This was a nice movie! Not a great movie, the plot kind of went up and down and all around, but a very pleasant movie. The kind of sunshine and nice people movie that the Malayalam industry does not quite like anywhere else. And which was perfect to watch on an overcast late winter day in Chicago.
In some ways I wish this had been my intro to Manju instead of How Old Are You? The other one is a much better role for her, but she is so much more charming in this film! You fall in love with her even before Mohanlal does.
It’s good that she is so charming, because that’s kind of all this film has going for it. Mohanlal does his usual excellent job, but it isn’t a great role for him. And the plot kind of falls apart if you poke at it. And character motivation seems to strangely come and go scene by scene. But by golly Manju Warrior is charming! And that’s enough to carry the film.
That, plus the usual lowkey pleasantness feeling to it. Manju’s neighbors are nice, her clients are nice, even the scary businessman Renji Penecker turns out to be nice. Nothing bad can really happen, because the world is just too good and safe for anything to be bad. The worst that can happen is you might be middle-aged and unmarried, but the film even solves that.
To take a brief detour, I am so glad Malayalam films are using their aging superstars appropriately! Middle-aged romances or married action heroes, no more young hotstuff kind of roles. This is about as bad as it gets, trying to sell Mohanlal as someone who might intrigue a younger woman romantically, but then ending by putting him safely with his old familiar heroine Manju.
It’s an old familiar director too. Sathyan Anthikad who has worked with Mohanlal I-don’t-even-know how many times. Probably why this film is so weak. It looks like he works a lot and generally has successful films. Which means he is a little less hungry for the hits. Versus, for instance, Manju Warrior! Who was coming back in only her second movie in 15 years.
This seems to be an oddity of the Malayalam industry, how much directors work. Maybe it is because screenwriters do so much more? So a director can just take the script and go from there, instead of agonizingly putting together every detail of the film along with directing it. Along with the super super fast turn around time for filming for Malayalam films, which I still don’t fully understand although I appreciate it (so many star films every year!). Anyway, it means this charming little film is carried by the actors and the generally pleasant competent feel to the direction, but doesn’t feel like a brilliant passion project.
And that’s okay! Not every film has to be perfect every time, or even “important” or, well, logical. Sometimes they are just nice films about nice people with nice endings.
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We start with Mohanlal’s character view of the world, which nicely matches with the perspective of this film. Essentially, his attitude is to just let go, relax, don’t worry, and assume it will all work out. He works for a magazine as a reporter, but doesn’t really care about his job. He lives in his family home, his photographer/co-worker lives there rent free in return for doing simple household chores. Mohanlal rolls out of bed late, puts sandalwood paste on his forehead, and then wanders off to work without even brushing his teeth. He misses the morning meeting, makes an appearance, then goes to the bathroom to finish getting ready, misses the next meeting with the new boss, the daughter (niece? I was confused) of the owner, Reenu Mathews. She is a young gogetter, ready to start new projects and new plans. And with no patience for lazy dead weight Mohanlal. Most recently, Mohanlal interviewed an up and coming actor and accidentally reported his mother’s boyfriend as his father instead of her husband, getting the magazine into hot water.
We see him go about his job in a lazy way, he isn’t necessarily bad at it, he is maybe too good. He doesn’t take notes because he doesn’t need to take notes, he can sit there half paying attention and throw together an article that is good enough. And when Reenu goes home to complain about him, she learns from her mother (or aunt?) that Mohanlal is the son of her dead best friend, he has hidden qualities, and anyway she promised his mother he would always have a job. Reenu is frustrated.
And then, FINALLY, the plot kind of starts. Well, the kind of plot. All that matters in this movie is the fun chemistry between Manju and Mohanlal, the whole movie is just a series of incidents to throw them together. Mohanlal is casually causing a traffic jam when his car runs out of gas and Manju is on a bike with no time to wait for him to figure things out. And then they almost overlap again when Mohanlal shows up at the child’s talent contest that the magazine is hosting and Manju’s neighbor Innocent (excellent as always) is there with her daughter as a contestant. We start to get a sense of the two of them. Both of them solitary and missing a family, Mohanlal still living in the house that is exactly as his mother left it, Manju and her daughter forming a half family with their neighbors Innocent and his wife. But otherwise opposites, Manju working working working, driving herself ever harder, and Mohanlal relaxing.
The plot actually puts them together when Manju has her photo taken after falling in a pothole on her bike, and then forcing the man who hit her to guarantee a fix for the roads. She is a minor human interest story celebrity and Reenu decides she will be the cover story for their next issue. And she also decides to assign Mohanlal this impossible story and make his career hinge on it.
And now, finally, we have a reason for Mohanlal and Manju to interact! Over and over and over again. He approaches her at her office, she sends him off and when he asks for a reason, pulls out that she doesn’t like his sandalwood tika. Mohanlal can’t give up, because he made a big speech to Reenu guaranteeing he would get this story. So he starts following Manju, trying to get to know her, seeing her very very busy day.
And at the same time, we the audience see even more of Manju’s life. Her good friend Lena comes to visit, we learn that Manju’s ex-husband was terrible to her but no one else could see it, she has custody of their daughter for now but is worried about what will happen when the custody is revisited once she turns 12. Lena breaks the news that her husband is remarried, Manju doesn’t seem to care.
More interestingly, Lena starts talking about her own marriage. Her kids live with her parents, Lena travels all the time for work, and her husband is cheating but they don’t talk about it and just stay married. This is as close as the film gets to a theme. The idea of what middle-aged relationships look like. You might be divorced and happy to be rid of your husband and living alone. You might be never married, solitary, still living in the family home with the shadow of your mother over everything. Or you might be married, and miserable, and more disconnected then the single people.
That’s what it’s about, feeling connected somehow someway. Manju works and works but ultimately is lonely. Mohanlal slouches through life, but is lonely too. Manju starts to soften when Renji Penickar approaches her, a builder that she has taken up a case against despite her boss’s warnings. He threatens her, subtly, and suddenly Mohanlal is there, part of his following her around. He doesn’t do much, he is just there, with her. And Manju says later how strange it was how much better she felt once he showed up.
And that’s what keeps happening. Mohanlal doesn’t really do anything special, he is just “there”, all the time. Until he has a chance to do something a little extra, he is there when Manju’s scooter is hit by a car and her daughter is knocked off and injured. He is there to take her to the hospital, to reassure her, to just generally support with his presence. He doesn’t leap in right away to save her, when Manju’s ex uses the accident as an excuse to take back custody Innocent fights off the police, but Mohanlal just stands and watches.
But he is thinking, just like when he does the bare minimum at work but still does his job. He noticed a sticker on the car that hit the bike, he notices it again later and follows the car, still calm and quiet and slow. And then once he meets the driver, he lets loose and actually acts, does something for once, beats the man up and forces him to admit that he was hired by Manju’s ex in order to create grounds for taking back custody.
There is almost a kind of character journey to Mohanlal. He is a man who seemingly doesn’t care about anything, but we learn later that as a boy he used to always get angry, so his mother started putting sandalwood on his forehead which calmed him down, and he has been calm since then. He always had something inside of him, he just never let it out. But his new boss Reenu starts the process of inspiring him to work more, and then Manju really challenges him, is so much out there and works so hard and cares so much more, that he starts caring. He actually works to get the interview, he dresses more nicely and follows her around and eventually even loses the tika because she said she didn’t like it. And, finally, he beats up a man for her.
But he doesn’t change entirely. Manju has come to rely on him to be her soft supportive presence, she doesn’t want another alpha male type. At the end, she finally finally agrees to give him the interview and they spend one long day together. He plays with her daughter and walks behind her at work, and is just there, all day. And that’s the end of the movie. Finally getting that interview, that he has been working for so long, acheiving his goal. And then getting his reward, as he sits down to write, Manju calls him on the phone to tell him he should start wearing the tika again, she likes it. Implying that she also likes him.
Now, in a better movie, there would be an actual plot and conflict and messy things like that. Mohanlal’s boss maybe sort of getting a crush on him wouldn’t be thrown in for no reason. We would find out what happens with Lena and her ex-husband. Mohanlal wouldn’t switch between a lovable loser and a cool troubled type for no reason for a scene (a cool troubled type who listens to Rod Stewart. I know almost nothing about American music after 1964, but I feel like Rod Stewart isn’t a cool troubled guy singer). And the resolution to Manju’s custody battle would take more than 20 minutes. And the ending wouldn’t have such a “wait, is that it?” feeling to it.
But this movie is good enough! Mohanlal and Manju have great chemistry together and I love their character interactions. Innocent is brilliant. The romance between a divorced single Mom and a guy who just never got his act together is refreshingly different. And there’s sunshine and a little girl and a classical dance performance, it’s just nice. Watch it next time you have a rainy day and nothing better to do.
(Oh, and also there is a clear real life parallel with Manju as the working single mother with the scary abusive ex who just got remarried and no one believes he is abusive, but I don’t want to get into that thing)
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