Maybe it’s because I saw 3 movies in one weekend, but I came out of this one (the last one) feeling really grumpy about the ending. Like, really really grumpy. Which is oddly kind of a testament to how invested it managed to make me in the characters (unlike Jagga Jasoos where I didn’t care how it ended, so long as I was freed from the torture)
This was a really really well-made movie. The acting was natural and sympathetic, the songs were catchy, the comedy was funny, and the script was fascinating. Right up to the end, I was right there with it. And then I lost it. And I think maybe the filmmakers lost it too? Like, they wrote these natural characters that you just fell in love with, and the characters kind of got away from them a little bit, and they had to reign them in with the pre-destined ending, even thought it no longer really felt like a “happy” ending, no matter what the script said about it.
The trouble with this film is, it is really hard for me to say anything about it without spoiling it for you. Even talking about stuff as minor as the costuming could give away how I feel about it, and therefore what the ending would be based on what I would want. So this is going to be about the most general “no spoilers” section I have ever written. And also pretty short.
Our hero, Nani, does a fantastic job. Really shows what it is like when you are acting, not just showing up and being a superstar. He is entertaining, he is deep, he is funny, and he is a distinctive character, not just a miscellaneous “young student type”, but someone I felt I would recognize if I met him on the street.
Nivetha Thomas almost matches him (yet another reason I want to watch Gentlemen! Still not available streaming with subtitles last time I checked). Again, she is this distinctive person, not like any heroine I have seen before.
Our other main character, Aadhi Pinisetty, is very handsome, and okay in his role. But not quiet as amusing and well-defined as the other two. Considering he only really appears post-Interval, that makes sense.
The view of America is, as always, slightly off. A mugger takes a purse late at night at a gas station and then pulls a knife. I have been late at night at a gas station lots of times and I have never had my purse taken or been threatened. It’s really not that common, especially if you are a woman with two men, not by yourself. The house is slightly too big, all the co-workers seem to understand Telugu (even the white people), and everyone eats healthy and goes trekking. Okay, that part’s kind of true, they are in California after all.
And that’s it! That is literally all I can say without spoiling! So, SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Oh heck, I’m just going to do the plot in one paragraph, and then jump around. Nivetha Thomas and Nani meet and fall in love while he is finishing grad school. She sneaks him into her family house by arranging for him to be their upstairs tenant. But then just as her father starts looking for a groom for her, Nani has to leave town to finish studying. They could elope, but he decides it is better to wait until he has a good job. Now, a year later, she is married and living in California, and he is depressed and drinking. She invites him to stay with her and her husband to see how happy they are. He stays, and after it appears that her husband is cheating on her, he convinces them to talk it out because he has decided she really loves her husband.
Guess which part I have a hard time with! Guess guess! That’s right, it’s the “oh wait, my father was right and so was my boyfriend when they decided for me that I should have an arranged marriage. I really am happy!”
My problem isn’t with the basic “woman picks arranged husband” plot. Because I’ve seen that done very well lots of times. Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Mouna Ragam, Jeet, Rab Ne Bana di Jodi of course. My problem is that this film doesn’t quite sell it right in a way that almost feels on purpose.
In the first half romance between Nani and Nivetha, the colors are bright, the music is loud, and they smile constantly. It is a very very happy time and place. In the second half, in Nivetha’s married life, everything is kind of grey and shadowed. We almost never see sunshine. We also never see Nivetha smile broadly, speak loudly, dance, sing, be happy in general.
I think the message is, that was her childish pre-marriage self. Now she has learned what real love is, what it means to be a wife and a woman, and so on and so on. And it means being vaguely depressed all the time. The world has to be restricted to her shadowed house, her earth tone sweaters, her dull husband and what he wants to do. I don’t think that is the intended message, I think the filmmakers just set out to make a movie about a woman who goes from a young in love college student to an arranged marriage with a wealthy guy in America, and they based it on what they have seen in the world and expect from a young college student versus a married woman. Happy, and then sad and repressed.
And this all, naturally, makes me think about infant pain studies. Because that’s how my mind works. Until the 20th century, it was accepted that babies feel as much or more pain as adults. Because they cried. Plus, common sense! And then some scientist came along who did studies on nerve development, and he argued that babies nerves can’t feel pain yet. Which meant, for 90 years, doctors routinely operated on infants with no anesthetic. Just muscle relaxers so they couldn’t move, but they were fully awake and able to feel everything.
And then a mother found out and went “ARE YOU INSANE????” and started a massive awareness campaign about it. And then many many many studies came out that measured stress hormones and stuff and decided that yes, the common sense doctors and others of the past were right. Obviously babies feel pain because they react to it. And it damages their little baby brains and slows the development of their little baby bodies and makes them resist bonding with the adults who hurt them. But doctors really really resisted this acting on these studies. Because to acknowledge that common sense is common sense, would be to acknowledge that they have pretty much failed in every way for the past 80 years. And all those lies they told themselves, “yes, the baby cries when I stick it with a needle, but I am going to ignore that because I have to have faith that it doesn’t mean anything.”
(Picture ignoring this for your entire professional career and then having to acknowledge that it wasn’t just “pretend crying” but actual pain)
Now, why am I thinking of this? When I watch a movie like this one, it kind of feels like it is resisting acknowledging the common sense fact that a woman will not be really happy if she has no free will. Because to do that would be to acknowledge that common sense and human instinct is correct, and that going against that little voice in your head that told you it was wrong to force a sobbing woman to go off with a stranger was a big big wrong that you did.
And the funny thing is, this film does acknowledge this! That it is inhuman to marry your daughter off against her will. That it is healthy and normal to end a marriage if it was based on nothing. That Nivetha is never quite as happy post-marriage as she was pre-marriage.
Let me back up. In the first half, Nivetha’s father and Nani walk into an argument at the neighbor’s house. A boy has come to ask to marry their daughter. Her father refuses because he has brought his daughter up with so much love, he can’t just give her to someone with no money. And Nivetha’s father supports him, says that as a father it is his duty to give his daughter to someone who can take care of her.
Now, let me give 3 options that are never considered in this argument: 1. The young couple gets married and her parents temporarily support them both until the boy graduates school and gets a job; 2. The young woman gets a job since she has been so lovingly educated and all that and she supports them while her husband finishes school; 3. The young woman doesn’t get married right away.
I find it completely believable that none of those 3 options were considered, I am aware of how Indian society functions and all that. I just want to point out that there are 3 options that are never considered, which is a sign of the blindness of society when they say “there’s no other option”, because there really really is.
And then it’s the 3rd option I super want to focus on. Forget that the girl is in love with someone. SHE DOESN’T WANT TO GET MARRIED!!!! That is reason enough. To force her into marriage before she is ready, that’s like pain in babies. We can lie to ourselves that “oh, she will adjust, my mother did it and her mother before her, she’ll cry a bit and then she will get over it. And this has to be true and ‘normal’ no matter what my common sense is saying because if it isn’t true and ‘normal’ that means my mother and her mother before her are all miserable.” No, she won’t get over it. And I am saying that because that is just common sense. If you don’t want to get married, and you don’t want to leave your parents’ house, you shouldn’t have to. This isn’t about arranged versus love marriages either. If you are in love with your boyfriend but aren’t ready to get married, then don’t. If you really want to get married and ask your parents to find you a nice arranged husband, then great! Just, don’t get married if you don’t want to, that’s all I’m saying.
And later we find out this girl did get married off and killed herself. Here’s a thing to think about. Did she kill herself because of a “broken heart”, or because she realized she had no power over her own life, only power over her own death?
So we’ve got that. And we’ve also got this fabulous romance in the first half. Which revolves around Nivetha making all the movies and going after Nani, not the other way around. She is controlling her own life. And thriving on it. She is happy and confident and always smiling. The film even shows us that, before Nani there was a senior at her school who kept calling her “wife” and bossing her around. And Nani encouraged her to get over her fear and confront him. And from then on, she wasn’t afraid to speak up and get what she wanted. Including Nani. To see this woman, who is so brave and outspoken and knows what she wants, turn into a shadow of her husband, living the life he wants, is heartbreaking.
Now, I know the movie they wanted me to watch. They wanted me to see that she had ripped Nani out of her heart, and fallen in love with her husband, and that Nani ultimately loved her enough to realize that what he should do now was help her come to love her husband. Heck, it’s Jeet! And Hum Dil and plenty of other films.
But the thing about those movies is that they didn’t do as good a job selling the first half romance, and they did a better job selling the second half. Ajay is SUCH a good husband! And Salman really makes Karisma happy in Jeet! But in this, for whatever accidental reason (heck, maybe it was just overcast the whole time they were filming in San Francisco and that’s why her life looked so sad!), she never really seemed happy with her husband, not as happy as she was before.
Part of it also is that they really did a good job selling the idea of the wife, the husband, and the ex. It felt like what you see in real life and in films in America. Only, the thing is, when the husband gets a little uncomfortable hearing all these old stories of their romance and their happy youth together and so on, the wife turns to him and says “honey, it doesn’t matter, I picked you!”
Only, she didn’t pick him. She has this connection and history with Nani because they had a spark between them, they liked each other, they chose each other. She has a history with her husband because she was forced into it.
Choice, I guess, is why the other films that do this work for me. Even if a woman in love is married off, in those movies, there is a moment when her husband gives her the option to leave and we, the audience, see her choose to stay. And that is their “real” marriage, the moment she chooses him.
I do believe in the power of marriage, I don’t understand couples who never want to get married or don’t see the point. There is something powerful and, yes, holy about two people standing up and saying they choose to be together forever and ever. But it has to be both of them saying it, not one of them and the other one’s father. A marriage like that is no marriage at all.
And this film, straight to the end, made it a marriage between 3 men. Nivetha’s husband, Nivetha’s father, and Nivetha’s boyfriend. And it’s very nice that they all like each other so much, but that doesn’t really mean anything about what Nivetha wants. Nani decides to walk away from her when they are young because he decides she shouldn’t get married to someone with no joy. Her father decides to marry her off to a many she doesn’t know. Her husband decides he has the right to marry this girl he has barely spoken to just because he likes her, no idea how she feels about him.
At the end of the film, Nivetha’s boyfriend, Nivetha’s father, and Nivetha’s husband all get together again. And decide that, although she is furious because her husband has been lying to her, she should still stay with him and forgive him. And the three of them arrange for that to happen.
This all sounds like I didn’t like the movie. The problem is, I did! That’s why I care so much! I love Nani playing earnest young grad student in the beginning, and drunken broken hearted cynic in the second half, he was super funny. I love Nivetha’s strong confident woman in the first half (not so much her vaguely depressed and unhappy woman in the second). I want good things for them! And I just don’t think this ending is a good thing for them.
And I kind of don’t think the scriptwriters think it is either? There is the suicide by the forced marriage neighbor. There is another couple in the group of friends in America who decides to separate because they are miserable together. And when they are given the argument of “oh, just have kids!”, Nani/the script points out how ridiculous that is, to have children and then keep fighting more and more and end up divorced with kids involved. And finally, there is a family group that meet at the mall who turn out to be very happy and nice people who happen to be divorced and raising a family of mixed children all together. Lots and lots of moments saying “marriage isn’t the end, if you are miserable just get a divorce instead of killing yourself.” Even Nivetha’s father comes around! Decides he made a big mistake in forcing his daughter into a marriage he knew she didn’t want. All of these lessons that forced marriages are bad, and even if nothing is wrong-wrong, you can still end a marriage and life will go on.
Again, it could be arguing that this is Nivetha’s “choice”. That we see she has the option of divorce here in America and she is choosing to stay with her husband. But that’s really not the greatest argument. I mean, just because you don’t want to get divorced doesn’t mean it is the happiest possible life for yourself.
So, yeah, I want this to be the film where the woman stands up and says “It doesn’t matter that I now love my husband. It doesn’t matter that he is rich and treats me well. This marriage was not my choice and it has been killing me everyday to know that I wasn’t free to pick my own life. I want the guy who was my choice, I don’t care if that means I get divorced, and if he is rough and drinks and doesn’t have as good of a job. He knows me and I know him and he is what I want.” And it wasn’t that, which was SUPER disappointing.
(It’s kind of this movie, but not quite. Anyone else have any ideas? A movie that had the woman run away 5 months after the wedding instead of 5 minutes before?)