Mohanlal as a Malayalam Devdas

This is the movie I had to watch on youtube with bad subtitles. So frustrating! So glad I have HotStar now.

I watched Thoovanathumbikal!  Because it seemed to be the general consensus that it was the next best one on my list.  And it was really good, but also really made me think and concentrate to understand it.  Partly because I was struggling with a wacky subtitle situation.

So the first thing I learned was how to download a subtitle file and load it to synch with a youtube video.  Very complicated!  I felt like some sort of computer genius once I succeeded.  Well, “succeeded”.  They never quite synched up right.

Part of that, I think, is just that Thoovanathumbikal has a lot of long and complicated dialogue.  It was hard to get everything on the screen before the actor stopped talking, and then it all got more and more delayed with every scene, until there was a good 5 minute lag by the end.  It was extra hard, because I didn’t have my anchor words like I do with Hindi dialogue!  I can sort of tell which subtitle goes with which speaker because I can catch a “Prem” and “Rishtaa” and “Dushman” here and there and then look for them in the subtitles.  Thank goodness, even without Hindi, there were still some English loan words thrown in for me to work with here.

But ultimately, I think the whole subtitle confusion might have been a good thing.  It made me memorize the actors attitudes and gestures, and then have them in mind when the subtitles finally showed up so I could sort of picture it all in my head.  I had to pay a lot more attention than normal, but ultimately it paid off.

So, the movie!  It’s a love triangle, but I think it is also about perception and doubling and the modern Indian man and male-female relationships.  In the first half, the thing I kept thinking of was The Importance of Being Earnest.  I was obsessed with that play/movie for a while when I was in high school.  Not the horrible modern version, the old one with Michael Redgrave.  Everyone remembers the clever aphorisms and so on from it, but it is also making an interesting statement about societal expectations and values.  Our hero, Earnest/Jack, lives a respectable proper life in the country under the name of “Jack”, with his young female ward and her elderly guardian.  But, when he wants to have an adventure, he pretends that his younger brother “Earnest” has gotten in trouble and he must go to town and rescue him.  When he returns to the country, he tells terrible stories about everything his evil younger brother “Earnest” did in the city.

So, already you can see the parallels, with our hero living a thrifty proper dull life in his village, and occasionally going in to town where he is a completely different person.  But what makes it really really the same, is the way the proper young girl in the village reacts to his town life style.  In the play, “Cecily”, his ward, falls in love with his “evil” younger brother, based purely on the stories she has heard.  In Thoovanathumbikil, Radha falls in love after learning that our hero is more than the rude and brusk village boy she knows, that he has a second life and personality in town.

Both works of art have an understanding that a young girl would be more intrigued by stories of experience and adventure than proper behavior.  And both understand that it is not the bad behavior that attracts them, it is the possibility of reform and change.  Radha is intrigued by the stories she hears of Jayakrishnan in town.  But she is more intrigued by understanding that his town lifestyle can co-exist with his village life, that he can drink and carouse, but never touch a woman.  That he can be in love with her, and not use any of his power or authority to force her.  Similarly, Cecily in Earnest doesn’t want to marry a wild drunkard from town, she wants to marry a man who was previously a drunkard and is now more than that.

I can’t remember where I read this, but somewhere I saw an article that put its finger on the whole “bad boy” misunderstanding.  It’s not that women want “bad boys”, it’s that women want complicated man, with layers, who have more going on than just the regular habits of society.  Whether that is getting into bar fights or being really really serious about Dungeons and Dragons, just having anything that makes them a little bit different from everyone else.  That’s what Radha is looking for from Jayakrishnan, an indication that he is more than just the rude guy who works his own fields and proposes after hardly knowing her. That is why she rejected him initially, because she only saw one side of him, the village side, and it was not enough.  It was only after she learned about the town side as well that she saw the whole person and fell in love.

The reverse is what happens with Clara.  And it has nothing to do with The Importance of Being Earnest, there is a woman from town in it also, Gwendolyn, but she is not at all excited to learn that her boyfriend leads a different life in the country than in town, she only wants the town person. Of course, that could be that Oscar Wilde was dealing with issues of queerness and hiding his authentic self, not with bringing together two sides of the same person, so his focus is on showing the virtues and values of being honest about your town life and giving up the “country” facade.  But in Thoovanathumbikil, Clara has no problem being light and casual with “Contractor”, the experienced man of the world.  It is only when he confesses that he is secretly a good village boy who has never been with a woman before that she becomes close to him.  Again, it is the binary she desires.

Jayakrishnan knows there is this confusion in himself, and that Clara and Radha find it appealing.  He tells Radha that she and Clara are the only ones who ever really understood him and accepted him.  That is why he loves them.  While other women/people may have been able to understand one side or the other, only the two of them are able to love the full man.

This issue of the dual life is something he was struggling with long before his love story started, going all the way back to the beginning of the film.  He brings his new friend from the village, a mechanic, into the city with him.  At first, he keeps up a pretense that he is a naive village boy, taking his friend to a bar and ordering them lime juice.  But then he drops the pretense, and adding beer to the order, eventually taking the friend to a brothel, where he is apparently well known.  And instructing the pimp to tell his friend in the morning that Jayakrishnan leads a different life in the city, that he spends money wildly, is known at all the bars and brothels, but has never slept with a woman.

Mohan Lal plays this whole sequence in a very casual manner, joking about the lime juice, casually telling the pimp that he is leaving now and asking him to explain everything to the village friend.  But his actions belie his attitude.  He creates an elaborate ruse to have an excuse to bring his friend to the bar (let’s go shopping together, it’s hot out, let’s buy lime juice, the juice is too expensive, let’s go somewhere else, etc.).  And rather than explain everything himself, he has his friend/pimp explain it for him.  He is a little scared and a little shy about bringing together the two halves of himself, the village and the country, in front of someone else.

While the love stories are the most obvious presentation of this divide, there are other ways through out the film that his struggle is shown.  And it has to be resolved in a bigger manner than simply finding a woman to love him.  Or rather, the way he integrates his two halves shows which of these women knows him better.  At the end, he finally uses his city connections to solve a village problem.  He is having a hard time getting a tenant to move, so he finally gets together his drunk friends from the city, has them help him kidnap the man and scare him, finally convincing him to leave his property.  Not only does he use the city friends for this village issue, he also tells the entire story to Radha, inviting her to share in both his village and city life.  He brings her in even further at the end, when he takes her to the city to meet his friends, and uses their connections to facilitate a register marriage.

In contrast, Clara is kept separate, only seeing him in town.  While at first the relationships are equal, as he tells both girls stories of his other life and the other woman, by the end of the film, Radha has been fully integrated into every part of his personality, while Clara still holds herself separate, refusing to visit him in the village, or even spend time with him except in remote areas.  Clara is becoming more and more the fantasy, the one who controls completely one small part of his life, but has no access to any other area.

Clara is a fantasy in a lot of ways, actually.  I have a hard time with how this film deals with sex workers.  It’s not the worst, certainly.  Clara is a fully realized person who chooses sex work of her own free will, because it is the best option for her.  She isn’t a victim, and she isn’t “ruined” by her choices.  That’s all great!  But there were a few things that I had a hard time with (and if it is just because I was missing the something in the subtitles, let me know).  For one thing, the whole reason she meets Jayakrishnan is because her pimp wants to “test” her, to find out if she will leave him if she is offered more money.  To which Jayakrishnan says, “don’t you know how to keep your women?”

So, what’s happening there?  We know it wasn’t a seduction into prostitution, that she sought him out and made arrangements for her own future.  But, why can’t she leave him if she gets a better offer?  Is this implying that he “owns” her in some way?  Or is it that he is investing in her somehow that we aren’t seeing (clothes, training, housing, publicity) and is owed a return on his investment?  And, what they heck is meant by “don’t you know how to keep your women?”  Like, health benefits and decent treatment?  Or abuse, fear, psychological punishment?  And then later, she felt guilty for leaving him?  Why?  Why should she feel she owes anything to her pimp?

I kept thinking about it, and I think if you removed the pimp I would have no issues with this whole storyline.  If she had arranged for someone else to speak with Jayakrishnan about writing the letter to help her run away, a school friend or a taxi driver, and then subsequently asked him to be her first customer, thinking he was more experienced than he was, everything that follows could have been the same and I wouldn’t have had that slightly icky feeling about how it started out.  Her ultimate ending seemed to be as a self-employed contractor anyway.

In general, the way she was treated, as an educated and intelligent woman who could make her own choices, felt close to the Tawaif narrative.  There was that slight longing for the world, to be loved, to have a place.  Her comments about being tired of “rooms” and their escape to a remote cabin brought up memories of Pakeezah and their similar idyll in Raajkumar’s remote camp.  It’s a more subtle kind of sadness of sex work, not rape or violence or arrests, but just being outside of society, trapped within your certain defined areas of life and not able to escape them.

(See, the same sadness and guilt even when you are free and with the man you love, in both Meena Kumari here and Clara in this movie)

This is just my interpretation, but I think that might be why she marries in the end, and marries someone who is not Jayakrishnan.  The explicit reason is that she wanted to remove temptation from his life, make his choice obvious and easy.  But she was already talking about being tired of her life, wanting something else.  And she saw that Jayakrishnan was talking more and more about Radha in their last visit.  She could have sensed that Radha was able to be part of his whole life, but he kept her separate, saw her as separate.  Her husband seemed to have no such issues,  He was a widower, he didn’t see sex as a magical and mystical experience like naive Jayakrishnan did, which made her into a special part of his life instead of a regular part of it.  More importantly, when her husband met Jayakrishnan he referred to Jayakrishnan’s private joke with Clara, that he was called “Mother Superior.”  Clara feels no need to hide any part of herself from him, she is no longer keeping herself apart from the world.

I talked about the Importance of Being Earnest parallels in the female characters, but of course the most obvious reference for the male character is Devdas.  In Gayatri Chatterjee’s book on Awara, she argues that not only was Awara‘s hero based on Devdas, in fact that every Indian film hero uses Devdas as a prototype.  I don’t know if i would go quite that far, but I can see where she is coming from.  The idea is that Devdas represents modern India, torn between global/colonial forces and local/traditional.  The tragedy is not that Dev can never be with the woman he loves, it is that Dev can never bring himself to make a choice to be with the woman he loves, he is stuck in inaction and unfulfilled potential between two choices.

Devdas and the more modern Dev’s (everyone from Raj in DDLJ to Ranjit in Airlift) are torn between a global and local Indian identity.  But Thoovanathumbikal is dealing with something different, the home versus world identity within India, a conflict which existed before colonialism.  Our hero and his friends are not overly westernized or out of touch with their roots (although we do hear American music in the bar), they are simply struggling with how to be both young man who like to drink and have fun, and sober family men with responsibilities.  The solution the film suggests is less about making a choice, and more about finding a way to integrate both choices.  Jayakrishnan ends up with Radha not because he would rather be part of the village than part of the town, but because he has learned how to bring her into town with him, to make both parts of his life fit together.

And now I really want to watch Umrao Jaan and Bimal Roy’s Devdas!  I’m going to be checking all sorts of things off my list!


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