Happy Tuesday! After a string of Telugu films, I dug deep and pulled out a Tamil! I could have watched one of my new Chennai DVDs, but instead I went with a recommendation from DDLJ17 and watched an older Rajnikanth film.
As you know if you have read my book or read this blog regularly, one of the main underpinnings of my theories of Indian film is that the relationship between star and audience is something unique to Indian film. This isn’t just my theory, Susmita Dasgupta, Rosie Thomas, just to name two, are other scholars that follow the same theory. And then there are movies like this one, and Fan and Dhanaka(watch Dhanak! It’s lovely. And on Netflix last time I checked) and Billu, and I am sure others I am not thinking of, which further explain it.
And, of course, Shahrukh Khan. Often when he is stuck being interviewed by the clueless western press, he will fall back on explaining that Indian movie stars aren’t like movie stars in America, they are more like rock stars. I was going to say that is more accurate than he realizes, but that is kind of patronizing and stupid of me, if the man said it, let’s assume it is because he knows EXACTLY how accurate it is.
(Actually, they might be bigger than rock stars)
Being a rock star in western culture isn’t just about selling out stadium concerts and screaming fans (although it is that too). It’s about marking your life by the bands you listened to, seeing the musicians as somehow otherworldly Gods, and feeling a deep personal connection to the ones who spoke to you and expressed the feelings you couldn’t. And finding, yes, spiritual comfort in enjoying their art.
If you are an American or Westerner, it would seem not that unusual for someone to feel a deep personal sense of loss when David Bowie or Prince died. And of course if/when Paul McCartney dies, large parts of the world will just shut down. And Elvis was one of the first musicians to achieve this kind of following.
This doesn’t happen in a vacuum, Elvis rose to fame on the backs of the growing teenage culture in America, the prosperity of the 1950s, the changes to the Hollywood film industry that effectively eliminated the American star system, the growth of national radio stations and record stores on every corner, and of course his own magnetic charisma and amazing talent.
In the same way, in India, the popular music industry never really thrived (thanks to the state controlled radio stations), and really all pop culture ended up being folded into film (music, fashion, comedians, literature, even politics eventually, all interacted with film). And therefore the paramount public figure became the film star. He was the one you related to, who spoke to you, who carried with him all your memories and hopes and dreams.
Which brings me, FINALLY, to this film. It is based on an American movie (Touched By Love/To Elvis, With Love) which was about Elvis, not a movie star. Very very loosely based. Really, it is just the central idea of an angry disabled young person whose caregiver suggests she write to the star she worships, and it slowly brings her out of her shell.
(Based on a true story. Elvis really did befriend a sick little girl and write to her)
The Indian film producers saw the original movie at a film festival and loved it and were all emotional and everything and immediately wanted to remake it. And obviously the replacement for Elvis would have to be Rajnikanth. Because you need a movie star to evoke that kind of deep connection with the downtrodden (this also gets into how films in America somehow became more of an elitist thing over time whereas until recently in India they were made for the lowest most oppressed classes, like music is in the US).
Elvis wrote letters in the original, but Rajnikanth changed the film in the remake. Instead of his planned 6 days schedule, he expanded to 10 so that he could be a central character (and if you were wondering if my theoretical film schedule was accurate with only a few days of filming for a star, this answers that! 10 days and he did this whole movie).
Rajnikanth is the heart of the film, both in his actual performance and what the film says about how and why people connect to him. But it only works because of the support around him. Ambika plays the heroine, and does a great job, and now I am puzzled because I was sure I recognized her, and it looks like I have only seen her in recent films where she would look very different. Meena is the child actress, and I know I have seen her in stuff, which is disturbing because she grew up and played a heroine opposite the heroes who she acted with as a small child. I am sure on set in the grown-up films it was kind of nice, they would have this fatherly kindly attitude towards her, but it’s still odd to think about! Looks like Ambika was a child actress as well, hopefully never opposite someone she ended up being a romantic partner with in a later film. I’m glad to see she is a former child actress, because I always like it when grown up child actors act opposite children, it feels like they would have special insight on to how to make the experience pleasant, right?
But really, it’s all about Rajnikanth. And why everyone, even a little crippled girl, might be able to connect to him. And the responsibility that places on him.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
This movie starts out fairly normal bittersweet children’s movie. Mercy house orphanage is constantly receiving babies, dropped off in the middle of the night with a bell rung to alert the staff. We see one of those babies delivered, and then jump forward several years to see the children who still live there. The film never explicitly says (unless I missed it) that most of the babies were adopted, but that seems to be the implication. However, these children are left behind because they are crippled, blind, deaf, mute. What the movie also says, explicitly, is that sometimes babies seem to be left because they are crippled, blind, deaf, mute, and the parents don’t want them.
(There is also a lot of Jesus=Rajnikanth imagery, which is interesting for a whole bunch of reasons but I have run out of space to talk about them)
Now, first, I do want to put in a plug for social safety nets. If you are concerned about babies being abandoned, in addition to giving money to orphanages, perhaps consider supporting programs that will help parents to care for these children. What would it take for a poor family to be able to raise their own disabled child at home? Or raise a baby at all? Consider state supported childcare, schooling, various welfare programs. And, of course, healthcare. Just putting it out there.
That’s not the main point of this film at all, in fact this film in general seems fairly non-judgmental towards the parents. It is sad that these children are left behind, but the adults understand the complicated pressures which might lead to such a necessity. It is just harder for the children to understand it.
And no matter what, the point is that these are the most powerless, the lowest of the low. Children, with no families, and disabilities as well. And our heroine is even worse off than the rest, because she doesn’t have a personality to help her. While the other children have friendships and adults who care about them (the staff of the home is shown to be caring loving people), Meena is so unpleasant that even the kindly staff and the other children have no patience for her. Until a new staff member Ambika shows up who seems to have endless patience and tries to bring her out of her shell. But that doesn’t matter, at least not to what becomes the main point of the film.
There is a so-so family melodrama here, if you remove Rajnikanth. Ambika puts up with everything Meena does and is delighted when she finally starts opening up. And then she learns through a series of coincidences, that Meena is in fact her own child! She had eloped with the gardener, leaving her wealthy family. The gardener died tragically (just as her parents were forgiving them for eloping), leaving her pregnant and only sort of married. She insisted on having the baby against her parent’s objections, but then they lied to her that the baby died and it was taken away by a maid, who eventually left it at Mercy House.
(We also got to squeeze in a flashback love song of the parents getting together)
Only Ambika can’t tell any of this to Meena, because Meena has a weak heart (in addition to weak legs and a crippled hand) and the shock might kill her. Which is also why she is so spoiled, the Mother nun wanted her to have a happy life while she could. So instead, Ambika has to listen to Meena talking about how she hates her mother for abandoning her, and watch her own daughter die. And then the other children find out Meena is dying and pray to God to save her, and it all gets extremely sappy as they realize how much they love her. All of that is a sort of okay movie. The hijinks of the other orphans are neat to watch, and the high drama of the “I’m her mother but I can’t tell her!” is also kind of fun. But it’s the entry of Rajnikanth that changes things, adds a deeper level.
First, there’s the way that Rajnikanth is introduced. It’s not complicated because it doesn’t have to be complicated. Who visits and cares for these forgotten people? Movie stars! It reminded me of this strange little documentary Big in Bollywood that moviemavengal turned me onto. Omi Vaidya, from 3 Idiots, was just a regular struggling actor in LA who randomly auditioned for a Hindi film. Before the premier, he invited some of his best friends from home to come to India with him, and they shot a documentary on the experience. Anyway, what I was thinking of was towards the end, after we have watched Omi go on this whole journey of becoming a star, he is invited to some elementary school function to talk to the kids. And from a guy who started out with “isn’t this a lark! Let’s goof around at the premier”, who turned into a guy who gives a completely earnest and sincere speech to the kids about life and education and what he hopes for them. Because power creates responsibility. When people look up to you the way they look up to film stars in India, you slowly grow into that role, you begin to feel the weight of it. And that’s just kind of normal. Seeing Rajnikanth celebrate Independence Day by going to an orphanage and distributing gifts, well, yeah! That is how he celebrates Independence Day! Like, in real life!
So, that’s what a movie star does, shows up for these kind of charity events as part of their public appearance routine. But why do the kids like it? That’s where this film gets brilliant.
In her book on Amitabh, Susmita Dasgupta talks about how he speaks to the powerless, the oppressed, gives them something to believe in and hang on to. If his characters can survive and keep going, then so can you. Susmita mentions interviews with people like a young single mother working two jobs to take care of her children and mother. She seemingly had nothing in common with an angry young smuggler that Amitabh was playing on screen. But there was something there that spoke to her, just like it spoke to millions of other people, and thus Amitabh became a superstar. We don’t even necessarily have to understand it, we just have to accept it, these people have something in them that everyone in the world can respond to.
And that’s what we see. Meena sneaks into the showing of Rajnikanth’s film the night after he visited. And she sees him rescuing an elephant and reuniting it with his mother in Annai Oru Aalayam. If I were watching that movie, I might enjoy the cute baby animals and stunts. Someone else might like Rajnikanth’s fight scenes. Someone somewhere would like the love story. But for Meena, she watches it and sees a story of an orphan being reunited with its mother. And that’s why she loves Rajnikanth, because he cares about orphans. He is the one person in the world that she trusts, that she loves, that she thinks loves her.
And that’s the movie, that’s the point. A little sad broken child finding something to love in Rajnikanth. And that’s a really nice movie. But what takes it to another level is that we get to see what it is like to be Rajnikanth and have this child counting on him, have everyone counting on him.
At first, Rajnikanth seems to be some kind of life-fixing magician. He responds to Meena’s letters and lights up her life and makes her a happy child. He visits her and plays along with her miss-conception that he really did rescue that elephant child. And when he finds out that she has a heart condition, he immediately gets on the phone to his friend the specialist to rush over and see Meena. Rajnikanth tells Ambika not to worry, and you can see he believes it, and she believes it, and we in the audience believe it. He’s Rajnikanth! He’s magic! He will fix things.
(We even see that in Meena’s dream. She thinks she can just put on holy ash and will wake up cured the next day, with Rajnikanth guiding her. But life isn’t like that)
But, he’s not really magic. He can’t fix everything. And his heart specialist tells him there is no hope after all, nothing he can do. And that’s when we see how great he really is. A different kind of person would just sweep in with the specialist to fix everything and move on. And, when that wasn’t possible, would give up. But Rajni sir doesn’t give up. He accepts that he can’t save her life, but he doesn’t run away. He sticks around, he takes her to his house to spend the day with him, he is her friend and the light of her life as long as it lasts.
And he has to carry that weight on him. That’s the end. Not the soapy goodbye between Meena and Ambika when she finally calls her “Ma”. No, it’s Meena’s little hand clutching Rajnikanth’s shirttail even in death. And him seeing his autograph still written on her palm. And then somehow having to walk to his car and drive away. Because he can’t afford to pause for one little girl, there are so many other little girls and little boys and old men and widowed women and everyone else who somehow manages to keep going thanks to believing in him.
(this is what makes him great, showing up to play Santa Claus at an orphanage because a little girl asked him to, and smiling and loving her, even though he knows she is going to break his heart)