Okay, spoiler time! I am doing a separate SPOILER review not so much to avoid spoilers (it’s not exactly that kind of movie, the plot is so intricate you can’t spoil it entirely), as because the film is so complex, I needed a moment to deal with just the general themes and structure and ideas (the No SPOILERS post) before I could get into the details of what technically happens.
Whole plot in 3 parts. This film takes place simultaneously in the present day, the past, and a fictionalized version of the past, and each part really has to be dealt with separately:
In the real past, Dileep was a cowardly local homeopathic doctor in a toxic village environment. Murali Gopy is the landlord of a sugar plantation. He brought in (illegally) Tamil workers from Ceylon/Sri Lanka. They live like slaves in rackety cabins near Dileep’s house, Murali rapes the women and beats the men if they don’t work hard enough. And all of this is overlooked by the local colonial authority who is in love with Indian culture, but doesn’t pay attention to what is happening around him, preferring to sit in a Lungi and drink. Dileep plays all these forces against each other, pretending to help the Tamil workers against the abuses of Murali but not really, pretending to be a friend to the British but actually lying and spying on him, and pretending to respect Murali while really just biding his time until he gets the papers for his land back. The one person he sincerely cares about is his sister Divya Prabha. He also loves Namitha Pramod, Murali’s niece, but in a possessive sexual way. It all comes to a head when Siddharth returns to the area, Murali’s son who hates his father and loves his cousin Namitha and vice versa. Siddharth was in the British army and joined the INA after being captured by the Japanese but became disillusioned with all of this, instead thinking that the true solution is to return to India and fight for independence there. In the waning days of WWII, he has made his way home again and set up camp in the hills, planning to kill the local British and free the oppressed Tamil workers and generally do good things. Dileep pretends to help him, telling Namitha that he is delivering messages and trying to save the life of the man she loves, telling Siddharth that he hates the British and wants to fight with him, and at the same time feeding information to the British and Murali. It all comes to a boil (designed by Dileep) on one crazy night. Murali sends his men in to massacre the Tamil workers, the same night that Siddharth is planning to fight and kill the British, in the confusion Dileep kills all those he hates, from the Tamil workers he dislikes just because they are different to Murali who he hates for killing his father and taking their land, all the way to Siddharth for being the one Namitha truly loves. The British officer sees Dileep shoot Siddharth (saving there officer’s life) and arrests him, but later lets him go, and promises to write history in such a way that Dileep will appear to have been a hero rather than a coward. Dileep goes back to Namitha and lies that Siddharth is dead (he was shot but survived) and presumably marries her. His only punishment is to find his sister dead, having hung herself after the man she secretly loved was killed in the massacre. At the very end of the movie, we learn that Siddharth returned, years later, broken by imprisonment, to beg Dileep to let him see Namitha, he no longer cares about freedom or his country or anything else, just needs to see the woman he loves. And Dileep delights in telling him that Namitha is married to him now, and then stabs him and destroys the body in the sugar cane press, hiding his final sin.
In the film within a film, Dileep is made into the hero. In this re-writing of history, the village is full of oppressed workers (not Tamil guest workers, but seemingly regular Malayalam farmers) who are beaten by Shweta Menon (in the “real” story, the long dead wife of Murali) while Murali is a saintly sick man confined to a bed and unable to stop his evil gold wearing wife. Namitha is a simple village girl, no connection to the landlord’s family. Dileep is the local savvier with his gang of noble fighters all dressed in perfect matching outfits based on the recently invented flag of the political party that is funding this movie and carrying handaxes, the symbol of the political party. Dileep is given a mission by Subhash Chandra Bose himself, to save Gandhi’s life. Siddharth and his Punjabi friend are turned into villains, traitors to Bose and the INA who escape punishment and work with the British, intercepting the message to Dileep and using it to pretend to work with him while secretly planning to kill Gandhi and keep the British in control. At the last minute, in a massive action scene on top of a train, Dileep saves Gandhi and kills Siddharth. And then is arrested, only to have his pardon arranged by Nehru himself. But he declares that he wants only to return to his village and live a peaceful life, unless he is ever needed again to save his country.
In the present day, a group of liquor barons has decided to resurrect an old Malayalam political party in order to take control of the state and lift alcohol restrictions. To that end, they track down Old Dileep, a founder of the party who is mentioned in British histories as a famous freedom fighter. They bring with them a director they have hired to make a movie on Old Dileep’s life. Old Dileep asks everyone else to leave the room and promises to tell the director the true story of his life. He does, and the story is disgusting. He was a coward and a liar who was falsely given the name of “freedom fighter” by the British in return for helping them. The director leaves, having heard his story, and takes a massive amount of money from the liquor barons in order to turn that story into a propaganda film for their party. He also invents out of thin air a new flag to symbolize the party. He makes the film, and it is a huge success. The party is reborn, Old Dileep and his son and the liquor barons all run for office and win. And then Old Dileep surprises them all by announcing that he himself will take charge as Chief Minister of the state. In the end, the director comes to meet with him, Dileep tells him the end of his story, and then tells him that none of it really matters, now that he is in the Chief Minister’s chair, he can erase his past and do what he likes with the state.
So, you see why I said this was a deeply deeply cynical film. It’s also a brilliant film. And a useful film (in an extremely depressing way).
(The poster gives us 3 characters, Real Dileep, Old Dileep, and Filmi Dileep)
When I started college and began to take college level history courses, I realized that everything I had been taught in history classes up to that time was a lie. Because it kind of has to be a lie, before you are 18 years old, you aren’t ready mentally or emotionally to face the realities of history. History is ugly and disturbing and complex. There are moments of great beauty within it, but they are only beautiful in contrast to the hideousness that surrounds them. And there are no easy answers, and no clear answers.
History-on-film is not like that. It is a story, it gives us good guys and bad guys, right and wrong, the triumph of the happy ending. In Indian film in particular, it’s not just an artistic decision to give us the easy answer, it’s often directly political. And it is often being spoonfed to an audience that has no other concept of history, no awareness that this is clearly fake.
I see this all the time in my travels across The Internet. Things as small as debates over the Nanavati murder case in which people confidently state as “fact” elements that were invented for the film versions. There is a human desire for the easy answer, which film provides, and the Indian political powers are happy to train the people to be satisfied with that easy answer instead of looking further. This came up again and again with the Padmavat controversies, the desire of the Indian public to believe that there was a historical “truth” which could be broken down into a simple fairy story of good and bad instead of the reality that history is always in shades of grey.
(This is a person who may or may not have existed, and that’s okay, that’s what history often is, living in the uncertainty)
This movie shows “real” history versus fake. And it also shows you how you can, in any situation, use your judgement to determine one from the other. “Real” history is driven by human emotions, it is messy, it has no easy answers, and, most of all, it comes from direct sources that can be questioned and placed in context. Old Dileep is telling this story, and he prefaces it by saying that he had a vision which told him to tell only the pure truth. He also is telling a story to someone he has no reason to lie to, alone in a room without friends or family around as he lays dying. And he is telling a story that makes himself look very bad. And he is telling his own life story, specific small events that he was present for. All of these are indications that you can rely on this source, a direct eye witness account with minimal reasons to lie to the interviewer.
And “real” history includes things that may challenge you and make you uncomfortable even today. One small thing I noticed, which was all the more brilliant for not being emphasized, was how much lighter skinned and well dressed the workers were in the film version of Dileep’s story versus the real one. In reality, they were Tamilians from Ceylon/Sri Lanka, presumably oppressed by cruel masters there, cut off from the basics of existence such as nice clothes and clean living environments, and visibly different from the Malayalam locals, with kinky hair and darker skin. It was all of this which lead to Dileep’s disgust with them, there was an obvious ethnic/racial hatred component to his motivations. And that was sanded away and removed for the film-within-a-film audience. They were not asked to sympathize with people who looked different from them, they were given the nice cleaned up farm workers instead.
(Thomas Jefferson was a rapist. He just was, that’s a fact. But he was also a brilliant political philosopher who helped create America. That’s also a fact. You have to learn to live with both these things, that’s part of growing up)
Rape was also removed, and misogyny was added in Shweta Menon’s character suddenly becoming evil and “unwomanly”, while her saintly husband was trapped in bed. There was even a small moment implying unwholesome connections between her and her onscreen son Siddharth. The audience was given a simple wealthy female villain to root against, and encouraged to sympathize with the upperclass man, continuing the current power structure instead of questioning it.
Most interesting to me was the ambivalent way the INA was handled. In the film-within-a-film, Bose is a perfect hero, as is Gandhi and Nehru. But the “real” version digs into the complexities of the situation. Yes, Bose was inspiring, and his idea gave hope to the soldiers tired of fighting someone else’s war. But at the same time, we see clearly the inhumanity of the Japanese, that they were no more in the “right” than any other fighting force. And as Siddharth puts it, his ability to fight for the INA was just “alms” given to him by his captors the Japanese. He wanted to fight for himself, not merely trade one side for the other, living on their charity.
And this is presented not as a big political philosophy, but as something he came to on a human level after seeing the horrors of war. The Japanese were about to shoot him as they shot all their other prisoners. When he went back to fight for them, they sent him and his fellow soldiers in to be slaughtered by the British with an impossible idea that the Indian troops on the other side would spontaneously join them. While instead it was simply sending Indians to kill and be killed by fellow Indians on behalf of the Japanese and British. Siddharth was looking for something to believe in, running from his horrible father into the British Army, from the horrors of being a Japanese POW into the INA, and finally from the horrors of the failure of the INA back to India. Where he has become as vicious as those who tortured him, we first see him dragging up, beating, and hanging a man he declares a “traitor” to his new IPL.
(Not going to put up an image to represent the horrors of the Japanese POW camps and other war crimes, instead look at my cute doggie!)
This is the kind of complexity that drives me to history. Yes, Bose had a good original idea in trying to create an Indian army. But also, war is hell, no matter who you are fighting for. And finally, WWII (all over the globe) allowed for the worst of the worst to be the folks left stationed at home, there is a line between Mister Roberts (the American classic about the petty cruel tyrant who runs a Navy ship away from the front lines during WWII) and the terrible British officers and cruel landlord in this small village in Kerala, all of them enjoying a rare moment of power as the more talented and virtuous folks who would normally control them are looking elsewhere. All of these things need to come together before you can fully understand everything in history. And before you can fully understand the two men in this film, Siddharth who is suffering from PTSD and trying to make sense of a senseless life, and Dileep and others back in the village who are so focused on their tiny goals and petty desires that they have no concept of the greater sweep of history. This is what history is made up of, men who are trying to do the “right” thing but aren’t sure what it is, versus men who don’t care about right or wrong but only their own interests.
And the saddest moment of the film, to me, is not the ending when Dileep succeeds thanks to his re-written history and corrupt funding in taking control of the state, but rather the end of the flashback when Siddharth returns. He left claiming that his love for Namitha was less important than his love for the abstract concept of India. He spouted perfect political philosophy while performing violence. But now he has returned and left all that behind him. He learned that these abstract ideas mean nothing, all he wants is a simple honest healthy human connection, the woman he loves. That is what is at the heart of all of this, the simple human need to come together. Dileep turned it into a twisted desire to control those around him, Siddharth tried to reject it entirely, Murali was incapable of a connection, the British officer (sorry, can’t find the actor’s name) removed himself from human connections after the death of his son, and ultimately it lead to their doom. Siddharth has, finally, become the voice of pure virtue and reason. All he wants is to love and be loved. And in that moment of clarity, he is killed.
That’s what I got out of it, the broad strokes of how history has no clear winners and losers, no clear right and wrong, and how it is rewritten into it’s simplest form on the cinema screen and in the minds of the public. But I know there was so much I missed. For instance, there were two moments when Siddharth recites twisted versions of famous Independence sayings, in the “real” story “An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Just” (instead of Gandhi’s “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”), and in the fake one “My Bride is India’s Destruction” (instead of Bhagat Singh’s “My bride is freedom”). Those can’t be the only specific references, I am sure there were other leaders quoted whose quotes I failed to catch. And I am also sure that there is more to the cynicism about Kerala politics. And more to the choice to use Tamil guest workers as the oppressed minority. Heck, I am sure there was more to the names of the characters than I caught!
But even without knowing these small details, I was still able to appreciate this film for the accomplishment it is. A bitter angry diatribe against false history and false heroes, a call for the audience to question what they are told and who by, and a reminder that nothing is as simple as it seems.