Mohanlal’s Classic Damaged Hero Movie, Kireedam!

Well, it’s all out of order, because Chenkol already went up, but whatever.

Everyone said “Watch Kireedam!  Watch Kireedam!”  They did not say “Watch Kireedam and then be depressed for a week!”  Evil!  You got me to watch it, and now I am all depressed!  And not depressed in a “the nobility of the human spirit triumphed, even if the ending was kind of sad” kind of way like a classic Amitabh movie, but in a “Gosh darn it!  Why’d it have to end that way?” kind of way.

This movie is really fascinating!  And very well done.  I kind of figured it was going to turn dark eventually, but I was expecting a big breaking point.  Like in Kaalia, or Trishul, or Singham, or Ghayal, or any other Hindi action movie.  We always open with the hero’s happy life, so we understand why he craves vengeance so much when it is destroyed.  But the point of the happy opening bit is to hurry up and get to the destruction, so he can be reborn as the much more interesting action hero, instead of the playful innocent he is at the beginning.  Oh, and there’s the whole obvious Partition parallels, India as the young innocent country ripped apart by violence to emerge damaged but stronger, blah blah blah.

So, that’s what I was waiting for here.  We meet his teenage sister, and I immediately leap ahead to “she’s going to be raped!  And then his mother will commit suicide and his father will try to track down the perpetrators through the law and fail and then our hero will take vengeance on his own!”  And then we see his father on the job as a police constable, and I think “He’s going to be killed by a corrupt superior/politician!  And Mohanlal will have to take the law into his own hands to bring to justice those who the government is too afraid to touch!”  Heck, even when we met his teacher girlfriend, I had a whole “terrorists!  Terrorists will break into the school and hold it captive and he will have to rappel in from the roof to rescue them all!”

(Like this.  This is what college is like in India, right?)

But, none of that happened.  First, the breaking point didn’t come until halfway into the film.  The whole happy family part of it wasn’t just something we were hurrying through to get to the good stuff, it was half the film.  And second, the breaking point was a random and sudden incident, that was over almost before it started.  Not a long drawn out injustice that would forever change our hero.

What was long and drawn out is what happened afterwards.  The “happy family” didn’t just disappear after violence was introduced, it was still there, just slowly being ground down and worn away through out the second half.  And in the same way, our hero is being altered, until the sweet and innocent boy we saw at the beginning is gone.

The way this film treats violence reminded me more of how rape, or the loss of virginity, is treated in female narratives than how violence is usually treated in action films.  Within our hero, it results in the same kind of self-doubt, guilt, and identity struggle that you might see in a woman post sexual assault.  And within the community around him, there was the same kind of “Scarlet Letter” effect.  Once he had been tarred with that brush in their eyes, there was no way to come back from it.  Even his own family began to doubt him.  Or, worse, take advantage of him.  This one single incident completely changed how they saw him, made him into a perpetrator instead of a person.

For the most part, I think, this is the story the film wants to tell.  How a series of small changes and decisions can lead to a man randomly facing a situation in which violence is the only answer.  And how after that the attitude and behavior of others towards him, can lead a naive, decent, peaceful boy to have no choice but to become in truth what they all assume him to be-a murderer, unable to control his blood lust.

It’s a good story, and there are some big questions it raises about society.  For instance, Mohanlal’s father (Thilakan again!  Never let him be my father, terrible things happen to his children) is a police officer who puts his own honesty and sense of right and wrong above the needs of his family.  This sounds noble, right?  But, as the film shows, his black and white view of the world end up contributing to his son’s turn towards violence.  At what point does the higher good become protecting your innocent family, rather than your ideals?

(On the other hand, he can absolutely be my grandfather!)

This is true at the end, certainly, when he rejects his son entirely.  But look at some of the earlier scenes as well.  The whole reason the family is thrust into this dangerous situation is because he is re-assigned as punishment for insulting an MLA’s son.  Yes, the son was parked illegally.  And yes, there is no reason he should apologize.  But what does it hurt to apologize to a politician, if it will save your two young sons and daughter from being forced to live in a dangerous neighborhood?

The film wants us to question this, I think.  For one thing, the MLA’s son’s infraction is so small, merely a parking violation.  And the MLA requests something so small, simply a verbal apology and the return of the car.  It could easily have been something much worse, an eve-teasing incident and a demand that he touch his head to their feet, for instance.  In this case, it’s hardly even corruption, it’s just a slight gesture of respect to the office.  I’m not saying it is right, or that Thilakan didn’t have a point.  Just that maybe it was more wrong to put his whole family in danger for some abstract sense of honor.

And the thing is, he does put his whole family in danger.  Not just Mohanlal.  We see the neighborhood boys leering at Mohanlal’s teenage sister soon after they arrive.  Later, his younger brother and mother are attacked as part of the escalating violence.  And, it is Thilakan’s insistence on the letter of the law which leads him to interfere in a fight and, ultimately, leads to Mohanlal defending him and having that defining moment of violence.

You could say “Mohanlal made his own choice.”  You could say, “Thilakan was a police officer, he had to follow the law.”  You could even say, “If their family hadn’t been sent there, someone else’s would have been.”  But each of those arguments is neatly parried by something we see within the film.  Mohanlal couldn’t make his own choice, we saw how he was still more of a boy than a man, ordered about by his father and family.  We see plenty of other police officers, who the film does not condemn as corrupt or evil, comfortable with bending the rules in pursuit of a greater justice.  And, most importantly, we see that Thilakan is the only officer who has brought his family to this place.  The other officer with children only has a son, no wife or daughters.  And Thilakan didn’t even have to bring them!  We saw that his wife’s mother and brother were more than willing to keep the family in their house during this posting.  He had options, but he chose to put his strict interpretation of the rules above the safety and comfort of his family.

But what makes it heartbreaking is that he wasn’t a bad guy!  Or a bad father!  In Spadikam, there was clearly one source of everything terrible.  Thilakan was a horrible father, who made his whole family miserable, especially his son, and that is why all the bad things happened.  But in this case, Thilakan was a mostly wonderful father.  There were just a few times and places when he put other considerations first.

And there were all sorts of other issues at play too.  For instance, Mohanlal’s inability to get married until he had achieved his higher aims.  We saw his good friend from back home, the one he kept visiting and talking with, through out the film.  And I couldn’t figure out why we kept going back to this character.  These same conversations could have been had between Mohanlal and his uncle or grandmother, or his new friends in the new town.

Way at the end, Mohanlal has been hiding at his friend’s house, and he leaves it to return for his final confrontation.  His friend offers to come with him, but there is a baby crying in the background with a young woman holding it, so Mohanlal tells him no, since his family needs him.  Now, I probably missed something earlier in the film that made it clear his friend was already married with a family, but certainly this sequence of scenes was underlining his position, which is when I finally figured out why his character was needed.

Mohanlal is in an odd position, he is the same age as other men who are married with children and households of their own.  But he must still bow to the authority of his father, wait to marry his girlfriend, and spend all day wondering when his life will begin.  Kind of like Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa.  The issues is with these characters who are sort of adults-in-waiting, and the danger of that waiting period, between school and childhood and jobs and adult responsibilities.

(See?!?  If he’d just held on a little longer he could have gotten a happy ending like this!  Well, “Happy”.  But still at least happier than poor Mohanlal gets in this movie)

Mohanlal’s friend has skipped that period, he went straight from childhood to adulthood.  He appears to be possibly of a slightly lower economic and social position than Mohanlal, which means he has no need to wait for advanced education, or placement tests, or job training, before he is able to be married.  And now he is safe from the kinds of dangers Mohanlal confronts, protected within his family circle.

Beyond Mohanlal’s life period danger and the short-sightedness of his father, there is the element of the actual situation in which he finds himself.  I got a little confused by all the details thrown at us (and my subtitles went wonky here), but if I am understanding it correctly, this town for whatever reason has always been dangerous.  Most recently, a “Hydro” (I assume that is slang for someone from Hyderabad?  So we have an interesting little Andra Pradash versus Kerala thing happening) had taken control of the stores and merchants.  And then he was ousted by a much more vicious fighter, who maybe was brought in by a politician?  Or had police support?  This is where I get confused. The point is, the town has been trouble for a long time, and it is a knot that the police, the politicians, and the people have not been able to unravel.  There are no simple solutions.  And Mohanlal’s youthful passion and strength, combined with the simple way of looking at the world he inherited from his father, are a terrible combination with this situation that is filled with moral gray areas.

And then there is the final element, the real surprise, Mohanlal himself.  Mostly the blame is on his random circumstances.  But there is something within him that sparks to those circumstances.  His grandmother tells stories of his grandfather’s great strength and fighting ability, maybe that is where it comes from?  Combined with his father’s fearlessness and stubbornness.  He only has 3 real fight scenes, but each of them have a certain difference from the other fights we see, in this film and others.

It’s the moment when he picks up a tool, in each of the fights.  That’s what sets these aside not just from the other fights of this character, but from the other fights of Mohanlal in other films.  He’s a really kicky fighter, with lots of wrestling throws added in, and some rolling around on the ground.  That’s how this first fight starts.  His father is being tossed about, so Mohanlal leaps in and starts tossing people about a bit on his own.  The first opponent is defeated with these methods.  But then the Big Bad shows up, and it’s not so easy.  Finally, Mohanlal grabs a rod and starts hitting him.  And he just doesn’t stop.  He keeps hitting him and hitting him as the blood flows and the crowd looks on in horror.  This is something different, something vicious and uncontrollable, not just a heat of the moment wrestling match, but a deadly bloodlust.

(Not like this)

That first fight, the audience can excuse as an aberration, he was driven to it, he was scared, he didn’t know when to stop.  And you can see that most of the characters excused it as well.  In the moment, they were shocked to see his violence.  But as time went on, they started to rationalize, that it was a first fight of his life, that he was fighting an unstoppable villain, that we should all celebrate the defeat of the bad guy and not think too much about the methods.  Thilakan seems the odd man out here, insisting that his son face justice when everyone else is able to overlook it.

But then there is the second fight.  After days of stress and strain, worrying about the possibility of arrest, trying to stop his friends from fighting in his name, being misunderstood and mistrusted by his own family, he knows his enemy is coming for him, and he lies in wait.  Calmly.  This is another fight in self-defense, but it isn’t one that was forced on him in a moment, it is one he had time to prepare for.  And he doesn’t shrink from the violence here.  And in the end, after he has tied up and fully incapacitated his enemy, removing any possible threat, he starts to walk away.  And then he sees a metal rod on the ground, picks it up, and turns back.  It is a little harder to see what he does here, hitting him over and over again about the back, which is why we have the exposition at the hospital.  That he damaged the hands tied behind his back so severely, they had to be removed.

Whatever there is that is inside him is growing with each incident of violence, making him crueler and colder, and wilder at the same time once he lets it take hold of him.  Which is what we see in the end, when he goes for his final confrontation, bringing his grandfather’s knife with him.  He hunted out the knife, he brought the knife, and when he finally uses it, it is in an uncontrollable orgy of stabbing.  Which leaves him confused and disoriented, almost unable to recognize his own father.  Again, there is the cold and careful planning, followed by a passionate ecstasy of violence.

Let’s go back to that grandfather’s knife bit for a minute.  What does it mean that his grandmother keeps talking about her husband’s fighting prowess?  Could it be a statement about how in older times, these kinds of actions were needed, but they do not fit in the world today?  Or that his family has moved on, that his father and uncle’s positions as police officer and teacher respectively no longer allow them to be the kind of people who can look the other way to these sorts of actions?  Or is it simply that his grandmother is old and has romanticized events that, at the time they were happening, were as horrifying as what we are seeing now?  Or is it a combination of all of these things?

Maybe that’s the point, that there is something essential in all humans, put there by evolution in order to survive dangerous times, only it hardly ever rises to the surface today.  That can be sublimated by ambition, or family life, or other challenges or interests, that it can be prevented by an environment filled with love and safety and kindness.  But when Mohanlal is in this dangerous point in his life, a man but without responsibility or family or duty,  when he is placed in an environment of constant danger, when his own family turns against him, he turns to the violence hidden within him over and over again.  Until finally he can’t control it any more, or put it back inside.

And now I have to track down a copy of Chenkol with subtitles so I can watch the second half of this story, which I suspect it will be EVEN MORE depressing.

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