All Hail Hotstar!!! Greatest Website/App/Alternative media source in The World!!!! I picked this film basically at random out of the almost a thousand options available to me. Because I vaguely remembered hearing it was good plus, Manju Warrior!!! And it is good! And it is Manju Warrior, like ALL Manju Warrior! Her character is the whole film.
This is a movie about a mother and son in which he never calls her “mother” and she never calls him “son”, at least not to his face. They are different religions, have no blood relationship, and are only separated by a few years of age. They even look strikingly different, she wears salwar-kameez and a head scarf, while he wears jeans and button shirts, with an unshaven face. She moves briskly and happily through life, while he strolls dreamily along. She is cheerful and happy in her manual post office job, while he dreams of being an artist, a photographer like his father.
A lessor film would have tried to make them more similar, to make them feel like a “family” through tactics as simple as dressing the same, or having similar mannerisms or interests. Or at the very least, calling each other by name! But instead, the only thing that ties them together is the love they have for each other. And the warm joy they have in their life together. She may love soap operas while he loves action films, but it doesn’t mean they care about each other any less.
Manju Warrior is the film, but she is supported and her character shines against the contrast of the other characters. Shane Nigam does a great job being someone who isn’t quite grown up or independent yet, but also isn’t weak. Just as he did in Kismath. And Amala (or, as we all think of her, “Mrs. Nagarjuna the Second”) does a great job playing an alternative version of the strong woman and strong mother.
But mostly this is one of those films where it is all about the script, the central character, and the central performance. Which is common in Malayalam films, and NOWHERE ELSE!!! The script builds this complex backstory that all somehow holds together and reverberates through the characters in just little moments of screen time. The dialogue, the little moments, it all fits together with the backstory. And, most of all, it all informs the way the plot plays out. Which, in turn, informs the overall theme of the movie, non-traditional mothers and sons.
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I love how slow it is to show us exactly the relationship between Manju and Shane. We see them interacting at breakfast, she is nagging him about having the TV too loud, he is complaining back at her, it isn’t the usual respectful son/devoted mother kind of interaction. And she is so young, not just in her face but in her behavior, teasing more than scolding, forgetting the milk on the stove, being not quite the perfect mother we are used to in films.
And of course they don’t call each other mother and son. Instead, she is “Banu” and he is “Jo”. They seem like roommates, friends, not parent and child. And that’s on top of all the other differences, the subtle ways in which she seems not quite of the same class as he. I don’t even know what she is doing, but when we learn much later that she was raised in a farm family who lost their property, it feels “right”, like “oh sure, that’s why she talks like that and wears her scarf like that”. Whereas Shane somehow feels slightly more so, a little more internal, a little more thoughtful, a little more casual in how he wears his western style clothing and carries his expensive camera.
But even so, in his own way, he does respect her. We see that right away too. They are leaving for the day, he looks longingly at the classic motorcycle he has kept carefully under a tarp, and she reminds him of the “rule” that he is not allowed to ride the bike until he is 20, and he obediently gets on behind her on her little scooter and holds on tight. It’s an immediately iconic image, this smiling woman with a scarf tied round her head, and this bearded man-boy holding on behind her.
As we watch the two of them go about their days, this is where the Manju Warrior casting really pays off. She should have the duller day. She fails a driving test, then goes to work stamping letters in the mail room while her co-workers gently rib her for failing. That’s it, that’s all that happens. Meanwhile, Shane is taking photographs at a “Kiss of Love” protest, which goes awry and the aggressive female organize grabs and kisses him instead. Which leads to the cops trying to arrest him, which leads to him hitting a cop, dropping his camera, and ending up on the TV news. And yet, this whole time, all you are thinking is “What will Manju do when she finds out?”
What she does is, again, motherly-but-not-quite. When Shane finally stumbles home with his friends, to announce that he has already filed a case against the police officer for abuse and was released without charges, Manu promptly “punishes” him by gleefully revealing to his friends that Shane has a crush on the organizer girl who kissed him at the protest. It’s a mixture of wanting to give him some grief for the worry he caused her, and childish teasing and enjoying his embarrassment.
This is compared with the brief glimpses we get of Amala/Mrs. Nagarjuna’s relationship with her son. If Manju and Shane’s relationship is sketched in, Amala’s backstory is more of a stick figure. But it’s there, we see her dedicated at work as a lawyer, then buying her son a bunch of stuff at a store, and then her son running to a car and leaving. So, seems to be a shared custody situation with her passionate about her work and making up for her working Mom guilt by buying her son a bunch of toys in the brief time they have together.
While Manju acts like a friend but in the end still has the authority of a mother. Amala acts like a mother and an adult, giving things and having an important job and everything else. But in the end she has no authority, she is running after her son, not the other way around.
It comes to a head the first time the two women interact. Well, let me back up, it comes to a head with the first time Shane really acts as though Manju is just his friend, not his mother. He has applied, with her encouragement, for an internship at National Geographic. But once he gets it, she learns that it is in Paris and immediately refuses to allow him to go. And it all comes out, his sense that she isn’t worthy of respect, isn’t his “real” mother, can’t hold him back from his destiny (with the implication that her small life and happiness is because she is a smaller person than he). But it’s coming out from her side too, the sense that he is there to be her friend and companion for life, not a child that she has to raise and then set free.
(This is unrelated, I just can’t go this whole review without acknowledging the “real” Saira Banu)
And then Shane takes off, on the bike. Which is such a great “Don’t Take Your Gun to Town” moment!!!! He wants to be an adult, but he isn’t, not quite. And the motorcycle is an adult bike, the kind of bike others will covet, will make them notice him. Which is what happens, his “senior” at college pressures him into giving him a ride and he doesn’t know how to say no. Even when the senior, clearly drunk, insists on steering the bike and hits a man on a bicycle. And then throws a stone at a passing car. Shane doesn’t do anything wrong, but he doesn’t know how to stop the wrong things his “friend” is doing. And he calls his mother for help.
Just as the “other” mother appears, Amala, the driver of the car, coming back to file a police report on them for hitting her car and get them arrested while Shane is on the phone with Manju. Shane is arrested, and fate starts to close in on him. The cop who is called in happens to be the one he got suspended earlier, Shane is written up as not just the one who threw the stone, but also for attacking a police officer. Manju shows up to help him and does, not through use of force or shocking intelligence, but just pure open goodness. Her worry and sincerity inspire the constable to let her know that her son is probably being framed, and she should call Amala for help as the witness. And Amala helps her, just because she is a worried mother whose son didn’t do anything wrong.
That’s their first interaction, but the second is where it pays off. Shane is arrested, for murder. Manju doesn’t know what to do and goes for help to Amala. Who explains that the bicyclist they hit has died of his injuries, and that is why Shane has been arrested. And Amala has been appointed as the prosecutor. Amala is all kind and sympathetic, but Manju immediately backs off, says she would not have come if she had known. She is not just a simple poor woman, she is a mother, and she is not going to forgive and forget and move on from this.
And here is where we start to get the backstory more and more. It’s been dribbled out all along. Manju shows an old picture that Shane’s famous photographer father took of her when she was a teenager, Shane teased that in a different story it would be the beginning of a romance. Shane had already tossed back at her during their fight that she wasn’t his “real” mother, and she had lobbed at him that he idolized his father too much, what kind of man gets married and has a child and then abandons it?
In the scene right before this we got the bare facts of their history, told by Shane’s would-be girlfriend’s father who was around back when it all happened. Manju was a teenage girl whose photo was taken by Shane’s father and he won a national award for it. He tracked her down later to discover that her family had lost their land to urban development and her parents had killed themselves, leaving her an orphan. He put her on the front page of the paper and got a commitment from the state to take care of her. And then brought her back to his house and gave her good and shelter. And so, when he died while on a photography trip, she stayed and took care of his son.
I don’t really like this version of the backstory. Seems needlessly complicated. I would have gone for something a little simpler like him meeting her post family tragedy, and taking her in. No need for the previous meeting, the failure of the state to live up to its commitments to her, and so on and so on.
But the version of the backstory we get in the song after Shane’s arrest, that works perfectly. It’s not about the details, it’s about who they are/were. She was a lonely girl with a good heart who bonded with the little boy who had just lost his only family. They were two unconnected lonely people who somehow managed to make a life together. That’s all we need to know. Maybe they don’t have anything in common in personality, background, attitude, but they fit together in their own way.
Manju’s personality comes even more to the fore once Shane is in jail, because then it is just her. Trying to find a lawyer, failing, deciding to be his lawyer himself. Giving an impassioned plea that the common people need a better understanding of the basic laws of India in order to defend themselves (which I agree with, but is kind of an oddly inserted message). And finally solving the twisted plot.
It’s all about mother’s. Amala was indulging her son on his birthday, trying to make an impression on him. So she let him drive her car. And he is the one who hit and killed the cyclist. Amala arranged for Shane to be framed for it, knew that his senior in college was too connected to be convicted, and arranged to be the prosecutor just to make sure. And Manju is the only one who can figure it out because she is the only one who knows how a single mother in an uncertain position feels.
Because she is a mother. Even if she doesn’t look or act like it all the time. That’s why the photo that wins the contest for Shane is a photo of her hand with the caption “18 years of experience-my mother’s hand”. And, even more important, that is why we never see the moment when Manju first sees that photo, or reacts to it. Because it isn’t meaningful to her, she has known all along that she is his mother and he loves her. It is only a slow growing surprise to the audience.