Well that was an interesting movie! Took me a really really long time to figure it out. And then in the middle of the night I suddenly sat up and went “Of course! It’s all about the 3 chains!”
I am so glad this was my friend Dina’s first Malayalam film in theaters. Because it pretty much perfectly showed what is good about Malayalam film. A plot that went nowhere and everywhere, staying in one location but bringing in multiple complications. A sense of India as it is, with caste issues and middle-class couples struggling for money and living in tiny rooms and state busses as the main mode of transportation. Songs you hardly notice because they support the story, not interrupt it.
And most of all, the actors! I had primed Dina by telling her a little bit about Fahad Fazil’s background and his previous collaboration with this director and all that. And then the movie stars, and Fahad is nowhere in sight. And he doesn’t show up for a good 15-20 minutes. And when he shows up, there is this amazing balance of him having clear star presence, but choosing to step back and make sure the story stays focused on the non-stars, the real life cops who play the police officers, the new discovery actress Nimisha Sajayan, and our real “hero” Suraj Venjaramoodu, venerable character actor who is good and well known, but not a “star” like Fahad.
This is something I just never see anywhere but Malayalam films. An industry with legitimate real stars, not just popular actors like America has, but stars who are willing to step back and let the story shine. And not a big exciting kind of story, but a small story about “small” people and small lives.
That’s the biggest point of this story. Everything is very very small stakes. But they are stakes that matter to these people. And the question is, at what point do you give up your claim and at what point do you keep fighting. And the answer is, not until the last possible moment.
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We start with drama. Drama that is quickly undercut. Our hero Suraj is a truck driver (I think) who wakes up in his small house crowded with relatives, drives into the city for work, and sees a girl he sort of recognizes buying a pregnancy test. He debates what to do, finally finds a mutual friend of himself and her father and tells the complete truth about what he saw. The message is passed on to the father. But before he can really react, he gets a call from home, he is going to be a grandfather! There is a moment of panic, and then it is clarified that it is his older daughter, his married daughter home for a visit, who is pregnant and for him his younger daughter bought the test.
In a different movie, this would be the whole plot. There would be a misunderstanding, Suraj would be somehow thought to be the baby’s father, multiple fight scenes, couple on the run, all of that. And our heroine would be innocent in some complicated way although she appears guilty.
But in this movie, because it is a Malayalam film, everything is treated honestly and simply. The story isn’t exaggerated in anyway and the misunderstanding is easily cleared up. And then the plot moves on into the real drama, which comes about not through misunderstandings but through understandings.
(Same thing as the director’s last movie, Maheshinte Prathikaaran, you think it is going to be about some kind of revenge fight, but it’s just about life really)
Nimisha confronts Suraj and blames him. He tries to talk to her and apologize, and she suggests they have a meal together. And a romance blossoms.
Because I am slow, I didn’t pick up right away on all the undercurrents of this romance. Suraj is clearly older than her, a lot older. But I missed that he is also from a weaver/rope maker family, clearly less caste than her. And I missed that the two of them are the only one’s from their family who take the ferry from the village to the town into work. And I missed that our heroine is the only one working in her family, working at a store in town.
What I didn’t miss is that these are two lonely people desperate to make a connection. Our hero is the older unmarried uncle type living in the family home. Our heroine is young, but also old to be unmarried still. Living a life of going back and forth and back and forth to work, and then home to a family where nothing seems to change. They both leap at this accidental connection. Almost the first thing they say to each other is an acknowledgement that both their families are looking for matches for them, and it is hard to find someone. And Suraj is quick to follow up on her initial approach to him by trying to talk to her again. While she is quick to build on that and suggest a date off the ferry, having sodas together.
This was all super sweet, but I didn’t realize how desperate it was, I didn’t see that it was also intercaste. Which was foolish of me. But luckily the film explained that later in a way even know-nothings like myself couldn’t miss.
(I’m not completely out of it, I did get that this romance was intercaste for instance. But then Sonakshi was doing pottery in almost every other scene, so it was kind of hard to miss.)
And then we suddenly jump forward in time into the “real” film. Or do we? I’ll just tell it straight first. While riding a bus, Nimitha falls asleep and Fahad, sitting behind her, sneaking clips and steals her chain. When she wakes and feels it, she turns just in time to see him swallow it. She makes a scene, the bus people join in, the bus stops at the lonely police station nearby to dump the problem on the police. The police don’t want to deal with it, so they manage to convince Suraj and Nimitha to agree to a “compromise”, Fahad will stay at the station, have a big meal, and in the morning they can get the chain from his defecation.
Simple plot, simple solution. But then it gets more complicated, without really moving forward at all. Fahad does not defecate the chain, but the SI has found out that there is a potential robbery case at this sleepy little station and insists on them filing charges and forms and so on. So now the police switch from trying to force a compromise to trying to force Suraj and Nimitha to commit to filing charges. Fahad is still denying his guilt, so they finally take him in for an x-ray and confirm that the chain is inside him. At which point Fahad admits his guilt and says his philosophy, he likes to hold out until the last possible minute before ever giving up.
That’s the point of the film. All of these people are holding out until the last minute. And this is what makes sense of the flashback we finally get of Suraj and Nimitha’s marriage. Nimitha’s mother finds out about their romance and chases her, Nimitha runs and locks herself in the outhouse and declares that she loves Suraj. And then her father comes home and it stops being kind of wacky and funny, but more realistic. There is an amazing shot of her cowering in the corner of the outhouse when he suddenly bursts through the transom.
It’s very reminiscent of that famous sequence in Broken Blossoms, when Lillian Gish is hiding in the closet from her abusive father. I don’t think it is a conscious homage, although it could be, but it could also be just what is real. Fathers are suddenly and terrifyingly violent. And daughter’s react by trying to lock themselves away, to hide, instead of fighting back. And often, fathers become that angry because they feel like their daughters have been “stolen” from them, that their manhood and false pride is being questioned because their daughter has chosen someone they see as “lower” than themselves.
(Be warned, very disturbing to watch. Also, Woo DW Griffith! Horrible racist and inventor of the close up!)
Finally, when she is beaten so badly her ear is bleeding, Suraj and an older friend talk to her at work, tell her she has to leave, now, go to life with Suraj, marry him, and never go home again. And so she does.
This is a romance of people who waited and waited and finally gave up. Or gave in. However you want to say it. Two people so desperate and so lonely that they looked outside of their own caste for love. And two people who waited until they had no other choice and then married. And now they are waiting until the last minute, until nothing else is left, and then taking the bus to pawn her wedding necklace for money.
And the thing is, there is something noble in that! To wait and wait and wait until the terrible intestinal tract of a situation you are in, pushes out a gold necklace. As it were.
That is what Fahad’s character teaches the others, and the situation he creates teaches them, how far you can go before you give up. And how sometimes giving up is how you win, how you find a better way.
Which is what brings me to the 3 gold chains. Suraj and Nimitha were married with great joy. Suraj’s family welcomes her to their tiny crowded house. Their friend arranges garlands and meets them at the temple, Suraj delightedly fastens the gold chain around her neck. But now, that joy is missing. It has been a slow difficult marriage. They left town so as not to embarrass her family and Suraj bought a tobacco field, planning to rent it out. Only, there is no water. They dug two wells, and nothing. Now, with no money left, they are pawning her wedding chain for a third well.
(Of course, thanks to Dil and over the top Hindi films like that, my instinctive reaction was “no! Not the wedding chain! Terrible things will happen!”)
The first reaction to the theft is to turn on each other. Suraj blames her for being careless. Nimitha hides her hurt, but then turns it on him later. The argument revolves around the chain. Nimitha declares that she doesn’t want it any more, not after it has gone through Fahad, she wants him to buy her a new one. Suraj declares that she has to have it back, it is the chain he tied around her neck with love. He no longer even wants to pawn it, they will sell some land in the home village to raise the money.
Later that night, Nimitha’s father calls it seems he might have forgiven them, but no. He just wants to say that he will send them as much money as they need, so long as Suraj doesn’t come back to town as he would have to to sell his property. They are an embarrassment to him. Nimitha tearfully hangs up and says she doesn’t want his money. And then Suraj gently pulls her down on his lap and strokes her head. They next time we see them, Nimitha is wearing a wedding chain again, but not a gold one, a simple black thread.
The fight was because Suraj felt she was rejecting his love and only looking at the physical gold chain. And Nimitha felt he was placing the chain above their love. But the answer was to give up the chain. To give up the monetary value altogether. A black thread can be just as meaningful so long as it was tied with love. They didn’t need to hold on to it any more, not to the significance this object used to hold. It is their future, it is their well, it is nothing else. Their love is more than that.
Meanwhile, at the police station, Alencier Ley Lopez is the A.S.I. in charge of their case. He went from taking it slow and trying to get it over with, to avoid filing charges and get it resolved simply, to taking it more and more personally, the way Fahad just refused to break. And Fahad could see he was getting to him, and used it. He escaped, adding more stress to Alencier who is days away from retirement but could lose everything as punishment if he lets their only prisoner escape. And when Fahad is recaptured, and an x-ray proves that the chain is no longer in his stomach, Fahad calmly accuses Alencier of “telling” him to run, and to leave the chain behind. Alencier, we learned, had been already punished by this re-assignment to a tiny nothing police station for brutality. But after his son died in a motorcycle accident, he seemed to leave that behind him. Until Fahad brings it up again, brings up that ugliness so he can truly be done with it.
The best filmed scene of the movie is when the police corner Fahad in a file room, 4 men holding him down as the camera moves in and out of the struggle, and Alencier’s furious face. It’s this knotted moving angry mass. And Alencier finally comes out of it and over to the other side.
That night, while talking to his wife, he gives up. Gives up his identity as a cop, gives up everything he has been holding on to. He just needs to finish this case cleanly, hand in his report, and then he can take leave until his time is up, go visit his daughter and grandchildren, be done. It’s time.
And then we have our 3rd chain. The one that symbolizes just a gold chain that is evidence of a crime, nothing else. Alencier buys it himself, and asks Suraj and Nimitha to accept it as their own, to clear his name and put Fahad in jail using this as evidence. But Suraj and Nimitha don’t care, about any kind of a gold chain. This is the first scene where we see Nimitha wearing her simple black chain, that is all they need.
(It’s also clearly not that valuable of a chain. Not in the grand scheme of gold jewelry. Enough to pay for digging a well, but also something a police constable can easily buy from his savings)
But they eventually agree, because they see that this chain, the new gold chain, may be valueless to them, but it has value to Alencier. And in their “wealth”, having let go of their own desires, Nimitha and Suraj can afford to help him. And Fahad, our thief, discovers the same thing. He is about to go to jail, he has nothing else to lose, which makes him generous. And he tells them where he left their chain, during the brief moment he is alone with them. It’s partly another tactic, to gain their sympathy before asking them to tell the truth in court, that this isn’t their chain. But it’s also, I think, a little because he does like this couple. This couple that was willing to give up their chain because they don’t need it any more, not if it will hurt others, now that they have the real value of their chain back.
And so Suraj gets his chain back, just in time to have it melted down so they can pay for another well. Which hits water. Their bad times are finally over.
Alencier leaves the station and plays with his granddaughter, out of uniform and smiling. His bad times are over too.
And Fahad dictates a thank you note to Nimitha, his bad times finally over too, and walks away, disappearing into the humanity of India, to upset and ultimately bless the lives of other people throughout the country. By showing them what really has value and what does not.