I watched this movie in a self-serving grab for views, knowing it was popular last year and therefore a lot of people would have seen it and want to discuss it. And then, much to my surprise, I actually ended up enjoying the thing!
I’ve been complaining about the Hindi, and a little bit the Tamil and Telugu industries, who seem to think that big star lead films with big stories and big spectacular scenes are the only way to make money, are where the whole industry should focus. And therefore, they are missing out on the small gems, the little stories that are more about the characters than the stars. This films are still being made, but they aren’t getting the kind of release or the kind of publicity that would allow them to be a hit. And this film shows how you can do it right!
(Yes, I know she is the little girl from Anbulla Rajnikanth)
A large part of that is Mohanlal. Not just that he is in this film, but that he is in soooooooooo many films. He is the top star in Malayalam film, and he makes an effort to be in multiple films every year, 4 last year. Multiple films in multiple genres. No one film can be made the centerpiece of the year, because there are too many options. And so the audience is allowed to choose which one they like, instead of being herded in like sheep to the only film that is supposed to be “the” film of the year.
Last year, Mohanlal was in a war movie, a comedy, and a thriller. And also this film, a small human drama that is hard to explain and hard to sell in one sentence, or in one poster image. And yet it set box office records. The Mohanlal name gave it a good release, and the Mohanlal variety ensured that it would have an equal playing field with out genres and film options.
I shouldn’t oversell this film, it’s not a brilliant movie, or anything necessarily special. It’s the kind of film I look for in Malayalam cinema, and I am glad to find it again after suffering through thrillers and action films that feel like they are coming in from some other cinema. A small family story with good actors and good characters, pleasant music, sunshine, and a message of happiness.
It’s one of those movies where you feel like you could move right into the neighborhood when it is over, you know the familiar route from work to home, the place everyone gathers to drink at night, the soap operas the women watch, the church everyone goes to on Sundays, the small local issues and power struggles. And where every character feels as “real” as every other character, lead by Mohanlal and Meena as the couple at the center of everything.
What made this special was that the couple got to be themselves, to move forward in their life as made sense for them. At the start, it appears as though this film will be a sex farce, or a moral lesson about marriage. But as it develops, it veers away from those simple options. Because people, and marriages, are not that simple. They are all a combination of a sex farce and morality and love and friendship and everything else that is unique between two people and how they are together.
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The things that actually “happen” in the plot are fairly minor, not much plot to it if looked at that way. Mohanlal considers having an affair, but then discovers he loves his wife after all. That’s kind of it, the things that actually happen are essentially non-existent. But the way people feel about them on the inside, that is what matters. And that is what makes it a realistic vision of a marriage, marrital problems aren’t always big dramatic fights, sometimes they are the little things like no longer leaping up to greet him when he comes home at night, not minding if your friend takes you home the long way because you are in no rush to get there. And sometimes the solution is as simple as saying the right thing at the right moment to make her smile.
Mohanlal and Meena are a couple that has grown apart, he is reluctant to come home at night, cares about his kids and spends time with them, but doesn’t even bother to argue with his wife any more, just passively aggressively complains about her watching soap operas all the time, and she responds by sleeping every night in their children’s room instead of with him. It’s not a happy marriage, but also isn’t a terrible marriage. At least, not by societal standards. They are not cheating on each other, they are not abusing each other, they are doing everything right, just without love behind it.
And so the obvious solution suggested by Mohanlal’s drinking buddies is to find love elsewhere. This conversation is set up nicely by his college reunion in which he meets up again with his college love and starts to remember when he was passionate about her, and about life in general. It’s not sex, that’s not what they are talking about, and not what he is talking about with his friends either. It’s love, romance, excitement, magic in his life. And so they suggest he find that from another woman, through phone calls and text messages, like they already do. This is the solution to the problems in his marriage and his life, to find someone new to romance.
(And it does solve everything! Once he falls in love again, he has energy and excitement and everything is better. He knew the problem, it was just finding a solution that worked that was the challenge)
There is never a moment of thinking of finding romance within marriage. Not by Mohanlal, or his friends. The problem isn’t with his marriage, it’s with himself, he is tired of his life. His wife is merely part of the problem, not the solution. At least, that’s the assumption.
There is this odd disconnect between “love” and “marriage”. Marriage is a job, a defined role. A “husband” works and takes care of the kids and pays for things and occasionally is nice to his in-laws, and he has done his job. A wife cooks and takes care of the house and finances and gives birth to two children and she has done her job. Love doesn’t enter into it.
Love is something else, a rebellion and a danger, uncontrollable, totally outside of society. Love is what they fear for their daughter, that she may be swept away by her feelings and destroy her life, forever set herself out of the safety of society. Or it is a naughty joy, secretly phoning girlfriends on your way home from work, keeping a little bit that is voluntary and just for yourself in this life of duty.
And so when Mohanlal discovers he needs something for himself in his life, he does not consider looking into his own home to find it. Instead, he looks outside. His friends lend him a cell phone, and he starts secretly texting and calling with a new hire at the office. It’s easier than he thought, right from the start, to say something a little flirtatious and get a smile in response. It’s like there is this whole other world going on that he was blind to, a world of discontented husband and wives looking for any distraction.
The first attempt fails quickly, they plan to meet for lunch, her husband finds out, she spins a tale that it is all about a loan of money, and Mohanlal ends up being handed a wad of cash by her husband and deciding to end it because it is too complicated. It’s a lightly funny little sequence, but it is also a sign of why Mohanlal isn’t cut out for this kind of thing. His interest was in having someone to love, and who loved him. He didn’t want drama and excitement, secrets and lies, that wasn’t the appeal for him. He just wanted someone to talk to, and he thought he could only find that outside of marriage.
But this failed mini-romance, nothing more than a few phone calls and a plan to meet for lunch, served its purpose in waking up Mohanlal’s spirit. Feelings that he thought were dead, thought he no longer was possible of feeling, have bubbled to the surface. And now that they have, all it takes is noticing his wife with a new sari and nice hair, suddenly realizing how sweetly she sings, and he remembers the early years of their marriage, before things started drifting, when that magic and love was there between them. And, finally, both of them start to realize that love can still be there, than can be as romantic and close and excited with each other, while still fulfilling their roles as “wife” and “husband”.
In fact, and this is the radical argument, keeping the excitement alive in their marriage is part of those roles. And part of their roles as parents as well. If they are in love and happy together, the whole family will be happier. And most of all, they will be modeling for their children what a good marriage can be.
There is a small thread of plot that weaves in and out of the film, their daughter. She laughs at and rejects romantic overtures from a teenage boy near her school, but in the second half of the film we see that instead she is going around with an older boy who has a car, who takes her out and gives her presents and makes her smile. Mohanlal and Meena find out, and debate what to do about it, if they should confront her or not. At first I thought the point of this sequence was just to show how Mohanlal and Meena are working together better as parents now, with their new closeness, able to share their worries and make decisions as a team instead of struggling along separately. But it is more than that.
Mohanlal spots their daughter playing hooky from school and follows her. Only to find her in a restaurant saying good-bye to her boyfriend. Because she has realized she doesn’t want/need him, her parents have shown her true love within a marriage and she doesn’t want this boy-girl relationship any more.
There is another lesson as well, Mohanlal’s friend is in a minor accident which has the result of his wife discovering his secret phone calls and many many phone friends. It makes her feel terrible and, finally, he realizes his mistake. It wasn’t the flirtations on the phone, those themselves were harmless and didn’t stop him loving his wife. But the mistake was in not considering how his wife would feel if she found out, the risk he was running of hurting her feelings. That’s why it is better to keep love within marriage, if you are married, not because of an abstract morality or “right” and “wrong”, but because if you love your wife, you won’t want to hurt her.
And finally there is the reveal that it isn’t just men who need the excitement of love in their life. Meena, Mohanlal discovers, had her own offers of outside-the-marriage flirtations. Mohanlal’s friends who he drank with also stopped by his apartment during the day offering to repair things, to share vegetables, etc. etc. Meena may have been boring to Mohanlal because he saw her as just his wife, but to men married to other women, she was exciting. And Meena enjoyed it, the awareness that someone found her attractive. And she enjoys telling Mohanlal about it now. Not because she wants him to be jealous or build excitement, but because she enjoys sharing this with him, the knowledge that she is beautiful to other men.
This is a very small lowkey film that is calling for an awareness that people need love. And that they can find it at home if they are allowed, if husbands and wives are expected to flirt and kiss and laugh together instead of just following their prescribed roles. To see each other as people, people worth of love, instead of just partners in life.