Aaaaah. Like sinking into a warm bath after a long tiring walk, that’s what it was like following Jo and the Boy with this movie. A movie where the filmmaker had a strong idea of what he wanted and executed it and I could just relax and enjoy.
My beloved Nagarjuna has a nephew! Who knew!!!! And I think he’s a pretty good actor? It’s hard to tell in this film, because it is so much the heroine’s story, but he seemed fine. Both “fine” as an actor and “fiiiiyuuuun” as an attractive young man. Although in both ways it kind of snuck up on you, he starts out seeming like any other glasses wearing engineer type. But then he is so gentle and thoughtful and kind and it all shines through in this very lowkey subtle performance. And he takes off his glasses and looks sensitive and you start to really enjoy his looks too.
Of course Kamalinee Mukherjee is wonderful too. And I was looking at her bio, she is the actress we were just asking for the comments! Instead of some untrained teenager, she started in films at age 24 after being in plays through out high school and college, and doing a theater workshop in Bombay. On the other hand, the only reason she could start so late and still have a career is because of outside of the box directors like this one, who wrote roles for strong mature independent women instead of little girls just out of their teens.
This is a slightly better balanced movie than Anand, where it was all about the heroine. In this film, it is about the hero and heroine jointly. And after them, all the other people around them in their lives. While Anand was built around a small neighborhood, this film is built around a boat trip. The perfect setting for this kind of story, a group of companionable strangers all thrown together for days on end through all sorts of events.
What makes it especially delightful is, just as Anand took place in what felt like a real middle-class neighborhood, so does this take place on a real middle-class boat trip. It’s not a fancy cruise ship going around the world, it’s an old passenger boat going up a river to a pilgrimage spot, the kind of trip that you would realistically expect a young working woman, a large family wedding, and various other minor characters to be able to afford. And also to be able to enjoy, there is no requirement for familiarity with European cooking or a need to have dozens of high fashion outfits for different occasions, you just have to enjoy good basic food, have a few saris and salwars, and a good book to read. And be a Hindu I suppose, but in this case that doesn’t bother me, because it is not a situation that should be/could be open to all and from which other communities are excluded, it is an explicitly Hindu experience, a pilgrimage trip. Just like this doesn’t feel like an idealized version of the middle-class, it also doesn’t feel like an idealized version of Hindu. These aren’t Hindus who go about their day thinking “I am Hindu”, it’s just naturally integrated into their lives, the stories and rituals are what they do and it doesn’t mean anyone else has to do them to.
I think that’s kind of the theme that pervades this film, there is no one way that you have to do things. Arranged marriages are fine, so are love marriages. Working for money is okay, so is working for a dream. Being ambitious, and being unambitious. The worst sin you can do is try to tell someone else how to be, what they should want.
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We open with our hero and heroine. But not our hero and heroine in the warm embrace of their family (although they both like their families). These are two independent people with their own lives outside of the home, and their own dreams within the great society. Our heroine is a scooter riding businesswoman dreaming of bringing her fashion salon to success. And our hero has an American degree but wants to put it to use working for political parties and the good of the country instead of money. While our heroine goes around trying to sell her products, he is going around trying to sell himself, to convince the party workers he has something to offer even if he can’t raise a crowd or shout loudly.
Their dreams are very different, but what they share is what they are trying to escape. That is our heroine’s nightmare which opens the film. A first night with an eager husband as she tries to escape his clutches and have a real conversation. And the wakes up, relieved to discover she is still single with a business to go to and a family that tolerates her ambitions.
It’s not our hero’s explicit nightmare, but it is implicit. He returns home to discover his cousin Neetu Chandra has had her marriage arranged to a wealthy young bureocrat. Which horrifies him, although she doesn’t seem to mind. It is partly because our hero Sumanth is in love with his cousin (remember, Telugu film, so it’s not incest so long as she is his maternal cousin), but also because the thought of this kind of marriage disgusts him. And he can’t understand how Neetu can be so casual about it. He wants to pursue his desire to do good for the people and the country, and marry a woman who is in love with him and eager for marriage. Kamalinee wants to escape a dull married life with a husband who doesn’t even want to talk to her and instead pursue her dreams of success in her chosen field. Her little dreams, at one point she starts to ask God for fabulous wealth, and then changes her prayer to just enough to pay the rent on her little shop. That’s all she wants, just as all Sumanth wants is to work for the good of the party, not be elected or famous or anything in particular. And they both want to be with partners who will understand and support them, not undermine them.
There’s a lot of set-up to this movie before the plot really gets going, it’s very Malayali that way. First our heroine has to have a big failure in business which makes her father pull his support for her store and, in despair, she agrees to marry the most recent suggested groom since he seems good enough. His family suggests a wedding party on a barge traveling to the pilgrimage site of Godavari. But then they pull the engagement, saying that she is too “modern” for their taste. Our heroine doesn’t really mind the broken engagement, nor does her family (it’s not a dramatic moment of “you have brought SHAME on this house!” or anything), but that on top of her business failing and feeling at very loose ends inspires her to impulsively declare that she will take that barge trip for herself even if there is no wedding to make an occasion for it.
Our hero, meanwhile, has been faithfully pursuing his cousin. First trying to convince her that she shouldn’t marry the fiance because a marriage for money is a horrible idea. And then when she explains that she wants that, she wants a man who will take care of her and spoil her, instead of Sumanth who she always has to ask to do everything, he takes it to heart and goes out and gets a real job planning to present her with a check as proof of his sincerity. Only, when he goes to give it to her, he realizes that she really doesn’t love him and is truly excited for this marriage, not just resigned to it. So he hides the check and sadly goes on the wedding trip with the rest of the family.
Both of them are at a breaking point in their lives. For the first time, Sumanth is ready to think about other women besides Neetu, ready to admit to himself that Neetu may not be perfect. And Kamalinee has to admit that some small part of herself was looking forward to marriage, was disappointed when it fell through. The script doesn’t say that directly (because this is a better film than that), but it is there in the hidden look in their eyes in the previous scenes that tell us they are beginning to feel differently.
And then the boatride starts! Finally! Spoiled pretty Neetu and her stuck up rich fiance, brave outspoken Kamalinee all by herself, and Sumanth surrounded by relatives who don’t really appreciate him. And in this setting, we have our romance.
It’s a romance that is constantly set in motion by other people. Or, to put it more accurately, a couple that gets to know each other better and better based on how they see the other behave with other people. Kamalinee sees Sumanth be kind of sensitive and interested in others, Sumanth sees that behind her tough surface, Kamalinee cares about other people as well. Their friendship moves forward in fits and starts, an initial misunderstanding when Sumanth carries her over the gangplank, another misunderstanding when she accidentally steals his chips on deck and he doesn’t complain. Her getting frustrated with him for being so passive and in love with his undeserving cousin, him getting frustrated with her for her quick temper and impatience. But both of them standing up for each other when attacked, him defending her choice not to marry until she really wants to, and her defending his choice to live a life of service.
What makes this movie really unique, only also not unique since this is the same thing the director Sekhar Kammula would do 10 years later in Fidaa, is that it is the heroine who is the pursuer in this romance. Kamalinee realizes early on that Sumanth is an unusual and valuable man, someone who doesn’t get angry with her, who listens to other people, who wants to help people. But Sumanth is timid, slow to let go of his first love for Neetu. It is only when Kamalinee pushes and pushes and pushes at him that he is finally able to move on, to see the reality that Neetu was never for him.
And through all of this, Neetu is a little more than the typical “bad” girlfriend. Her initial arguments are treated with respect, Sumanth isn’t living the life she wants, why should she marry him and adjust? Sumanth tries to change for her but then sees it is pointless, he can’t really change. Only Neetu, partly after seeing how Sumanth treats Kamalinee and partly after spending time alone with her fiance, begins to realize that Sumanth might have been what she wanted after all. He is kind, he listens to her, he doesn’t patronize her.
In a different film, this would be the big conflict. Two women in love with the same man, who will he choose? But this film is smarter than that. Neetu isn’t really “in love”, her objections from the beginning are still there. She wants Sumanth, but only so long as he pleases her. As soon as he fails to appear at their randavoo (no idea how to spell that), she retreats to the safety of her nice rich fiance and the life he has promised her. And that’s okay. She’s not a terrible person, no one is really angry with her for being that way, it is just who she is. While Kamalinee would be worried that something had happened to Sumanth, Neetu is ready to blame him for being late and spoiling her plans.
And the twist is that, despite all Kamalinee’s angst and pushing, it was Sumanth who made the final decision. Kamalinee allowed the note to be lost, leaving Neetu to wait and wait without knowing where to go. But Sumanth reveals at the end, he wrote a blank not. Expecting exactly what happened, that when plans failed, Neetu would blame him and be angry and happily go back to her fiance. He knew it was what he wanted, what would let him be with Kamalinee, and even what was best for Neetu, to be able to marry without any lingering doubts.
It’s just the nicest movie! A strong independent stubborn heroine who is also kind and gracious and practical, and a gentle sensitive hero who is also good in a fight (of course there is a fight scene), surrounded by real feeling people who have their own hopes and dreams and small imperfections.