Monday Malayalam: Munthirivallikal Thalirkkumbol, the Artificial Divisions Between “Love” and “Marriage”

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!

Image result for munthirivallikal thalirkkumbol

(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.

19 thoughts on “Monday Malayalam: Munthirivallikal Thalirkkumbol, the Artificial Divisions Between “Love” and “Marriage”

  1. Hi Margaret,
    Mohanlal playing a common man in a half decent movie will definitely set the cash registers ringing .They love him so much and are so tired seeing him play larger than life roles…
    Besides, the directors first movie – “Vellimoonga” was very well liked by the public. So they were looking forward to his second film.
    Another big reason is, this got released (along side “Jomonte Suvisheshangal”) after ~3 months of a strike by the theatre owners. So people were flocking the theatres – even an average fare like “Jomonte…” did really well because of this.
    For me, this was just average. Glad to see Mohanlal playing such a role. Vellimoonga was much better compared to this.
    I am not very sure that you’ll get a lot of views with this review – was watched mostly by the family crowd. But I certainly hope you do!

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    • See, I’m tired of all the other stars playing larger than life roles too! If Mohanlal can play a common man in a half decent movie, why can’t Shahrukh? Or Salman? Or even Ajay?

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      • But Ajay does play the common man in a lot of films. How about in the Hindi remake of Drishyam? I don’t watch the Golmaal films, but I think he’s a “common man” there, too, isn’t he? Even Salman pretty much plays the “common man” in all his films*. His character may have some extraordinary skills, but the basic guy is still a “common man.” I’d say SRK plays common man most of the time, too, except in his YRF/KJo NRI films. You know who really doesn’t succeed when he plays the common man? Hrithik. All his biggest successes have come from playing outsize characters.

        *I know that statement is going to raise a lot of eyebrows, so let me amplify. Since Salman started on his current blockbuster streak, what are the characters he has played? An undercover cop (Wanted). A small town slightly corrupt cop (Dabangg & Dabangg 2). A ne’er do well son of a rich family who doesn’t want to get married (Ready). A small time bodyguard (Bodyguard). A super spy (OK, not “common”), but a super spy who’s just looking for love. A ne’er do well son of a middle class family who’s too lazy to make much of his life (Kick). A good for nothing who’s failed at everything in life (Bajrangi Bhaijaan). A barely successful actor in a small town theater troupe (PRDP). A small town wrestler who reached Olympic heights, only to become a washed up failure (Sultan). A super spy again (so not “common”), but one who’s motivated by his commitment to his family, not politics or espionage (TZH). Except for the two spy films, even the stories are “small” — most of them are about family dynamics. They may have been produced at a large scale, but that didn’t make the stories or characters themselves “larger than life.” (I’ve only included the successes here, not the films that didn’t work, but even Veer, London Dreams, Jai Ho, and Tubelight were stories about “common men”, usually from small towns.)

        So I think what you really want are small productions with not so much money riding on them. But that is impossible for the big stars, who have the responsibility of keeping their industries afloat squarely on their shoulders. Salman, Aamir, and SRK ()till the last few years), are responsible for about 70% of the total gross in the Hindi industry. Think about that. They can’t be self-indulgent and make small experimental movies to explore their inner selves or go out of their comfort zone, or whatever stock phrases people like to use. Heck, you know this yourself. In several posts on the implications for the Hindi film industry as a whole when films clash or fool around with their release dates, you have written eloquently on the impact on the “common man” who works in the industry, as the light boy or the guy who sells tickets at the theater. So why are you forgetting about that now?

        As for why Mohanlal can do it, it’s because the Malayalam industry is very different from the others, where the “small” stories about common men become the blockbusters. Plus, even the returns on investment are not so huge (in terms of absolute numbers, not percentages) as in the other bigger industries.

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        • Yes, the characters you list are “common men” in that they aren’t superheroes. But they have amazing fight scenes, they are extra noble and wise and romantic or whatever else. And the stories they are in are larger than life.

          There is a need for the bigger hit films, yes. But what I have been complaining about lately is that too much is being put on these films, they can’t possibly live up to expectations. I would love to see the Khans do the same kind of films, but smaller. Smaller releases, smaller promotions, still major films. They can still do the major releases, I don’t want them to go totally arty, but I would like to see them try for more of a mix like Mohanlal had last year, a small human story along with a big action film and a police drama. It’s not impossible, it’s how the industry worked until 2000, multiple films from the big stars in multiple genres each year.

          On Tue, Jan 23, 2018 at 8:48 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • But you keep missing the point, Margaret. They can’t afford to “go smaller.” They are literally keeping the industry alive. That’s why there’s this huge disappointment with SRK now, and with Salman for Tubelight. Without them delivering the big hits, the industry would die. It’s as simple as that.

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          • I used to think that, but looking at the box office numbers this year, now I have a new theory. Which could be wrong! But I am thinking, maybe it’s more a matter of taking the Khan films down about 10% in size, not in terms of content so much as promotion and release, so there isn’t such an audience backlash when they are no good. And sprinkling in more smaller films from the Khans and others so the schedule through out the year is more stable. I don’t want them to retire or stop making big films, just slightly more variety.

            And taking that 10% in promotion and release that was going to the Khan films and spend it on non-Khan films in an effort to grow new stars in the industry. Secret Superstar was a great example of that, gave support to an up and coming actress and allowed Aamir to sprinkle his stardust on a smaller film while we wait for his next big big release.

            On Tue, Jan 23, 2018 at 11:15 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • I had wanted to pen these thoughts when I read your post about SRK losing his ‘touch’,but that post had so many topics in it that I couldn’t focus on one.
            Agree with your observation of superstars doing smaller films with smaller everything.The race to be the box-office king,beating boxoffice records is a game for the fans,but seems the stars also get consumed at being the ‘biggest’.
            SRK in Dear Zindagi worked well,because it was promoted as a heroine-centric film wiht him doing an extended cameo.He could play a common man in it(a totally hot common man),without the burden to deliver ‘big’.I can very well picture him doing a slice-of-life kinda film,or a good thriller(Ittefaq type)if he is willing to let the superstar take the backseat & not focus so much on the boxoffice collections & breaking records.With the right script(most most important),right director(someone not starstruck by the superstar)& right promotions(rein in the fans’army),we can get an enjoyable,profitable film with a memorable performance by SRK.Hope he takes in the Vikram-Vedha(gangster role)remake without making it a SRK film.
            Also wanted to comment on the common man role discussion.Common man role is not just about the description of the character on paper,but how he is presented in the film.All those characters of Salman-as pointed out by Moimeme-were common man,but glorified so excessively that the whole film basically is about how awesome the lead character(&the lead actor playing it)is-Super cop,super spy,super simpleton.Same was the case with Mohanlal in Pulimurugan where he played a forest-dwelling-tiger-catcher(if thats even a job),but presented as some kind of super-human-martial arts-expert and the whole film extols his virtues & skills.In contrast,in Muthirivallikal,he’s a common man presented as a common man-with all the failings & emotions which are conveyed without any glorification to the audience.

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          • Yes, your recipe is exactly what I am looking for. right script, right director, and right promotions. Which is exactly the recipe that lead to success for Dear Zindagi. Gauri Shinde had a brilliant script and clearly used Shahrukh exactly as she wanted to use him, no star struck fangirling. And someone, Red Chillies or Dharma, was smart enough to keep the expectations and promotions low. The other film that occurs to me is Rab Ne Bana De Jodi. Which was before our current social media driven era of promotions and massive release. But it was a small simple story with minimal superstar touches. Something like that, if it were released today, wouldn’t be “big” enough for the critics or the media or the audience. But if it were promoted carefully, as a small story, it could be another solid small hit.

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        • Oh cool! the key would be if the Hindi remake can keep the small story feel instead of getting needlessly dramatic. I could see a few places where an actually full fledged fight scene could have been forced in, or a big dramatic statement of love.

          On Tue, Jan 23, 2018 at 9:56 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. ah! This movie. MY GOD! I am a Malayali Christian. I go to a Malayali Syro-Malabar Christian Church. My family is super religious so hence, when the ARCHBISHOP OF KERALA recommended that families watch this movie, my parents were so on board. After watching it themselves, they forced me to watch it (JUST ME, not my brother) and it was so CRINGE to watch it with my parents. This movie will forever Traumatize me for the content and the hour long lecture I had with my parents following. Just a backstory. hehe.
    There is this lowkey assumption among Malayalees that showing affection in front of your children will cause them to be lustful, so, I was sweating in my seat when the daughter was going to see her boyfriend at the end in a HOTEL! Esp. with her father. Can you imagine a scenario where a father would catch his daughter in a hotel room with her boyfriend ALL BECAUSE of the father showing affection to his wife in front of the daughter. It truly was the longest 7 minutes of my life (yes, I timed it). If it was her daughter, in most mallu movies it is, then it alright! because a female knows a female. But a father, OH NO! I feel like mallus are so conservative! hehe
    my question: do you think mohanlal was the right person for this? I feel like Jayaram was soo good for this, since, he is used to making these types of movies.

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    • Oh poor you!!!! Does the Archbishop often make movie recommendations? Serious question, I can see why this would fit will with a marriage-positive church kind of attitude, but it’s not necessarily something that I would expect to be the very first movie an Archbishop would ever recommend.

      I’ve absolutely been there, the sincere good intentions parenting based on something they’ve seen or read but which doesn’t fit with who you are as a person at all! So awkward!!!! I mean, I have a little bit of sympathy for parents, teenagers are confusing and scary, anything that seems like a good idea is worth trying, but also GAH! Poor you!

      As for casting, I was okay with Mohanlal because they did pick up a bit on his movie star charisma, the idea that he was dashing and desirable in college, and that he could easily start an affair if he wanted now. Jayaram could work too, but for dream casting, I think I would go even younger. Kunchacko maybe, or Jayasurya. So that they look like a couple in the prime of their lives, and we can understand the frustration of feeling trapped and unfulfilled. Which seems like what the script was saying, that they were too young to be done with romance, but then I look at the screen and it’s Mohanlal and he looks 50. Which isn’t to say you can’t have a romance at 50, but then it is more “second innings” then “barely begun to live”. Anyway, if their daughter is 18 and he is going to his 20th reunion, they are clearly supposed to be more like 40.

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  3. What I like about Mohanlal is that he really tries to mix it up. Does something like this along with Puli Murugan. Unlike Mammooty who seems to be in a rut. Wasn’t a big fan of the movie because I watched this with family and at one point my dad just walked off cos he couldn’t take it lol. My husband slept off and was just my mom and I who survived this. I think its just the way (South) Indian families are conditioned.
    What I did like was that they do touch upon the guilt that parents feel. I mean guilt is constant companion as far as moms are concerned and it’s like you can never have it all. Atleast in the movie they argue that you can.

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    • Huh. I would call this a “family movie” in that it does a good job showing all the stresses and strains in a family. But I would not call it a “family movie” int aht I would recommend for you to watch it with your family! Annmariya Kalippilaanu, for instance, I was really excited to show to my parents because I knew we would all enjoy it. This one, although I enjoyed watching it by myself, not as excited to share.

      On Tue, Jan 23, 2018 at 12:56 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Yep, wish I knew that before I started watching it. It had such rave reviews and posters screamed Family hit so we went for it. Thankfully didn’t catch it in the theaters!

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    • I think Mammootty experiments more with genres and characters than Mohanlal or other stars.I dont think mohanlal will agree for a character like those in paleri manikyam,karuthapakshikal or munnariyippu.. the last few years were bad for mammootty. Only a few good movies like munnariyippu,varsham and pathemari. But his upcoming projects are very prominsing.next movie peranbu will be premiered in international film festival rotterdam.

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  4. The woman with whom Mohanlal’s character flirts is not the new hire at office, but a random woman who had come to give application for a beauty parlour(I do not remember if it was for any loan or some other kind of permission). And he ends it when he learns that he was only one of her ‘lovers’.

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