Mohanlal Day Modern Mohanlal, Drishyam

Happy Mohanlal Day! I’m traveling for forever today (not sad about it, I’d rather have long layovers and read my book than run around), so I can’t write new stuff, so reruns! I was feeling bad, but then I remembered that last year I just didn’t post at all. So reruns are better than nothing!

I watched Drishyam!  Finally breaking free of my rom-com streak!  But I got Classmates delivered on DVD (finally!), so I’m going to watch that next and be back to rom-coms.  Although, I think I saw somewhere that Classmates has a mystery at the heart of it along with the romance?

Anyway, Drishyam!  Script first, because that was the most impressive part.  And the most important part, which is unusual to me.  No big visuals, no big sexy stars, none of the things that usually fill in the gaps in scripts in the Hindi cinema.

Although even with the tight script, it still had a very slow start.  They needed to establish how popular Mohan Lal was in the community, his conflict with the petty police Sergeant, his obsession with watching films, and his loving family and they way they all relate to each other.  I appreciated the careful time spent showing us all this, putting it all in place to be picked up as needed later.  But maybe not quite so much time?

By an hour in, I was almost hoping for someone to be murdered or tortured or blackmailed or SOMETHING!  Anything to interrupt this sort of neutral happiness and peaceful life!  And then it happened, and bam!  Everything kicked into gear!

The second half of this film is just completely different than the first half in content, pacing, etc., but they are still related to each other.  The construction is so intricate, it only makes sense if you see how all the small actions from the first half, down to a little dispute about a lunch bill, all come together to cause everything, good and bad, that happens to Mohan Lal and his family in the second half of the film.  Although, I still think they could have cut a good fifteen minutes out of the first half, just to keep things moving a bit faster.

According to dialogue, the title of the movie means visuals, or maybe perspective?  That is what gets kicked into gear in the second half, although it is already there in the beginning.  Mohan Lal runs a cable company for his area.  He controls what people can and cannot see, and while he is able to see everything.  In our first introduction, he appears to be, well, lazy!  He’s sitting in his office perfectly still watching a movie, while his assistant runs around repairing cables and collecting fees.  We see this again and again over the course of the first half, just his eyes looking at the screen, absorbing it, everything that comes on screen, even a sexy scene from a Hindi film!  (as always, I get very excited when seeing a Hindi film with songs I recognize and language I can sort of understand stuck in the middle of one of these Malayalam films)

(this song.  Oh Emraan!)

But slowly, over the course of the first hour or so, we learn that he is more than he appears.  He cleared and planted the area around his house himself.  He is a self-made man who didn’t want a dowry for his wife.  He only has a 4th level education, but married a woman with a 12th level and wants both his daughters to go to good private schools.  He is thrifty, but not cheap, knowing the value of money because he works for it.  His in-laws treat him as a son of their household, and take his advice.  The audience is set up to underestimate him in the beginning of the first half, just as the cops will at the start of the second.  And, just like the cops will eventually realize, the audience realizes that all those times he was seemingly simple and empty, he was actually thinking and considering and analyzing and remembering all the tricks that could help him in the future.

That is the first two meanings of the title, the view that the director gives the audience of his life and personality, the view he takes of the films he watches.  But there are more than just those!  There’s the view the cops and the community have of our hero and his family, unable to believe they could ever do anything wrong.  There’s the view our hero’s family has of him, as the strong support they all rely on, the one who can protect them from everything.  There’s the way he supports and protects them by blocking them from the view of others (for instance, a telling scene towards the end when he steps in front of his daughter, being an affable wall hiding her reaction from witnesses).  And there’s the way he creates a vision of his family’s actions to prevent any holes from being punched into their alibi.

But the two final uses of perspective/view/vision are the two most interesting to me.  First, the reveal that the audience was also missing vital elements of the alibi, a great meta-statement questioning the ways that editing and director’s choices change what the audience knows, or thinks it knows.  Very Blow-Up like.  But secondly, and more interesting to me, there is the final two confrontations between our hero and the police.  First, his confrontation with the police officer/mother of the victim.  She acknowledges that she saw the violence as a result of the actions of others, but she finally “sees” what her son really was, and how her actions lead to that.  She and her husband are the ones at fault, not Mohan Lal and his family.  Her view has changed completely.

And finally, the opening of the film was when the new man in charge of the police station arrived.  He saw Mohan Lal waiting and mentioned that “you would never think, looking at him, that he had done such things.”  This is his original perspective.  At the very end of the film, his perspective remains the same, as we come out of the flashback, the police officer reiterates his commitment to proving Mohan Lal is a “bad man”, and that he will easily be able to prove it, with the full force of the police force working on it.  We, the audience, started out by seeing Mohan Lal as a good simple family man, while the cop served as an alternative perspective, foreshadowing a shift, by saying “he had done such things.”  Through out the film, we see the things he has done, and we see that he isn’t just a simple gentle family man, he is also a savvy self-made businessman, an authoritative father, and a possessor of physical strength and drive. Only, through out, the family man identity remains primary. That is what the police officer fails to see at the end, he thinks this is an evil man, and that is how he will catch him.  But this is a good man, a man who feels no guilt or sorrow over what he has done, and that is why he will escape.

Okay, so, that’s all the big thematic stuff!  But what about the visuals, the songs, and the performances/characters?  Visuals wise, it was frankly kind of bland!  Straightforward.  No obstructed views, sudden edits, small moments of magical realism, all the stuff I am used to from the other modern Malayalam films I have seen.  It could just be this director’s style, or something about how crime films are usually made (I still don’t know enough about Malayalam cinema to answer these questions!).  But I think it could have been on purpose, because after a while I started to see how the super straight-forward visuals helped with the narrative.  We feel like we are seeing everything, because it is all right there in front of us.  Brightly lit, clearly framed, everyone hitting their marks perfectly, no over-lapping dialogue or background noise to obscure sound.  No ambient sound at all, no birds or wind or anything.  This is a very simply presented story which makes you think the story itself might be simple.

Songwise, there were only two I think?  There is the first one, which is basically a happy view of their whole life, from family outings to parental flirtation, to the youngest at a camp.  It is just a condensed version of what we have seen through out the rest of the first half.  But I did like the way it felt like their life was sort of bouncing along in rhythm with the world, with each other, with everything.  The second song was the opposite of that, everyone being separated and separate from each other, out of tune with the world and trying to get back into it.

(Happy!)

Performances and characters, this was the area where I had the most problems.  Not that anyone gave a bad performance, actually, just that the way they were told to perform in order to support their characters contributed to some issues I had with the characters.

Mohan Lal on his own, him I liked!  If he had existed in a vacuum, I would have loved it.  Gentle, funny, clever, nice, it was all very charming.  It was the way he was positioned within his family that bothered me a little.  It wasn’t just that he was the head of the family, or the outstanding spectacular one in the family, it was that he was the only one to take any decision, to control their interactions with the world, to insist on complete obedience.  I mean, he spent all day in an office in the middle of the village while his wife and daughters were stuck in a house 5 miles out, isolated from everything!  And the way the other characters in his family were created, it supported this position of him as the necessary protector from the world.

His wife, despite being a grown women with children and running a household, was made to beg and tease her husband for permission to spend money.  She was shown to be so naive that she didn’t understand how cell phone cameras worked.  She was styled in such a way as to make her seem more like a young girl than a grown woman.  Hair often down, heavy make-up, and so on.  Any one of these elements alone could be an accident, a random line of dialogue, a few small interactions between husband and wife, a make-up artist who is a little enthusiastic with the new age lipstick, but put them all together, and it feels a little purposeful.

His daughters are the same-fragile, charming, pretty, but without any ability to make logical decisions or follow through on them unless they have a man’s hand guiding them.  And those characterizations are built into the function of the rest of the narrative.  The initial complication is because his wife and daughter react with emotion and impulse instead of logic and forethought.  The rest of the film plays out with his family completely giving in to his control until, as he expected, one of them fails in logical reasoning and snaps into an emotional response again.

And the “evil” woman set against these “good” women is the reverse, with an unwomanly dedication to reason and logic, which causes all their problems.  As we see, it is her failure as a mother, more focused on her job than on her son, which leads him to become super skeezy.  And it is this use of logic that allows her to torment heartlessly our hero and his family.  Only when she finally gives in to emotion, does she recognize that the real problem is herself, and peace is restored.  Oh, and the other reason I am pretty sure that the styling of Mohan Lal’s wife and family was on purpose is because it was sooooooooo obvious what they were doing with the styling of the “evil” woman.  She goes from hair up, full uniform, minimal make-up, to hair half-down, noticeable mascara, and a Salwar, to a full Sari, hair loose, lipstick, eye shadow, the works.  Oh, and she also goes from dismissing her husband’s opinions to obeying him in all things.

My biggest issue with the female characters is the reaction to the “scandal”.  It is so stupid, it almost feels like maybe it is a asking for an against the grain reading?  A teenage girl is videotaped undressing for a shower.  It is clearly from a hidden camera, without her permission.  In response, she and her mother offer the boy in possession of the video sex, and then kill him.  Because him revealing it would be soooooooooooooooooo bad, that anything else they might do is justified.

Now, having a video like this released would be embarrassing, sure.  But it’s not going to ruin your life!  Not unless you think your whole life (or your daughter’s life) is tied up with the ability to marry the kind of guy who wouldn’t forgive a video taken without permission.  Or acceptance at a school that wouldn’t allow it.  Or a job that would fire you just for a minor indiscretion from high school.  The problem isn’t with the video, it’s with your priorities!

So, including this plot means one of three things:

1. The most likely option, the filmmakers actually think that it is an accepted fact that a hidden camera photo of a teenage girl will ruin her life, and that the girl and her mother will have such an uncontrollable reaction to the offense to their modesty that they will kill for it.

2. The second most likely option, that the filmmakers wanted to use something more scandalous and couldn’t come up with anything which would get by the censors, so they left it at this and didn’t think any more about it.

3. Just maybe, possibly, if you want, you could read it as Mohan Lal, his father-in-law, and society in general causing this to happen.  By protecting their women from any sort of threat or awareness of how the world works, by training them that all men outside their family are enemies, that any interaction with a man can be miss-interpreted, they set up a situation where the first slight problem in their way would result in this sort of massive over-reaction.  Just as the victim’s mother finally decided that it was her fault for how permissive she was with her son, possibly, maybe, you could argue that the film was showing that it was Mohan Lal’s fault for how protective he has been.

But, ignoring the whole female characters part of it, I liked the plot!  I liked the way it was set up and unfolded, and how subtle all the reveals were.  The visuals were bland, just in service of supporting the plot, so not my favorite thing.  The songs, ditto.  So, over all, not for me, but also not bad! (and if I missed anything super cool or subtle or whatever that you think I should appreciate, let me know in the comments!)

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