Well this was fun! A really really good romance, from back when Mohanlal was young and charming (versus now when he is old and charming). A good romance that took a progressively darker tone as it went on, but still somehow got through to a satisfying ending.
There’s been some back and forth in the comments over whether the Malayalam films of the 80s and 90s were “filthy” or classics. And I can see why, after watching this film and Avidathepole Ivideyum . They are “adult” in all ways. Sex is a fact of life, so is jealousy, generosity, misunderstandings, pride, prejudice, all sorts of things. And art can give us an opportunity to confront these things, to bring them out into the open and show them for the manageable monsters they are.
That’s how this film treats the “bad things”. They exist, they are there. But you can survive them, you can overlook them, you can move on and find joy again. And nothing is intrinsically bad or good, it is all about how it is treated. Love, work, family, friendships, it’s all good or bad depending on who is involved and what they do with it.
Even the world itself is good or bad depending. Is our hero’s home a beautiful place of peace, or a nightmare to be escaped from? It changes scene by scene. Are the vineyards where he works a place of banishment or of sanctuary? It depends on how you treat them, and what you want from life.
Our hero and heroine are different from differing perspectives as well. Mohanlal’s mother sees him as wonderful, but also not home enough, not respectful enough, just generally not quite what she wants from him. His younger cousin sees him as a hero, cool and confident and knowing everything. And our heroine sees him as a man, someone she likes and trusts, and enjoys spending time with, someone she learns to respect and care about for what he is not for the position she holds. He sees her as beautiful, honest, intelligent, hard-working. Her father sees her as worthless, her mother sees her as a burden, her younger sister sees her as a worry, and the rest of the world sees her as not even worthy of notice. Whose vision is true?
That’s the point of this film, there is no “true” vision, it is the vision you choose for yourself that really matters. Eventually both our hero and heroine give up on the vision of themselves from their homes, and decide to start fresh. They leave the small world they were in behind them forever, their own mutual locked rooms, and start fresh by driving through the open roads to a new place.
There is a theme throughout of King Solomon and his love for women, for many women, foreign and of all status. But you could easily broaden this theme to all of Christianity. A religion which preaches that all sins can be forgiven, everyone can be saved and reborn. That is what love does for our hero and heroine here. They are able to find a new life, their own version of heaven, when they are together. Whether it is in their small world of their small town, in the city of Mysore, on the side of a road, in his vineyards, or in the back of a truck. It is a heaven they have earned through the struggles on “earth”, with all the flaws of humanity around them.
Speaking of struggles, I have to get into SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Mohanlal arrives in the middle of the night, and appears to be “the bad son”. Well, the bad but loving son. He is driving a truck, and jokes about working as a truck driver, before his mother clarifies that he runs the family vineyards several miles away. He borrowed a truck because he likes to drive a truck and came to see his mother and let her feed him. He hasn’t been home for a few months, he insists on his mother feeding him in the middle of the night, and teases her for being mad at him for arriving so late. It all seems charming, but a bit inconsiderate.
Until he is alone with his younger cousin, and explains that he ate on the way, but he made himself eat his mother’s cooking because she would be unhappy if he didn’t. And he explains that he prefers to drive through the night, arrive late, and leave again before dawn. But he might stay longer this time, with his cousin their to keep him company.
There are little hints that this perfect mother/son relationship may not be so perfect. There is a reason he feels driven to leave after only a few hours visit, a reason that his mother tries to make him something he isn’t, tries to make him more “respectable”. Neither of them are necessarily “wrong”, but they do not see the world in the same way, no matter how much they love each other.
And that is most clear in their differing attitudes to the family next door. Mohanlal’s mother is glad that they aren’t worse, prefers to ignore them utterly, the mother works and the father is a drunk. Mohanlal sees the two beautiful daughters. Specifically, he sees the oldest daughter always working. He first notices her because she is digging a trench in the garden, working hard while no one else does. Later, he finds her hammering together a fence post. And he admires that about her, someone who works the land like he does. He is not interested in the women his mother wants for him, educated and upper class, he sees a different kind of value in people.
The romance isn’t immediate, and yet it is. Almost right away, Mohanlal is interested in Shari. He stays, day after day after day, to try to get a chance to see her and speak with her. But at the same time, it moves slowly. A few words here and there, a half finished Bible verse, a sudden invitation to join him on a drive to Mysore.
There is no one huge romantic moment, no sudden meeting of the eyes or embrace like in most films. And yet, slowly, it grows between them until they cannot forget each other. Until Thalikan, Shari’s father, discovers they have been together and starts to beat her in the front yard. Mohanlal breaks through the fence to separate them and save her. Mohanlal can’t stop himself, he sees a woman he values being attacked. But to his mother, Mohanlal is interfering in a sordid affair between nasty people, all equally to blame for it.
In other films, that might be the big dramatic moment, the confrontation between the angry father and the suitor. But this film digs farther into sin and darkness than that. Why is the father so angry? Why does he seek to control who his daughter can and cannot love?
We learn part of the answer already. Shari has told Mohanlal her secret. she is illegitimate, the product of an affair between her mother and a doctor. When she was 3 years old, Thilakan entered their lives and married her mother, giving her a legitimate name. He loves and educates his own daughter, Shari’s younger sister. But Shari was pulled out of school, is made to work day and night around the house. He wants to marry her off to a co-worker. But he will not let her leave and get a job, support herself by working outside of the house. His anger at her being seen with Mohanlal is control, he wants to control her, feels like he has that right, like she owes him for giving her respectability.
But why does he want to control her? What is behind it? Mohanlal stays, and does not apologize for his actions. But he also does not rush in and carry Shari off. There is more going on in that household, more to uncover, and he does not fully understand it yet. He thinks Thilakan can be reasoned with, that a clear announcement of intentions will be enough. But then sees that there is no reason to be had.
He leaves, finally, after one more long talk with Shari. He has no choice, he must return to his vineyards, having stayed much too long already. But Shari is not yet ready to come with him. She still sees the world as not quite good, not quite possible. She cannot simply leave her home, believe that she can go off with him, not yet. And he is not yet ready to ask that of her, still believes that his mother and her father can eventually be brought round. Still sees this part of the world as good enough, sane enough for that.
The insanity starts to appear slowly. It begins with The Last Supper, the painting. Shari is told by Thilakan to hold up a large heavy reproduction on the wall while he hammers in the nail. Her spread arms mirror the famous spread arms of Christ in the image. And like Christ, she is betrayed by the one close to her, her father Thilakan who notices her bare shoulder and waist as her sari drape falls away. And she senses it, senses that he is looking at her with desire, and lets the picture drop, rejecting the sacrificial posture.
That is the beginning of the change. By the time Mohanlal returns, Shari is ready, ready to fight for their love, for her right to a life of her own choice, for her right to be free of guilt and shame. The full discovery of the wrongness of the world around her has freed her to believe that a better life is possible.
And meanwhile we see that life, the better world. Mohanlal has returned to his vineyards. It’s not a picture perfect heavenly world. There is work and workers and a small house with small furniture in it. But it is free, and happy. There is no one to judge them or tell them they are wrong. When his young cousin comes to visit, Mohanlal casually lends him a porn video. In the most healthy happy way. A teenage boy, a video tape that Mohanlal describes as “soft”, kissing and hugging and a beautiful actress. It is sex as a healthy thing, a normal thing, nothing to be ashamed of.
And Mohanlal goes to bed and dreams of his life with Shari in the same healthy beautiful way. Working side by side, her supervising his workers, feeding each other grapes, laying in bed or outside for long lovely sessions of lovemaking. Pure happiness and freedom.
The audience has been on this journey with the characters, we go from seeing Mohanlal as quixotic and troublesome, like his mother, to slowly coming to appreciate his slightly different view of the world. From seeing Shari as appropriately maidenly modest to seeing her as afraid and trying to break through her fear. From seeing Mohanlal’s home as a safe clean place, to seeing it as intolerant, ugly, unfeeling. And from seeing Thilakan as a regular “bad” father, to seeing him as the worst father, as not worthy of the name “father”. And with all of that badness in his home, we appreciate even more this brief idyll in Mohanlal’s vineyards, a world clear and clean and far away from all these misunderstandings, where love and happiness are all that matter. We are desperate for him to return home and rescue Shari, take her away to this world, as desperate as she is. We no longer have any doubts or see any other possible happiness.
And this desperation makes it all the more painful when the last few impediments appear. Mohanlal’s mother refuses to countenance a marriage into such a family, and we sympathize with Mohanlal when he threatens never to return home unless she agrees. And we sympathize again when Thilakan refuses the marriage and Mohanlal goes straight to his wife/Shari’s mother instead. And when he forces his mother, again, to talk to Shari’s mother, to make arrangements with the church, without Thilakan’s knowledge. It is unspoken, still, that Thilakan is capable of doing something terrible if he sees Shari escaping him. Because it is too terrible to speak of, even to understand. Mohanlal’s and her mother choose to look away from it, that is easier. Mohanlal and Shari, they can see it more clearly, and are pushing for the marriage as soon as possible in order to rescue her. But they are good people, too good to understand the full danger.
This whole move has been building to the unthinkable ending. So we can see it isn’t unthinkable after all, it isn’t the end, there is hope and forgiveness. It’s almost a relief when it happens. Thilakan and Shari are alone in the house, he locks her in the room with him, and rapes her. Her mother returns with Mohanlal and Mohanlal’s mother after planning their secret hurried wedding. She declares her daughter is “ruined”, Mohanlal leaves the room, and his mother follows. It appears that her daughter is “ruined” indeed. The rape, no sin of hers, has come with punishment. Her life is over, she can never be married or happy. Mohanlal’s mother rejects the thought of a woman like that joining the family, once and for all. And Mohanlal leaves their house, once and for all, giving his cousin the key to his locked bedroom because he doesn’t need that locked room anymore. He is done with this world.
This could be the end. That evil has triumphed. A woman is ruined, might as well be dead, her life over. And Mohanlal is sad about his love affair, too sad to see her again, she is dead to him as well. But it is not the end.
Mohanlal returns, in the middle of the night just like before, in his borrowed truck. And he blows the horn outside the door of Shari’s little house, just like he jokingly said he would earlier. But she doesn’t come, as she had promised. He blows again, and she still doesn’t come. So, just like he threatened, he goes to the door to bring her out to him. And Thilakan is there.
It is unspoken, but this is both the most realistic and the darkest moment of the film. Just a few hours earlier, after discovering his crime, Shari’s mother had declared he was out of their life forever, he would never be back in this house. And now, here he is. We don’t know what kind of guilt, blame, social pressure he put on them to be let back in to the house and their family, but he is back. The promise to protect Shari at all costs, to punish him for his sins, that only lasted a few hours. In this small world, it is more important what the neighbors who live outside the house might think of a separated married couple than the worst things in the world that might be happening inside the house.
The only solution is to leave this house, to leave this small world. And that is what the film offers us. Mohanlal returns in his truck because that is how she said she dreamed of him coming for her. He wants to give her her dream, to prove to her that nothing has been lost after all, not if they don’t let it be lost. Mohanlal defeats Thilakan and ignores her mother and sister who are trying to defend him (again, sadly realistic), to shout for her, bring her out of the house, and pull her into the truck. He asks her why she did not come on his first horn, his only question for her after all of this, and she can only answer “I thought….”, to which he gives a laugh. Because he knows what she thought, and it is laughable. Her trauma should not and could not effect any plans they may have made, his feelings for her, hers for him.
And that is the ending. Rejecting that anything is hopeless, that anything is the end. Even the worst possibility, rape and incest and faithless parents, it doesn’t matter. Mohanlal’s love is unchanged. Her happy ending is still coming for her.