This film FINALLY made it’s way to einthusan. And it is just as wonderful as Angie promised me. Not as spectacularly well-made and imaginative as Ohm Shanti Oshaana, but that same totally satisfying feel of a female protagonist going after what she wants and getting it in a completely happy way. Everyone happy, really.
This movie is Snow White, down to our heroine being beautiful because of her perfect pale skin. But it’s a version of Snow White that understands what really matters, not the prince or even the evil stepmother, but the dwarves. That’s what’s special, the idea of finally finding people who love you for what you are, who accept you and support you unquestionably. Maybe the prince and the evil stepmother and so on are what gets you there, but they aren’t what matters the most.
The other thing it gets is that Snow White was hated and tortured for her beauty, but the dwarves loved her for her kindness. That is, while she may have been the “fairest of them all” back home, she wasn’t appreciated for who she was inside, beyond her face. It was only the dwarves who saw her warm heart.
That’s what this movie is about, a woman who isn’t fully seen or appreciated in her home, but comes to the wonderful land of Kerala where she, finally, is loved and supported for just who she is. All the people whose lives were empty, she fills and they give her love and acceptance in return. Just delightful!
It’s also, a little bit, about identity. Wamiqa Gaddi is Punjabi and plays a Punjabi, does not speak any southern languages in real life or in the film, and yet finds her home and where she really belongs down south. Tovino Thomas leaves home in order to appreciate home. There is something different about the different regions of India, and you have to find the one that is “home” for you, which may or may not be the one you are born into.
But it is also about wrestling, a cross-India interest. Something that everyone has in common no matter where they come from within India. It’s not so much that Wamiqa had to come to Kerala, then, it’s that she had to come to this one particular town, find the place that is “home” for her. They are all Indian, one region is not better than another, it is just what is the right place for you. And also, where you can find the Dwarves who will love you.
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We start with two totally different stories. Wamiqa is in the Punjab. We see her live in quick flashes, a supportive loving father who goes away, leaving her with an abusive older brother. She joins wrestling training after another beating from her brother, and now she is a young woman about to compete and her brother comes to the locker room to abuse her and tell her not to go out there if she wants to be part of their family. And then he is chased out by the watchman for being in the woman’s locker room.
Meanwhile, back in Kerala, Tovino Thomas wants to play cricket. But he has a hard time getting his cricket team up and running because whenever they have a game, his father shoes up to chase them off the playing field. It is explained that their village used to be famous for wrestling, but now there are only a few old men who care about it. They want to keep the wrestling field just for wrestling, while the younger folks want to turn it into a multipurpose sporting arena. And on top of stopping progress in the village, Tovino’s father also forces him to go to the Punjab to study for his M. Tech now that he has finished his B. Tech.
These two stories have nothing in common. I kept trying to make them have something in common. Find a theme or something. But there really isn’t anything. Wamiqa is being tormented by her family, and is fighting as hard as she can to keep her dream alive against all odds. Tovino is just sort of drifting, doesn’t have a dream.
Even when Tovino goes north and meets Wamiqa, they still don’t seem to really have the same story. Tovino is sweet and kind and easy going. Wamiqa is tough and strong and protects him on campus. Tovino falls in love with her easily, without thinking about it. But Wamiqa doesn’t seem to really see him, she is so focused on her own dreams and life problems, she doesn’t have time for a campus crush. Unlike Tovino, who doesn’t have time for anything else. It finally begins to feel like they are in the same movie when Wamiqa’s brother shows up to drag her off and Tovino stops him, gets beat up, and fights back, revealing his own hidden wrestling skills. But Wamiqa tells him to go away, and he ends up back in Kerala, seemingly his little Punjabi romance is over.
And then, FINALLY, it starts to fall into place. Wamiqa wasn’t supposed to be a matched character with Tovino. Her pair was with Tovino’s father, the always excellent Renji Panicker. Just like in Jacobinte Swargarajyam, he turns this into a true two hero film. But it’s not him and Tovino sharing the screen, it’s him and Wamiqa. They are the two heroes. Wamiqa had to fight off everyone around her, including her own family, to keep her dream of being a wrestler alive. And Renji had to fight off everyone around him, including his own family, to keep his dream of training a wrestler alive. And finally, they have found each other.
This is kind of what Dangal wanted to do, but didn’t quite manage it. The idea that the fire to fight was always there, and the coach was just the only one able to see it. But it’s harder to sell with little girls, than with a grown woman who has already run away from home to keep wrestling. Renji doesn’t take away her power by helping her, because she is still the one who made the original decision, who traveled the length of India to follow her dreams.
(Woot! Another excuse to put up this song video!)
And it also does what Sultan did, but better, with Wamiqa’s influence on Tovino. Wamiqa needs a training partner. All the men of the town step up, only to discover it is less sexy and fun and more about Wamiqa womping them around the place. That night, Tovino is unhappy about Wamiqa is so friendly with his cousin Aju Varghese (of course, he’s in everything). He storms away from the dinner table, she follows him, and he bursts out that he doesn’t like her doing these things with men. She tells him it is none of his business, she wants to wrestle and will do whatever it takes to be better, and doesn’t care what he thinks about it, and Tovino blurts out “I love you”. To which Wamiqa, very properly, has no response but to angrily storm away. And then Renji appears and gently talks to Tovino. Says that he can’t say “I love you” like that, blurting it out. Right now, Wamiqa is better than him. Until he can stand up straight and look her in the eye as an equal and say those words like he means them, it isn’t right.
In Sultan, this is when it suddenly becomes Salman’s story. The quest to be worthy and so on and so on. But not here. Tovino’s story is bigger and smaller than that. Bigger, because he realizes through talking with Renji and watching Wamiqa compete that he had a real talent for wrestling which he threw away when he was a teenager and refused to let his father keep training him. It’s not just about winning Wamiqa, it’s looking into his own past and seeing where he went wrong. But Tovino’s story is also smaller than Salman’s, because it doesn’t take over the film. His conversations with his father happen around the edges, during Wamiqa’s matches and after her training. It’s a subplot, nothing else, the real story is still Wamiqa’s and Renji’s.
And that’s why the resolution isn’t Wamiqa in an embrace with Tovino, but Wamiqa winning a match and resolving her issues with her brother. Thank goodness, not by forgiving him for everything. Wamiqa is kept out of nationals by a paperwork issue created by Renji’s enemies in the village. But instead, she and the new national champion agree to have a grudge match in the old village grounds. And during the match, she sees her big brother quietly come into the stands. She flashes back to her whole life, her loving father, her brutal brother, training, fighting, running away. And then she sees her brother very softly in the stands say “beat her”. And she wins the match, and looks in the stand to see her brother walk away and the whole rest of the crowd, including Renji, cheering her on.
I love this. It was never going to be true to the character for this bully who only saw her as someone to be married off to suddenly have a change of heart. And I wouldn’t want for Wamiqa to have fully forgiven him either. But it is believable for them both to need closure. That they loved each other, in their own way, and she needed to feel that he had let her go and he needed to see that she had found a place where she could be happy. And this was all that was needed, not a huge cheer from the crowd, but an irrepressible moment of wanting her to win, because in the end deep deep down he does want her to be happy.
This is the culmination of the Snow White story. Wamiqa comes to Tovino’s town and hides in his house. An incident at the village fair reveals her wrestling skills and Renji decides to train her. And as she trains, runs through the village, gets to know everyone, everyone comes to love her an embrace her and wish for her success. When she finally wins her first tournament and her photo appears in the newspaper, the whole town throws a celebration for her. They all love her and want her to be happy, and she blossoms under their love, especially the support she gets from Renji. And now here she is, reborn, doing what she loves with a whole stadium of people cheering her on. And this is where she should stay, not go back to fight off the “evil stepmother”, or in this case the “evil brother”, but just build a new life in the place she has found with people who love her.