Well, I’m back to the classics! Because Bharatham starts with a “B” and therefore was next on my DVD shelf after ABCD. And also because I was in the mood for something thought provoking and good, and I knew this one would be.
I think this film came up again in the comments on my post on His Highness Abdullah? It must have already been recommended to me before then, or else it wouldn’t be in the collection on my shelf. But I remember it coming up just now in our conversation about films that deal with the arts. Which is interesting, because while this film is about art, it feels like it is about relationships and family responsibilities more than art. Art is just the framework through which we view them all.
As the title tips us off, this film is a story of “Bharat”. That is, the person not perfectly suited for responsibility who is forced to take it on. More generally, it is about all those people “left behind”. The ones who have to keep taking care of the family and all the other responsibilities while the “hero” goes off on their adventures. Tubelight was trying to tell this story as well, and failed miserably. But at least it grasped the central conflict of these tales, that their is heroism not just in what the hero does, but in what needs to be done by others so that he can be a hero. This move grasps that central conflict, and tells it well. And uses a much simpler frame, art as the thing to be conquered, rather than some elaborate historical drama.
But art really is just the frame. We are “tricked” at the beginning into thinking this will be an art movie. And only slowly realize that it is so much more than that. It’s similar to what Kireedam does with the action film, taking our usual “cops son wins fights” kind of plot and making it about the family and the people instead of everything else. Yes, the music in this film is amazing, as are the musical sequences. But it’s not a film about music, it’s a film about brothers.
And those brothers are amazing too! Mohanlal of course, but seeing him playing off Nedumudi in a “straight” kind of performance is really interesting! For once their interactions are entirely sincere and loving and the familiarity I felt with them after having seen them play partners in so many comedy films really paid off, I could believe them as brothers with a long history of loving interactions before this film started.
(So cute together!)
The rest of the cast is similarly good, but doesn’t really stand out for me. This is very much Mohanlal and Nedumudi’s movie. Urvashi would be the next actor I remember, for a quietly interesting performance, going from a carefree flirtatious young woman to something more serious and stronger at the end. But she is still far far behind Mohanlal and Nedumudi, really only coming into her own at the very end of the film.
But really it is Mohanlal’s film. As is right, because the point of the film is to tell the story of Bharat, the one person whose role shifts when “Ram” leaves. Not the story of the rest of the household who remain in place and merely change in accommodating a new position between the two brothers.
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We open with a classic shot, on a beach, a man and a boy, the man singing and the boy following along. And we fade into the years passing, the boy growing into Mohanlal, always sitting behind and providing support to Nedumudi, his older brother, and Nedumudi sings. Until finally we reach a present day scene, after a concert, Mohanlal and others are waiting for Nedumudi to arrive, and their uncle/back-up musician Oduvil Unnikrishnan is complaining that Nedumudi has started this as a habit, to do his performance and then to wander around afterwards until they lose him.
We are dropped into the middle of a slide that started long ago. It has now become routine for Nedumudi to take off when they are at an out of town concert and find people to drink with. And we see the people he is drinking with are used to this too, they aren’t music lovers and yet they are familiar with him, he must have drunk with them before. But this is a new level of problem, because now it is beginning to be too hard to hide from his family back home.
This is a fairly accurate depiction of how alcoholism advances in men. It begins as something that affects their social life, then their family life, and finally their work life. At this point, it has been kept in more of the “social” realm. While they are away from home, Nedumudi will drink with acquaintances instead of spending time with his family. But once they are back home, he can keep it hidden. At least, he has until now.
But now he has to lie to his wife in order to hide his drinking, and make his brother and uncle complicit in the lies. His wife confronts them and learns the truth, the word slowly spreads through the family, they are all worried about the problem but don’t know what to do with it. Again, accurate! Alcoholism is a family problem, not just about one person. I think this is why alcoholism was chosen as the problem. If it was something like, I don’t know, falling in love with a prostitute, or losing his voice, it could still work, but alcoholism in particular is something that doesn’t necessarily mean you are a flawed person to begin with, that will keep you within the family for a time, but ultimately affect everybody.
And so as Nedumudi’s problem becomes more and more apparent, everyone has their own reaction to it. His mother-in-law/aunt is worried about her daughter, about possible spousal violence. His father-in-law/uncle wants to should at him, to intimidate him into changing, but can’t quite bring himself to do it. His wife loves him and confronts him with what he himself has told her in the past about men he knew who became alcoholic. His son is sad and confused. But his brother bears the hardest burden. Because he feels that he is the one who should be doing something, but doesn’t know how to do it.
The problem is that Nedumudi is “Ram”, the beloved head of the household. There is no one he can lean on, no one he can ask for help, no one who can force him to get help. Even his elders, his uncle and aunt, are now in a position where they can’t quite talk to him straight since they are aware that he is not just their nephew, but also their son-in-law. We see that through how they interact with him and with Mohanlal, also about to be their son-in-law. When Mohanlal comes to their house and flirts with their daughter, they react with indulgence and permission. They love their nephews, and they knew their daughters love their husbands/fiances. And so they look the other way in order to maintain the happiness of all of them.
And so Mohanlal, the youngest of the adults, ends up being the one who must take responsibility. That is what the film is about. It could be about Nedumudi, the good man sinking down into alcoholism. Or it could be about art, the younger brother slowly becoming better than the older in their chosen field. Or even a love story, the falling apart of the older couple as the younger couple falls in love. But instead it isn’t about any of that, it’s about Mohanlal slowly accepting that he has to take on responsibility after responsibility as his brother drifts away from life.
This is the tragedy of Bharat. To know that he isn’t fitted for this role, and yet must take it up because there is no one else. And to make us fully feel the tragedy, at the start of the film we see the happiness of the irresponsibility of Bharat. He is happy singing backup. Flirting with the girl he plans to marry. Working a modest government job while Nedumudi concentrates on his art. Mohanlal hasn’t been suffering in Nedumudi’s shadow all this time, he has been enjoying it. He doesn’t want to devote himself to art, to become the best, to get all the respect in the household, none of that. He just wants to live his own small life, to have the freedom of being unnoticed.
Only Nedumudi’s actions drive him to the front without his own agreement. When Nedumudi is drunk at a concert and unable to sing, to save the honor of the family in the face of booing crowds (do crowds really get that rowdy at classical music concerts in India?), Mohanlal has to sing lead. And once he does it once, he has to do it again and again.
What makes this film remarkable, to me, is the way Nedumudi’s reaction to Mohanlal is handled. He isn’t exactly happy for his success, but he isn’t bitterly jealous about it either. He’s just sort of sad. Sad that he is no longer capable of this, sad that Mohanlal has to take over. But also happy that Mohanlal is so talented, happy he is being recognized. That is something we don’t often see in these stories, the idea that Ram would be proud and happy about the way Bharat has stepped up when needed and taken over.
If this were Nedumudi’s story, we would end with him realizing that Mohanlal has truly taken over, with the moment when he garlands Mohanlal in the middle of a concert and is dragged away. And then decides to go on a journey to find himself.
But this isn’t Nedumudi’s story. So instead we stay with Mohanlal and ask ourselves what it would be like to be left like that, to be handed all the responsibility for your sister-in-law, your nephew, your aunt and uncle, all these people who were in your life before but you never anticipated taking care of all on your own. And most of all, their sister. Their mute sister who, at long last, has a proposal and is preparing for marriage, A marriage which it is vital her brother be there for and help prepare. And since Nedumudi is no longer available, that brother has to be Mohanlal.
The one person who does not give him a new responsibility is his fiancee/cousin Urvashi. She is in a unique position, because she is the one person in Mohanlal’s life who would have always been his responsibility. His sister-in-law, his sister, his uncle, all the rest of them are new responsibilities for him, he struggles under that weight. But Urvashi is comfortable, he was already bossing her around and flirting with her, and knowing that she was waiting eagerly for him to come home to her, to spend time with her, to help her build a life.
And so it is natural that she is the one person he can share the greatest secret. When they get word that an unidentified body has been found, she goes with him to identify it and learn that it is Nedumudi. And she gives him the emotional support he needs to make the decision not to tell the rest of the family, at least not until after the wedding of their sister is over.
Through out the whole agonizing last half hour of the film, as Mohanlal and Urvashi exchange significant glances behind the backs of the rest of the family, and as the family finds out one by one what has happened, it is never really “okay”. It’s not like, now that Mohanlal is in the position as the new head of the family, they don’t miss Nedumudi. There is still a gap there. Mohanlal isn’t quite ready for this role. For instance, the awkward way they handle telling Nedumudi’s young son. They attempt to simply have him perform the death ritual without telling him what it is, but he sees through the charade and they don’t really have a good answer for him. Mohanlal isn’t a natural “big brother”, isn’t ready to be a big brother, is just trying his best to fill Nedumudi’s shoes because there is no one else.
That is the resolution at the end. When Mohanlal finally finds a way to take Nedumudi’s place, grows into it and has peace. We end where we began, with a man teaching a boy to sing on a beach. And a small visual reminder that Nedumudi went on this same journey, a young man forced to be a father to his younger brother after the death of their father.