I am continuing my “well, it’s the DVD on top” decision making process for films as I unpack. After two good Malayalam choices and one so-so Telugu, I have landed on a really quite bad Malayalam film. It looks like it was a big of a box office hit, but most critics agree with me that it is generally no good.
The most interesting thing about this film is casting. To play our spoiled Daddy’s boy hero, we have Dulquer, son of SuperStar Mammootty. Who really really did not deserve this role. He’s a great actor now, Kammattipaddam, Kali, just amazing. But that’s now, this is then.
Okay, he was also good in Ustad Hotel. But looking back on it, that was also a bit of an unfair casting. Any number of boyish young actors could have made it work, the heavy lifting was done by the cast surrounding him and the script and songs and everything else.
In this movie, Dulquer is onscreen the entire time. And we have to enjoy watching him in order to enjoy the film. And I just don’t. I mean, like I said, I enjoy him NOW. Even in lesser films, he is still “Dulquer”, great star power, interesting to watch, strange kind of depth and intensity in his performance. But in this movie, I’m just not seeing it. I’ll be plain, his acting is TERRIBLE! It’s like watching a college production comedy. I can feel the effort every moment and it is exhausting to watch. And you can’t help but relate this actor, currently in a role he doesn’t deserve, with the spoiled Daddy’s boy he is playing. Not entirely Dulquer’s fault, but made me have quite a problem with him.
I can see why the movie was a hit anyway, it’s a great comic hook, the idiot ABCDs who come to India being made fun of for almost 3 hours. Everyone can enjoy laughing at them. And I also think I wouldn’t really enjoy this movie no matter what, the comedy is just a bit too broad, the music underlining the jokes is relentless, the costumes/look are way over the top for our ABCDs. And the ABCDs in general are a bit too much.
See, I know ABCDs. I live with ABCDs (my apartment is in the Indian neighborhood of my city). And I literally lived with ABCDs all through college, my roommates. And yes, there are some who are like these heroes, obnoxious and spoiled and all that. But there are others who are more traditional than people back in India, I knew one boy in college who was planning to study at an Ashram after graduating, then come back and go to med school.
I don’t mind ABCD stereotypes, definitely fulfills the “punching up” requirement of comedy. I mean, not in American pop culture, because that would be punching down. But in India, sure! No problem! The problem is, stereotypes are boring! I kept waiting for a twist, another layer, an indication that they aren’t just the shallow types they appeared to be. And it never really came. I mean, they learned things after coming to India, but there was never an indication that they had any soul before arriving in India. It’s just lazy and uninteresting to use ABCDs like that.
(This is how you do it in an interesting way)
The other thing that bothers me is the little ways that our ABCD characters are inaccurate. It wouldn’t bother me at all if they were just one off joke characters. India doesn’t know everything about Indian-Americans, America doesn’t know anything at all about India, fair enough. But this is supposed to be the entire film! And one of the stars, Jacob Gregory lives in New Jersey (heartland of the ABCDs) now. And so stuff like them being “thrown out of 3 college programs”, or complaining about a female activist’s short hair, or living in a big house that is clearly in the suburbs and saying it is in Manhattan, or even the opening of the movie, breaking in on his white girlfriend in her large house, that’s all just not right at all. It’s something that might feel right if you have only visited relatives in America or heard about it second hand, but if you grew up here, it’s just slightly wrong. It bothers me not in an “I’m INSULTED!” way, but in a “I’m taken out of the movie because you are so clearly not real people” way.
Oh, Aparna Gopinath is great though. This is her very first movie, and she does a wonderful job with it, proving like I said, Dulquer did not deserve this role and someone else could have done it better. And now my mind is blown because I just remembered she was in Munnariyippu with Mammootty!
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Not much to say about this movie. We start by seeing our heroes, the “bad boys” in America. And I have to say, all of the “bad boy” behavior is not quite right. Every single thing. You don’t play practical jokes on your teacher in an American college, you just don’t show up for class at all, or throw a party on the quad, or stay up all night getting drunk and playing loud music and driving me (the nice white girl living on your floor in the dorms) INSANE. Really, I lived on the floor that was entirely ABCD except for me and one other girl, and it was also the biggest party floor in the school, everyone got drunk and stayed out late and had angry arguments every night. The Indian Students Association was just an excuse to go out and get drunk. Although their Diwale parties were EPIC. From what I heard, they were always too wild for me to want to go.
But they were staying in the dorms, not at home. And they were skipping classes entirely, or only going to enough to get a passing grade. And they definitely weren’t dating white girls who lived in big houses in the suburbs. They were dating white girls who also lived in the dorms, or at the most, in apartments right off campus. It’s not that one way is better or worse than the other, it’s just not right to see it this way.
(ABCD version of romance. I love Penn Masala so much!)
What is really really not right is when he gets into a fight at a club with a bouncer, and later that bouncer comes to his mansion with friends and shoots in the windows. First, the idea of a bouncer at a nice club having that kind of personal reaction to being insulted is kind of crazy. They are professionals mostly.
But more than that, you wouldn’t have this kind of shooting at a nice house. If someone wanted to shoot him (and why wouldn’t they? He is very obnoxious!) they would just wait until he came back to the club area and beat him up by his car. His house is way too protected. Maybe if they were out in the country, sure, not as many police around and all that. But in a nice neighborhood in the city? No.
Oh, and the money thing is super irritating. Especially because the whole movie in India is so much about money and how it works. The life they have in America is essentially upper middle class. His father is a doctor, they have a large house, he can go on a trip to Hawaii for fun. And $20,000 is a lot of money to them still. Only, the film keeps talking about his father as making ten million a year, as being fabulously wealthy. And I just don’t see it. A big house in America is no big deal, most people own their own homes. Doctors are wealthy, but not rich. And a trip to Hawaii with your friend for their birthday, yeah, that’s something you can do without being super rich. I mean, a little rich, but not super crazy rich. I would respect the movie more if they made them simply normal well-off doctor’s kids, which is what they seem to be, instead of trying to make them the richest ever.
Anyway, it is a relief when his father sends him away to India and we can finally leave the not right version of America behind. Because the “making fun of rich people visiting India” is ON POINT. The fancy hotel, the people planning to visit Ooty, the general sensation that the whole country is just there to be viewed by outsiders for their entertainment.
I understand the general humor of these two spoiled boys quickly dropping in income and learning how to live on 80 rupees a day. That was good too. For, like, 20 minutes. But then it just kept going on and on and on.
I’m also kind of wondering, is this something that middle class kids in India don’t go through? Or used to and don’t now? Or something? I’m solidly middle class, sometimes upper middle class on a good year in my childhood. As are most of the people I know. And it’s kind of a rite of passage to finish college, and live on nothing for a few years until your life/job falls into place. Watching them cutting open toothpaste to get the last bit out, reciting the cheapest places to eat near them, the cost of the bus ride versus walking, all of that was familiar to me. And thus, kind of boring after a while. It’s not exactly blowing my mind that you can live on very very little money when you are young and have the energy to do it.
(No real reason for this, I’m just really excited to learn that they have a new album coming out! It’s on spotify now, but that does me no good, because I need to own it! Just as I have purchased every other Penn Masala album for the last 12 years. It’s the one American music I buy.)
Things finally pick up just a bit when Aparna Gopinath shows up as a campus activist. It feels like our characters are going to get the development and depth I have been missing. But, no. It stays pretty superficial. Although in a slightly more amusing way. I liked the fake story of their sad American life. I liked that they started to be strangely proud of how they can live on so little.
And them being picked up as saints by the media is a lovely little moment of cynicism. If this had been the start of the movie, and we’d built on this, I would have loved it. But instead it comes in just at the end, after almost two hours of them being not-quite-right ABCDs in America, briefly perfect ABCD tourists in India, and then learning to live on nothing per day in a way I already kind of knew.
The last bit of the film almost kind of clicks for me. That’s when I started to see our heroes as the Shakespearean “Fools” type. They are foolish and silly and irritating. But part of that is because they are wandering through this world and pointing out the foolishness of those who live in it without thinking. It’s not just a straight comedy any more, it’s a dark comedy. They end up breaking all the plots of the new young corrupt politician, giving poor Aparna Gopinath headaches with their naive approach to social issues, and just generally stumbling through life with no awareness of how their actions affect others.
But it still doesn’t fully work, to a large degree because Dulquer is still super not ready for this kind of role. Oh Dulquer! Thank goodness you have grown up and stopped playing the feckless boy! It was never really the best fit for you.
(Yes yes, OK Kanmani was great, but that was Ratnam and Rahman and Dulquer with a character that is a little deeper than just “feckless lover”)