😀

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          • Has that been remade yet? It really feels like it should be! There’s even a plot reason for a massive age difference between the hero and heroine.

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  6. I liked the movie.I especially liked the reference to Mahabharata.The old priest tells Mohanlal to his face, that he’s in the position of Shikhandi who was used as a shield by Arjuna. Gauthami’s character seemed a trifle underwritten.I gather that she’s supposed to be timid – partly due to her birth.But beyond being a perfect daughter and a perfect love interest to Mohanlal, she does not seem to have a life.Since the movie does not deitify the hero and the script is chockfull of interesting characters, it seems passable.But Manju Warrier’s character in Aaram Thampuran takes her cue from Guathami and is so much in awe of the hero.She is put in her place by the latter whenever she attempts to break the mould.And that movie took the hero from being superhuman to Godhood.

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    • Aaram thampuran was also a lot later in Mohanlal’s career, right? So into the era in which he is defined by his own myth.

      On Tue, Jul 4, 2017 at 10:19 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

      >

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  7. “Underlying sadness”…..exactly! Malayalam films like this shaped my worldview so strongly that I still feel like all good stories and the best endings must be melancholic to a certain extent.

    I haven’t seen the entirety of HHA in a long time but those songs are still so alive in the Malayali population imagination. Mohanlal was and is a connoisseur of classical culture so his films in the 90s when he had a lot of creative control featured these intricate classical dance and music set pieces (as well as a heavy focus on caste Hindu families at the exclusion of other lives).

    The music director Raveendran Master composed extremely complicated semi-classical pieces that could only be sung (supposedly) by Yesudas. I hope you get to watch Aaram Thampuran for their most iconic collaboration Harimuraleeravam. If you ever hear a Malayali say they’re going to sing Harimuraleeravam, it’s inevitably a joke because of it’s reputation for being the Everest of Malayalam songs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCi7Nwb0RyI

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    • Meanwhile, I came from American studio-era films and Hindi films of the 90s, so I still have a “wait, the ending isn’t 100% happy???? What’s happening? WHY????”

      That’s really interesting with Mohanlal driving the classical music part of his films. One of the first movies I saw with him, randomly, was Vanaprastham (because my library happened to have it), which was all about classical dance.

      On Tue, Jul 4, 2017 at 11:22 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

      >

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  8. Hiya! First comment here, though I am a regular leader of the blog. I am obsessed with old malayalam and hindi movies AND bahubali – LOVED your blogs on them.

    Malayalam movies, particularly ones from the ‘classic’ period of Malayalam cinemas are a bit hard to grasp – mainly because as you said – it really is about everyday life and supporting characters as much as it is about the star. Satyan Anthikkad, the guy who made this and Kireedam is particularly famous because the jokes in his movies are very VERY situational. It’s not laugh out loud comedy – its absurdist comedy. It’s funny because its strange, or sad or silly – not because it’s particularly funny because thats how life works.

    This movie – other than Bharatham (another Mohanlal movie with a music angle) – is very VERY focused on music. Music is the way this guy relates to the world – and so does the king. Perhaps this will help – classical music in south India is all about connecting with the divine. If you look at most of classical indian music, it talks about the virtues of various gods – or asks gods why they are forsaking their devotees. This movie, therefore, makes a point about saying that Music IS God. That knowing music is enlightenment. Thats why Devasabathalam is so moving – it’s because its two different classical ways (one hindustani and one carnatic) of relating to the same subject – the divinity of music. And even if the two versions of music do not have the same discipline (although similar in their roots), at the end of the day – the mutual respect, and the purity with which they sing culminates into the dramatic ending of the song.

    The most poignant part of the movie for me is at the very end where the king says

    ‘Brahman means The one who is knowledgable about the truth…the one who understands god. Music is god. You know music.’

    Like

    • I know this comment is a duplicate, but I am approving both so you can post from this email in future without getting stuck in moderation.

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  9. Hiya! First comment here, though I am a regular leader of the blog. I am obsessed with old malayalam and hindi movies AND bahubali – LOVED your blogs on them.

    Malayalam movies, particularly ones from the ‘classic’ period of Malayalam cinemas are a bit hard to grasp – mainly because as you said – it really is about everyday life and supporting characters as much as it is about the star. Satyan Anthikkad, the guy who made this and Kireedam is particularly famous because the jokes in his movies are very VERY situational. It’s not laugh out loud comedy – its absurdist comedy. It’s funny because its strange, or sad or silly – not because it’s particularly funny because thats how life works.

    This movie – other than Bharatham (another Mohanlal movie with a music angle) – is very VERY focused on music. Music is the way this guy relates to the world – and so does the king. Perhaps this will help – classical music in south India is all about connecting with the divine. If you look at most of classical indian music, it talks about the virtues of various gods – or asks gods why they are forsaking their devotees. This movie, therefore, makes a point about saying that Music IS God. That knowing music is enlightenment. Thats why Devasabathalam is so moving – it’s because its two different classical ways (one hindustani and one carnatic) of relating to the same subject – the divinity of music. And even if the two versions of music do not have the same discipline (although similar in their roots), at the end of the day – the mutual respect, and the purity with which they sing culminates into the dramatic ending of the song.

    The most poignant part of the movie for me is at the very end where the king says

    ‘Brahman means The one who is knowledgable about the truth…the one who understands god. Music is god. You know music.’

    Like

    • Thank you for commenting! And this is such a lovely comment. It pulled the whole film together for me, all the “good” people of this world are the ones who are looking for pure beauty and truth, not the superficial social trappings of it, like the differences between musical styles which are ultimately pointless because all music is universal.

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      • YES ! Absolutely. You really should watch Bharatham. It’s a Mohanlal movie and it attempts to tell the story of Ramayana from Bharath’s perspective. Bharath is the son who has to take over the throne of Rama once he is exiled….It’s set in contemporary Kerala within a famous classical musicians’ family.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I do love re-tellings of Mahabharata/Ramayana from unexpected angles! And it would be nice to see a story of Bharat that isn’t Hum Saath Saath Hain.

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  10. Pingback: Monday Malayalan: Bharatham, The Responsibility of the One Left Behind | dontcallitbollywood

  11. Pingback: Film Reviews | dontcallitbollywood

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