This is a film that was recommended in the comments last Monday, after I admitted to an affection for Asif Ali. A fascinating film, about big fish and little fish and swimming with the water and seeing what is underneath.
There have been a lot of underwater photography films, usually in the action genre. Blue, for instance, had a whole plot about undersea divers and treasure and so on and so forth. India hasn’t had a real shark movie yet (so far as I know), but there’ve been a fair number of American films using it this technology for “danger under the sea” type plots.
But this film uses it purely because the sea is beautiful. And because the sea’s beauty has the power to change the characters, make them into better people. A true “sea change”. Midway through the film, we are given the wisdom that you must not take anything from the sea, because the sea always takes it back. And that is what this film is about, the things that are taken and how they must always be repaid in kind, a life for a life, money for money, love for love.
This is a film that is less about the people than the place. It takes a while to get to the place, but that just makes it more special once we get there. At another point, a character talks about being told he is “lucky” to have been born in a place of beauty. Which is why we don’t see this place at first, we have to appreciate how lucky we are once we get there, to have been there.
And so the film takes us through unclean people and unclean places so that we can see the difference when they are washed clean by the water, by the beauty of it all. We can appreciate the blessing they have been given as they appreciate it. And we can understand why they are so fundamentally changed by what they have been through.
I was initially recommended this movie because of Asif Ali, and Asif is the perfect star to lead the film. Because he isn’t a “star”. He is an average looking person, who plays average people, not brave or smart or passionate. So we start with him, someone who isn’t anything special, and watch the process of him becoming special.
Sunny Wayne is our other hero. Also not someone who is terrible special. But he is a little more mysterious, a little less easy to read. We can’t be sure if he is hiding hidden depths or if he is just what he seems. He is less to be washed clean by water, and more the essence of water himself, seemingly empty and shallow, but with a whole life and beauty hidden underneath.
And then there are the people around them. Who are interesting and entertaining but, and this is somewhat unusual in a Malayalam film, they don’t have much to do, they don’t have many of their own conflicts. Because, for once, the film is primarily about the two central characters to the exclusion of all else.
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We start underwater, in a world of rippling water and shifting shadows where time has no meaning. Our hero Asif Ali is being reborn, he doesn’t know it yet. And part of that rebirth is to look back at the forces that lead to his first birth. To his father, Nedumudi.
Nedumudi was an old wealthy Christian landholder who was in competition with his brother to see who could have the most children. After years of trying, he finally achieved his 14th child, Asif. Asif lost his mother at age 3, and his much older siblings quickly in his childhood as they all argued with and left his father, until only Asif was left. And then his father died. Asif moved to the city and acquired a hanger on friend, spent his days drinking and smoking and his nights partying. Until he was caught with counterfeit money, passed to him by his friend, and sent to jail for a year.
There’s a careful balance in this section. We see that Asif had become a useless member of society, abandoning his friends when the going gets tough, stealing a woman’s cell phone just for a dare, generally horrible. But we also see how he ended up this way, a boy too lonely and easy going to leave his father, who somehow never was able to relate to him and never learned how to relate to anyone else. He may not see it, but we the audience see that jail could be a good thing for him.
Asif, of course, doesn’t feel that way. He is desperate to get out of jail. And yet, his own memories of his time there reveal to the audience how good it was for him. He connects with his nephew, the chief jailer. And he connects with his cell mate. He even learns the joy of hard labor when he dedicates a week to trying to dig through a wall, able to sleep well at night after a hard days work. His first two escapes fail. Significantly, he was directed in how to achieve them through an acquaintance from his drugging and partying days. This was a false escape. The real escape came from his cell mate, an honest old man who offered to show him a way out in return for a money deposit and a promise to stop drinking, smoking, and womanizing once he was outside. It was hard and complicated, but it was his true way out. And this is the way that leads him to water. Through the drains of the jail until he reaches a dead end, and sits there in a twilight watery land, looking back over his life.
I am writing this in a somewhat poetic way, but the film doesn’t treat it poetically. It treats it as a comic series of mishaps, leading him to this place. Until, in another comical moment, just as he reaches his lowest point, he is rescued by Sunny Wayne, suddenly appearing before him, also an escaping convict. Wordlessly, Sunny Wayne helps him out, dropping a letter as he does it, and then taking off into the night. Asif happily heads in the other direction, until he learns through the newspaper that he was scheduled for a pardon in 3 days, if only he had stayed in jail. He calls up his nephew the jailor for help, learns that his escape and Sunny’s escape is a terrible black mark on the prison, they are covering them both up, if he and Sunny both come back before the pardoning ceremony, he will be saved. Otherwise, his escape will have to be reported.
And now, finally, the real film begins. Because we go out to sea. Asif follows and follows Sunny, finally tracking him down to a ferry, but not catching him until they are already out to sea, on the way to the small island where Sunny is from. On the boat, Sunny tells Asif his story. They land, and Sunny gives him the slip again. Meanwhile, Asif has made a connection with another passenger, a sea sick young woman going for work on the island who helps him when he is similarly sea sick.
Sunny’s story, that is where things start to feel magical, where the power of the ocean to wash things clean starts to come up. Sunny was a fisherman and a tour guide during the tourist season. He was banned from fishing, so he went looking for work and was hired by a wealthy man to help his daughter Swathi Reddy, she studied fisheries and wanted a diver to help her in her research. Sunny falls in love with Swathi almost at first sight, and as he goes out in a small boat with her, diving and swimming under water looking for her fish, and then surfacing, and diving again, things become hypnotic, magical, dreamlike, like diving into the sea, not quite real and yet more real at the same time.
His story is unfinished. He explains that he fell in love, and briefly says that he married her, but we do not see a flashback that gives a full vision of how that came about. And then he is gone, leaving his story half done, but the impression still with us, as it is with Asif, influencing his later actions. He is still determined to trick Sunny into returning to jail, but he also takes the time to talk to Janani Iyer, the woman he bonded with on the ferry. He is beginning to soften a little.
And when he finds Sunny, he is soft enough to make a deal, a semi-sincere deal. He will help Sunny finish his business, and then they will both return to jail. It is only semi-sincere because he lies to Sunny that they are both getting pardons. But at least he is trying, listening to Sunny’s needs and making an effort to meet them.
And we get the rest of Sunny’s story. It isn’t as simple as he made it, once again the sea takes back what you take from it, life is about reaping what you sow. Asif landed in jail because he was a bad friend, and he received bad friendship in return, his friend gave him counterfeit money, which got him arrested. Sunny, he had the same. He fell in love with Swathi. But Swathi had her own bargain to work out. She had been married, to a man who divorced her. She wants to marry him again, but first he must pay something to her father in recompense. And she first must marry someone else, and divorce him, so her most recent husband will be someone else. And Sunny helps her, as his own bargain so that he may win her love. And his jail sentence is part of that penance.
(Jail was also a penance and a cleansing for Dev in Guide)
First, he goes with her ex-husband to hunt and kill a whale, which is of course illegal, in order to sell it for the money to give Swathi’s father. He marries Swathi, but then refuses to say the triple talaq and free her. And refuses to hand over the money. And before the situation can be resolved, the police arrive to arrest him for whale hunting. He challenges Swathi, and her ex-husband, if they can wait the 4 years until he is released from jail, then their love will be proved true, he will say the talaqs and hand over the money. That is what he is here for now, Swathi is about to leave the country and he needed to free her and pay her the money. And then he will have fulfilled his obligations and can return to jail.
Asif keeps doubting Sunny, looking for an angle. Thinking he is doing it all for the money somehow, that it is all a story. But in the end, it isn’t. Sunny dives to find the money where he hid it in the harbor. He brings it up, then takes it to Swathi’s family and hands it over, and frees her.
Asif, finally, takes Sunny back to the ferry. Having paid his own bargain, promised a large amount of family land to his jailer nephew to guarantee his pardon will go through. And Sunny’s payment pays off, Swathi comes to tell him good-bye. And Asif, finally, is fully cleansed of his sins enough to see that his treatment of Sunny is unfair, and admits that Sunny doesn’t have a pardon waiting, just him. And Sunny admits that he knows, but doesn’t mind paying his price.
That’s it, that’s the end of the film. Nothing really “happens” exactly, there is no big fight scene, no adventure sequence. Sunny escapes jail to finish divorcing Swathi and bring her the money. He does that, and then returns to jail. Asif escapes, learns he is about to be pardoned, and returns. But they themselves are changed. Sunny has something to believe in and have faith in which keeps him going. Asif has learned to care for others, to be cleansed of all the selfishness that blinded him. And so, a year later, Asif goes to visit Sunny and learns he is planning to follow Swathi overseas and see what happens, now that she is finally free of her husband. And then Asif himself tracks down Janani, and tells her that he has always been alone, but doesn’t want to be alone any more.