Finally, a movie about sisters! No romance, hardly any parents, it’s all about the sister relationship. For once, it is the pain of separated sisters we feel, not lovers or brothers or parent and child.
Here is where I talk about human reality versus social expectations! I am of the opinion that all people are essentially the same. That is, in every culture, there are people who are close to their parents and love spending time with them, and people who are not. People whose marriages fall apart, and people whose marriages don’t. And so on and so on. However, the society you live in can make it easier or harder to feel the things you feel. In all kinds of ways. Like, I think I’ve mentioned before that my father has a “cousin-brother”, which is a thing that is hard to explain in America (“technically he is my Dad’s cousin, but they grew up together so really they are more like brothers, even though they have different parents”) but has a handy little phrase for it in Indian English.
So, in Indian society as presented on film, there is an expectation and a special place for the mother-son bond. And the brother-brother bond. And brother-sister. And the lover-lover bond. But other bonds like, for instance, sister-sister don’t get such a special place. Not because sisters in India don’t love each other, but because society doesn’t make it easy for them to express that bond, there aren’t as many stories that revolve around it and holidays and special cultural moments and so on and so on. Which is what makes it so special when a film breaks through the easy well-trod paths and highlights this kind of relationship.
And in addition, of course, it also highlights the heroines! Ambika and Revathy get to take the lead in a film, without any stupid male hero to share the screen with them. And in fact all the male actors, and male characters, get to experience being second fiddle for once, stepping back so the heroine can shine.
Both actresses are good but Revathy is really really good. I kept double checking her age thinking she must have been a teenager, but nope! 22 years old and putting in an amazing performance as a little girl. Not a filmi little girl, but like she actually would be with this background, wild and selfish and ungraceful.
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We open with a love song between two sisters, how delightful! A big little girl and a little little girl. And that particular kind of sister love where the older sister is half a sister and half a mother. This is the most important bond in the film, this special connection between the two, the precious thing that is lost.
And then a gypsy comes and steals the little little girl!!!! It’s not super dramatic, he asks for water, the big little girl goes to get it, leaving her sister alone in the yard, and when she comes back, the gypsy and the little girl are both gone together. We skip the aftermath, the drama and the crying and the guilt and so on, the point is the happy part that was lost so suddenly, not everything that came after.
And then, Poof! New plot! The children of the area are walking around talking about a local legend of a forest Goddess. And we see all their little interactions, the power dynamics of their group, how the teacher hates one of the little boys Murali (sorry, can’t find a name for the actor, for once I am using the name of the character). Murali is sad and clings to the legend of the forest Goddess as a promise of a better life.
And then a new teacher appears at their school! Ambika. Who sends Murali to the principal only to learn later that the reason he struggles in class is because he lives with a cart driver who picked him up off the streets and makes him work all the time and doesn’t want him to go to school. Ambika goes home to talk to her father, which is when we recognize the father from the opening and realize she is the grown up version of the big little girl. It’s never explicitly stated, but it is clear that her need to take care of Murali is part of her unfulfilled need to care for her little sister.
Meanwhile, Murali has run away from home and fallen in with a gypsy girl who he has named after his forest goddess, Revathy. Revathy avoids him at first, doesn’t want him to travel with her gypsy band. They lead an unstable but happy life, we can see that Revathy’s gypsy father loves her. The appeal for Murali is obvious, he can stop fighting to be accepted in regular society and instead just live with these happy people with a lot of love.
It’s interesting construction because we come at Revathy kind of sidewise and can’t necessarily be sure that she is the other younger sister. Maybe she is just another part of Murali’s journey. The kidnapper is not part of this happy band, and they don’t seem like the kind of people who would kidnap a little girl. They resist taking on Murali and keep trying to send him home. Maybe the point isn’t the two sisters from the opening, but just the one older sister, Ambika, and how she is going to build new meaning in her life through her connection with a little boy who needs her.
(I mean, we have seen that before)
Slowly, as Murali spends more time with the gypsies, his bond with Revathy grows and grows. She goes from trying to avoid him to seeking him out and dragging him around with her. And a new angle starts to come up, maybe we are seeing the creation of the kidnapper from the opening. Not literally, but generally, the way that social rules start to slide one by one. Revathy sees a small child with a candy in his yard and encourages Murali to help her steal the candy from him. She isn’t taking the child, or even hurting the child, but she is going into someone else’s yard and stealing, just as the little girl from the opening was stolen.
Until, finally, there is confirmation that this is the same little girl when we see the kidnapper again, following them, and she gets scared. And then we get a flashback explaining what happened. That moment from the opening was a moment of evil, but the good news is, most of the world is good. The little girl was forced to dance for change while the gypsy played, that’s why he kidnapped her. But she was seen by the other gypsy who could tell she was distressed and the other man was cruel to her. So he begged to take her away, offered to give all the money he had to take her peacefully. And when that didn’t work, he came in the night and rescued her and took her away.
Just as our little girl went from one home that loved her to another, with only a brief stop at a bad place, so is Murali. He finds a new home with the gypsies, then is chased by the police after stealing the candy from the little boy, and finds a new home when he is found by Ambika. She wants him to wear clean clothes and stay with her and go to school and forget Revathy. Despite the whole kidnapping thing, this is a surprisingly gentle film, it’s a world filled with love for children.
But even if there is a lot of love around, it’s not a replacement for that lost love from the opening. Ambika needs her baby sister to take care of, and a replacement little boy isn’t enough. Revathy needs her big sister, and a loving older father and new adopted little brother are not a replacement. And it doesn’t erase the badness of everything that happened in the past to separate them.
And so our ending isn’t Murali finding a nice home with Ambika, or even Revathy rediscovering her home when she follows him, it is Revathy confronting her tormentors and earning her own happy ending for herself, that happy ending being a reconnection with her sister.
One thing I found very nice was the subtle way the film deals with Revathy’s guilt over her life. There’s a sequence towards the end when she offers to read the future of a bunch of men standing around on the porch of their house. They invite her in, clearly planning to rape her, and it is unclear how much she knows of what is planned and what is happening. And then the film cuts suddenly from her sitting watching their TV to her happily walking down the street with Murali wearing one of their sunglasses. I assume that Hotstar (where I was watching this) had edited out part of the scene. But I have to imagine that even in the original version it was handled discretely. But later it comes back up when Revathy sees Ambika through the window and runs from her. We don’t need it spelled out that she feels unworthy, no longer able to fit in this happy family, Revathy’s face tells us that.
(At least she doesn’t kill herself, unlike all those other movies where the woman feels shame over things she just had to do to survive)
And so it makes sense that she needs to confront her kidnapper and finally rescue herself before she can let herself back into the family. Rescue herself from the shame and guilt of what she needed to do to survive. And of course the final lesson is that it doesn’t matter what she has done, she is still Ambika’s perfect little sister and always will be, the two sisters are reunited as though no time has passed.