I can’t believe it!!!! An actual happy Malayalam film! Or maybe I have just been worn down in my definition of “happy”, so that it now expands to accept illegitimate children, forced commitments to insane asylums, kidnapping, sibling murder, and so on. But hey, it doesn’t end with the heroine being raped and/or the hero being arrested, or a sad song in the rain, so HAPPY. (you understand I kid because I love, right? Malayalam movies are beautiful and brilliant but MAN can they be depressing sometimes!)
This is not a Mohanlal movie, just getting that out of the way, this is a Revathy movie start to finish. She is amazing in this. There has been so much talk lately of how wonderful Sridevi was, and she was, I don’t want to take anything away from her. But watching this film reminded me how much more scope and interest there was for heroines back then, it wasn’t just Sridevi who had films built around her, who stole the screen from the hero, the actresses of the 80s and 90s in Tamil/Malayalam films were something special.
Revathy was 25 in this movie, and had been a heroine in 3 industries (Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu) since she was 17. Before that, she had formally completed her Bharatnatyam dance training at age 13. Mohanlal was only 6 years older than her, and had a filmography not much longer. And to match her Bharatnatyam training, he had his all state wrestling championships prior to film. They were an evenly matched pair, both with a lifetime of training in a difficult skill related to performing (dance and wrestling), both with a decade of acting behind them in a whole variety of industries, and both young and enthusiastic to balance their experience.
That is what it feels like has been lost. Too often the film is weighted so heavily towards the hero partly because the actress cast opposite him is not competent to do more. Or to put it the other way, heroine parts have been so discounted that talented actresses don’t have enough to do any more, they tend to fade away from the industry and all that is left are interchangeable pretty faces who cannot carry a complex performance.
But the late 80s/early 90s were a magical time! Revathy, Shobhana, Sridevi, and I am sure other actresses I don’t even know, were all capable of matching with Mammootty, Mohanlal, Kamal, and Rajinikanth. And directors and writers wrote to that, built complex characters with complicated relationships into their scripts, sure that their actors could carry it off.
In this case, it is even more obvious, the film was planned and written for Amala. When she married and retired, Revathy was easily able to step into her shoes and make the role her own. That is how many talented actresses were working at the time, you could lose one and find another without even taking a breath.
Revathy is the center of the film, but it wouldn’t work without the rest of the cast. Mohanlal as the charming slightly amoral but kind young man, Thilakan as the conflicted older respected man, straight through Jagathy Sreekumar playing the comic foil to Mohanlal. Top to bottom, this film is perfection. Just the right amount of humor and heart, just the right amount of romance, just the right amount of Mohanlal, and lots and lots of Revathy.
Oh, and also the plot is so twisty that I was literally sitting there saying “what’s going to happen next????”
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The key to this plot is making the audience want something they think they can’t have, and then giving it to them anyway. I’ll start with the biggest example. Revathy is introduced as a simple childlike girl, escaped from an asylum. Mohanlal is at first frustrated with her and the way she keeps following him around, then later excited when she learns there is a reward for her return and decides to hide away with her while they wait for the reward to go up. Revathy is constantly teasing and irritating him, doing crazy things. He ties her to the railing of his house when he leaves for the day so she can’t get into trouble, which leads to her being hurt when a runaway bull comes through the village. Mohanlal now feels guilty and comes to love her, caring for her as she gets better and doing everything he can to make her happy. We, the audience, really want them to get together at this point. They have great comic chemistry, and also great romantic chemistry with the way Mohanlal is caring for her. But of course it can’t happen, because she is not mentally his equal and it would be wrong. Very disappointing.
Oh wait, yes it can!!!!! Just as Mohanlal is considering whether he should bring her back to her family, Revathy reveals she has been faking this whole time! Not only is she a full mature woman, she is a mature woman who remembers everything that she has shared with Mohanlal up to now, whose personality and sense of humor and all the rest of it is still the same. As an audience member, all I was hoping for was something like a blow to the head which would magically cure her, not this elaborate system which makes everything that happened before still matter, while also making her a viable romantic possibility in the present.
And the same stuff keeps happening! This movie is the definition of having your cake and eating it too. Revathy reveals that she has come to this remote town to search for her estranged father. He paid for her schooling and gave her gifts and wrote her letter but never visited. She came to meet him as an adult, and his evil legitimate children had her committed to an insane asylum because she was illegitimate and they were ashamed. She pretended to be crazy and clung to Mohanlal in order to stay safe and hidden from the evil children while she tried to figure out how to meet her father. So the second half of the movie is Mohanlal sneaking her as a maid into her father’s house (her father being a retired supreme court judge and wealthy landowner), and her slowly winning him over until she, Mohanlal, and Thilakan (of course it is Thilakan!) form a close bond.
But the fly in all of this is that the audience has to reconcile Thilakan as this noble moral older man, and as the loving estranged father who sent presents and letters but never visited, with the warm loving man we see now. If only we didn’t have to forgive his past sins! If only there was a way to understand!
Yep, there is! Final twist! Thilakan is NOT her father! Although he is the man who paid for her schooling, sent her presents, and regular encouraging letters. He was indeed moral and perfect, it was the son of his old friend who made the mistake and got a woman pregnant. Thilakan kept the secret for the sake of his old friend and took responsibility for the child. All of the goodness and care that Revathy felt in her life and labeled as “father” did indeed come from him, but the original sin and shame of her birth came from another man. So Revathy can unite with her father after all, with no guilt on either side. As she explains, Thilakan is her true real father and the only parent she desires, the other man is meaningless.
But let’s go back to the romance for a moment, the real “have your cake and eat it too” plot point. Mohanlal and Revathy meet and are initially battling enemies. Revathy following him around and teasing him, him trying to one up her. It’s fun and funny and wonderful, seeing them challenge each other. In most films, that would be the whole romance, just that bit and then an accidental kiss at some point and suddenly they are in love.
But this film gives us more! First the short happy idyll part when Mohanlal is caring for her and she is trying to please him. But then following her reveal that she is not actually insane, there is a dramatic shift into them as partners with Mohanlal directing and her following orders. Mohanlal is friends with Thilakan. He is merely a coolie and guide while Thilakan is an important man, but they understand each other and respect each other, more than they do other people of their own standing. And so Mohanlal knows just how to get Revathy into Thilakan’s life and carefully build and understanding. And Revathy is a worthy ally, having already proven her trickster abilities. So Mohanlal has her pretend to be a poor uneducated girl desperate for a job. Has her trick the other servant into thinking he won the lottery and quitting. Has her play trick after trick on Thilakan, all with the goal of slowly softening her up. It is delightful watching Mohanlal and Revathy work together, we can see the trust Revathy places in Mohanlal by exactly following his directions, and the care he has for her in building up this plan to get her exactly what she wants, a true connection with her father. Again, in another movie, this would be the whole, Mohanlal and Revathy working together to scam a man with love and slowly realizing they are in love themselves.
But now, there’s more! Once the truth comes out, Revathy is in grave danger from Thilakan’s other children. At which point Mohanlal goes there to drunkenly declare himself her bodyguard, no one can touch her without going through him and if Thilakan does not want to acknowledge her as his daughter, then Mohanlal will be honored to take care of her the rest of his life.
The romance went from friendly enemies playing together, to partners in crime, and now to a humble servant coolie and a princess. That is what he thought she was at the start, when she first arrived in town her clothes and suitcases proclaimed her to be wealthy and he described her as a “princess”. And after all this time had passed, when he had seen her as a dirty little girl playing in the mud, learned she was illegitimate and shameful, sent her to work as a maid and scrub and clean, he has come back around to honoring her more than ever, seeing her as that “princess” who he will protect and take care of forever and ever and never ask for anything in return.
And that’s where we are at the end. Thilakan and Revathy have reunited, she is a “princess” again with wealth and status behind her. But, it is clear to the audience if not to Mohanlal, she is also in love with Mohanlal. She sadly plans to leave town and return to the convent where she was raised, and Mohanlal humbly does not object, merely carrying her bags for her to the station and wishing her good-bye. She sadly gives him a rose and, in like 99% of Malayalam films (at least, that’s how it feels sometimes) this would be the end of it. He would have helped her so much that she is now out of his reach, and she would have gotten everything she wanted in life and lost the one thing she needed. Oh the irony! Oh the tragedy! Oh the tinkly-tinkly music and soft rain intercut with close ups of gently sad faces!!!!
(This was my previous benchmark for “happy” Mohanlal classics)
But, thank goodness, this movie once again takes the audience pleasing path. Mohanlal puts Revathy on the train and then sadly drops the flower she gave him on the platform. Which in a different movie would be the ending, the crushed flower representing his crushed hopes/Revathy’s beautiful innocence and on and on. But, ha-ha, not here! Mohanlal drops the flower, the train pulls away, and in a lovely shot you see the dropped flower and the fallen Revathy behind it. She jumped off the train at the last minute to come back to Mohanlal. And, finally, they embrace.
HAPPY ENDING. No, really!