Well, this was fascinating! Random pick from my Malayalam shelf, turns out to be the Malayalam version of an Independence film which is very very different from anywhere else. Which I am particularly aware of, having just written a bunch of Independence themed posts!
This movie was based on a novel and has a very novel-y framing device of a group of actors working out a play based on the story of a fictional freedom fighter. So, yeah, the Malayalam take on freedom fighting. Not so much inspiring young man dying for our freedom, more deep internal debates about class and gender and tradition and everything else.
Oh, and also Dulquer! I am seeing that this was his first big breakout acting role? He’s better than in ABCD, but that is grading on a very very low curve. Or high? I don’t understand grading. The point is, he was terrible in ABCD and better here but that isn’t saying much.
It does make full use of his remarkably fluid looks. Give him a close shave and a short haircut, and he looks 18. Give him a mustache and poofy hair and glasses, and he looks 30. Tell him to smile, and he looks like every friendly charming young IT guy in India today. Really, that’s what does all the heavy lifting for his character. His acting isn’t actively bad, but it’s not really blowing me away. (just in case you think I straight up hate Dulquer, he absolutely blew me away and gave one of the best performances I have ever seen in Kammatipadam. It’s just, he had a long way to go to reach that level)
(See? Older! With only a few little changes)
Rest of the cast, great! And all very familiar to me from other things. All of them did their usual reliably excellent jobs. None particularly stood out. Although, whenever I see Dulquer in this kind of ensemble, I have that little voice in my head wondering if it feels kind of like having the boss’s son promoted over you. Sure, you like him, you’ve known him most of his life, you don’t want him to fail exactly, but is there that little voice in your head saying “if I had gotten all the opportunities he has gotten, what would I have done with them?”
But mostly, fascinating movie to watch after all the other films I’ve been seeing! Mostly because it is so small in its issues. It’s not about massive movements that are changing the whole country, it’s about one small village and trying to create some form of fairness within it. And one man who tries and fails and then tries again. Not just to improve the village, but to improve himself. Very Malayalam (you know, based on the incredibly superficial knowledge I have gained of the films and culture and history in just this past year).
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Kind of a hard plot to grasp. It tends to weave in and out and lose track of itself and go back and forth in time. We start with the framing device, Dulquer is a young blogger/writer who writes about an obscure figure from the freedom/reform movement, KTN Kottoor. His writings are gaining more and more attention and he decides he wants to turn them into a play in order to bring this story to the public in a new way. He meets with a theater group, lead by Joy Mathew playing himself, and starts telling them the story of KTN Kottoor. We cut back and forth from slightly magical realist versions of Kottoor’s village upbringing and young manhood and this theater group discussing the events. My favorite being, after he seduces the maid in their house, one of the actresses calls it out and says that this really isn’t cool, and then there is a whole discussion about how he wasn’t a perfect person, there was his upbringing to consider after all where he was taught to treat women like that, etc. etc. The best part is that the discussion is open ended. There is no resolution, there are reasons and explanations, but no resolution. This is a fake historical figure, but the film is handling the ambiguity of historical figures better than all the films I just watched on real historical figures. Just because someone has perfect public policies, doesn’t mean they had perfect private policies.
(He does eventually get married, to a blind woman who has second sight. It’s a little magical realist)
This part was unique and well done, but if you strip out the framing device of the play, the fake history, and so on and so on, this is kind of a familiar story. A village Nair enjoys spending time with lower class types, is looked down on by his family, struggles with resisting women. I JUST saw this in Leela. And in Devasuram. And I am sure in many many other films I have not yet watched.
There is a kind of interesting change to it. Our hero’s connection to the lower classes starts as a baby, when the family has to hire a wet nurse and the only woman available is the local prostitute. He grows up with her as his milk mother and her baby as his milk brother. Not sure if that is an explicit concept in Indian cultures, but I’ve heard of it in a variety of cultures, the strange connection you can have with babies who are cared for together. There’s all kinds of studies now in America about different socialization practices and relationships and stuff between kids who were in daycare together, which isn’t the same thing, but is related. And most of the film is his slow journey to realizing that his milk brother was actually his real brother, his saintly father wasn’t so saintly and slept with the local prostitute, and she kept it a secret all these years. And now his brother half brother is similarly more noble than he, although he gets no credit for it. He is the one who takes in the maid and marries her after Dulquer forgets about her (very graphic scene of a chemically induced abortion, which looks super painful). He knows all along who his father is but doesn’t ask for anything or consider asking for it. He is just happy to be friends with his brother and leave it at that.
There is kind of the same idea of childhood friendship that opens our heroes eyes to others in Iyobinte Pusthakam. And I think I liked it better there. Partly because I am shallow and that one actually had action scenes. But also because that film did a slightly better job of showing how colonialism and village power structures are intertwined.
Or did it? This one had no white people in it or direct actions by the colonizers, but it showed how indirect actions, or no action at all, could still affect the political situation. The evil local landlord used the struggle between Congress and Communist forces to his advantage, dividing the locals who protested against him. And the rhetoric around whether or not to serve in WWII somehow became part of a local leadership election. These major national and global issues came into this tiny village and changed things, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. But certainly not in the way the big leaders far away ever imagined.
The film has an interesting non-action take on things. Non-action in multiple ways. Our hero constantly tries to do the right thing on a small scale, which often makes him inactive on a larger scale. He doesn’t want to choose a side between Congress and Communists, he tries to great a smaller partnership of farmers and workers in his village and to take each local situation as it arises, nothing more. He seduces the maid, but isn’t sure if he wants to marry her. And also isn’t sure if he wants an arranged marriage to another high class family. And when things get to difficult in general, he goes walkabout and lets his aunt take care of things back home.
And this is our hero. Yes, there is the conscious meta conversation about his flaws and so on, but the frame of the film is that this story is that in the present day, this story of a different kind of revolutionary has struck a chord and people are rallying around him. Around this idea of someone who tried to always look back into his past, to consider the right move for the present, and to look at the small picture instead of the big one.
And I kind of agree that he is a hero? Yes, the way he goes about it is a bit waving and shakey, writer to local activist back to writer, woman to woman to woman, never fully committing to anything, is super irritating. But he keeps trying, to be better, to find a better way, to examine his own motives and rights and reasons for everything he does.
And that’s what speaks to the people in the fictional world of the film present, but also in the real present where this film was a hit. The idea that you should just find one philosophy, one way of living, and stop. You need to keep going, keep trying, always.