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.
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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.