Well, this was a pleasant enough film! I was looking for something a little old-fashioned on Hotstar, and this popped up. And I just can’t say no to Kunchako.
This isn’t the most original film. I could spot antecedents from His Highness Abdullah to Haathi Mere Saathi to Don. But there is something slightly original about it, the love triangle ended up taking a twist I did not expect.
There were a couple of other twists I didn’t expect, like Thilakan being a not-totally-horrible person, and Srividya being a not-totally-wonderful person. It was also one of the most extreme examples I have seen of a Malayalam film starting in one place and moving to end in a totally different place that was still somehow connected. And it was a really interesting discussion of divorce and strong women in the modern world.
(I just really like this song. Great music and visuals in this movie!)
But the biggest twist was what it did with the love story. Usually the love triangle between the rich girl and the poor girl focuses on the man caught between. The man has to question his own heart and choose where he wishes. But this film changes that. It points to the dignity and strength possible in the poor girl, the one who has never had a true chance at happiness but does not want pity, and the complete unconsciousness of privilege on the part of the rich girl. It’s not about this one boy picking between the two women, it’s about a lifetime of unfairness leading up to this final choice.
Part of the twist is the casting. Our “rich girl” is played by Sneha, a new actress in her first big role. Fresh, beautiful given a sparkling debut. And our “poor girl” is played by Sujitha, a long time child artist in one of her early adult roles. Not a fresh face with a sparkling debut, but a hard working experienced actress who didn’t get the big “debut”, who was always relegated to supporting roles as an adult. And after an entire film establishing Sneha as a beautiful talented amazing actress, right at the end we are reminded that our forgotten Sujitha is in fact equally talented, equally important, only she is given so much less time to shine.
The entire film, beyond the love triangle, is about unexamined privilege. About the chances some people get and the ones others never have, about how success breeds selfishness, and focusing on your own goals can lead to crushing others beneath your feet without even noticing it. How behind every glowing perfect beautiful blessed young couple in love are broken miserable forgotten people.
Oh, and it’s also about music and dance. Like I said, a little bit His Highness Abdullah. Kunchacko isn’t bad at all with the classical dancing! Yet another reason for me to like him.
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We start at seemingly the wrong end of things. A court case is being decided and custody awarded to Thilakan instead of his ex-wife Srividya of their younger daughter Sneha. Only, it turns out it was all a dream, Srividya is still living with her devoted daughters in her brother’s house, and is riding high on success after success, the most famous classical musician in the state, planning a massive television concert featuring choreography by Sneha, and dancing by Srividya’s older daughter and nephew (can’t find the actors’ names anywhere).
Seemingly this is a simple story of good saintly devoted mother Srividya and her evil husband Thilakan. I mean, it’s Thilakan! We can just assume he is evil. But the first complication appears when Sneha finds her sister and her cousin romancing. She is angry with them, not because they are first cousins (after all, cousin marriage is traditional), but because they shouldn’t think of falling in love without Srividya’s permission, they owe her everything, her fame and talent has brought up the fortunes of the whole family, and she has raised them with love and given them dance training. It’s the first slight indication that there is an unhealthy power dynamic in this family, somehow Srividya has gained all the power while her brother, her children, and her nephew have nothing.
And then a reminder of the larger power imbalance! We go from these wealthy people and their wealthy people problems to a family of street performers. And, Kunchacko!!!! He is performing with a bunch of small children, but in the middle of the act, one of the boys collapses.
A young woman, Sujitha, runs forward but falls since she is blind. Kunchacko asks the audience to give money for the boy’s treatment and Thilakan, passing in a car, insists on offering a ride to the hospital. Only, as they are riding in the car, the little boy opens his eyes and looks at Kunchacko, and we the audience realize that it was all a scam to gain money. They finally reach a hospital, and Kunchacko and the boy take off running. Thilakan is angry, but also intrigued and asks his local driver if he knows where he can find Kunchacko again.
Thilakan goes to Kunchacko’s house and learns that he is an orphan who has taken in these young orphans and is working and conning people on the street in order to raise money for an eye operation for Sujitha, the woman whose mother raised Kunchacko. Yes, the boy collapsing was a scam, that that was just because no one gives them money otherwise. It works, especially when Sujitha goes running towards them because “people love to see women fall”. This is our first commentary on social imbalance, Thilakan sees this as a scam, but in fact it is gaining money the only way they can in order to right social ills, a sick woman who deserves treatment, abandoned orphans who society should be caring for.
And then this lesson is left behind as the plot is set in motion. Thilakan offers to pay for Sujitha’s surgery if Kunchacko will agree to a scam. Not a theft, but a scam. He wants him to sneak into Srividya’s household under an assumed name as a student. Kunchacko agrees, in order to save Sujitha. And Sujitha admits to herself and to Thilakan that she will miss him terrible, she lives only for the hope of marrying Kunchacko some day when she is whole again, although he does not know it.
Kunchacko, meanwhile, arrives at Srividya’s house and immediate starts a flirtation with Snetha. For a while we the audience, along with Kunchacko, almost entirely forget Sujitha and why he is there.
But right in the middle of the romance, we have a disturbing visit to Sujitha, still living in poverty, still blind, and still living for the day when she will see Kunchacko again. Thilakan is the one who visits her, and he is touched by her silent suffering and patience and determination.
At Srividya’s house, there is another reminder of privilege. Snetha’s older sister’s romance with her cousin is discovered and forbidden. Because Srividya has selected a proper husband for Snetha’s sister and it will lower Srividya’s status if the engagement is broken. Srividya has the privilege of controlling her child entirely without questioning herself. And Snetha has the privilege of falling in love, with an even more inappropriate person than her sister did, after having critiqued her sister and cousin before for their love affair.
The assumptions start falling down after that, if Srividya is not perfect in every way, than perhaps Thilakan is not bad. Kunchacko admits his real identity and that Thilakan sent him to Snetha and helps her sister and cousin elope. They meet Thilakan, shocked to learn that he is the one who helped their elopement. And further shocked when he explains that he is not the “big bad” who abused Srividya, he merely published a critical review of her in one of his papers which turned into a fight and her leaving him.
Meanwhile, Kunchacko takes Snetha to meet Sujitha. And, casually, they break Sujitha’s heart. She realizes that they are in love, and they do not even think of her. And she swallows her sadness and keeps it inside, once again giving Snetha a privilege she hasn’t earned.
The stage is set for a final confrontation. Kunchacko and Srividya, Srividya and Thilakan, Kunchacko to be the brave lowerclass hero who wins the rich girl and strikes a blow for true love, etc. etc. But there is a fly in the ointment, Sujitha. Can Kunchacko triumph while abandoning her? Is she supposed to merely disappear and let the audience forgets her (as often happens with the girl left behind in these films)? No! For once, she is going to speak for herself.
Not to Kunchacko, but to the one who truly holds all the cards in this situation, Thilakan. He cares about Sujitha, he is a good man who thinks he is using his power to help people, to help his daughter elope, to pay for Sujitha’s operation. But Sujitha corrects him. It is not up to him to save her eye sight, to control their lives, that is not a kindness. And it is not right to try to save his marriage by trickery, he should simply have gone to his wife and told her he still loved her. He is trying to maintain his power by using tricks instead of a simple admission of feelings.
And so we have the final most amazing sequence of the film. Srividya has gone to Kunchacko and Snetha and begged them to perform in her television show, it is her life’s dream. Kunchacko was going to leave in order to be with Sujitha for her operation, but Sujitha gave up her operation so he could be with Snetha instead. And as they dance in a glorious spectacle, love and youth and happiness and promise and glamour, we cut to Sujitha and the orphans, performing on the street. It’s a powerful visual, a condemnation of not just the characters but our whole way of watching films, of looking for the spectacle and forgetting the humble beginnings, of enjoying the success of the characters and forgetting where they came from.
Sujitha dies, while performing. But her death is not the humble meaningless death that it too often is for these tragic figures. It is felt and changes their whole lives. Thilakan and Srividya reunite. And Kunchacko determines to return to his life on the street, and risk his life performing the same difficult stunt in order to raise the money to restore the family home that Sujitha dreamed of returning to. When he is stopped by Thilakan and Srividya who have brought Snetha to him, and encourage him to fulfill Sujitha’s dream with Snetha.
Finally, the rich girl takes the place of the poor one. Unlike, say, Padayappa where the poor girl is raised to power in a Cinderella story, in this case it is the poor girl who has the greater value. The rich girl wishes to become her, to honor her life and the value of the life she lived.