Monday Malayalam: Salt Mango Tree, Love Children Just For Being Children

This is interesting.  It’s officially the original version of Hindi Medium, but besides the essentially plot concept, there is really nothing in common.  A sign of how very different the different parts of India, and different Indian film industries, see the world.  Oh, and it’s “Monday” Malayalam, but coming on Sunday, because Tuesday is Madhuri day which took precedence over Telugu so everything moved back one.

I still haven’t seen Hindi Medium.  Sorry!  I know it would be a really interesting comparison, but I only know the loose outlines.  Which is still enough to know that calling it a “remake” of this film is a very very big leap.

For one thing, this movie has the classic Malayalam back and forth plotting.  Yes, it is generally about school admissions and all the hoopla around that, focusing particularly on one couple.  But it’s also about a childhood romance resurfacing, and a training school principal, and various other random things.

But what seems most interesting, and unique, about this film is that it manages the difficult trick of refusing to accept the value of the system, while still accepting the value in learning how to game the system.  This is what I was missing from Hichki, the ability to treat the artificial barriers like a game, learn how to jump over them while still not admitting their importance as anything besides points in a game.

Image result for salt mango tree

That’s the most important lesson of the film, don’t bother actually learning anything, just learn an attitude as though you already know it, that’s what matters.  Very “fake it ’til you make it” instead of “memorize a series of meaningless bits of trivia and I guarantee your future success in life”.

Notice I have talked about the themes and place in society and stuff, but not much about the actual details of the film.  Because, frankly, the performances and the details of the script and the songs and even the camerawork, not that impressive!  I appreciate the message, but the delivery method is pretty so-so.  Even the plot takes strange sudden detours that don’t really work and never fully come back together.

The general concept, that is what is original, the hidden little talked about struggle of parents to get their children into a good school and all that entails.  That’s what carried through multiple remakes, that simple idea, and the simple message at the end, that all children are special, all children are equal, all children deserve the best.

 

 

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Biju Menon and Lakshmi Priyaa are a nice middle-class couple with one son.  Lakshmi has an office job and Biju runs a pharmacy.  Lakshmi is determined their son will be accepted to an English Medium school.  She starts by hiring an English tutor, who turns out to be a scoundrel that accepts a large amount for occasionally playing games with their son but mostly talking on her cell phone.  Lakshmi tries to teach their son herself, but it doesn’t go well.  They take a break from the stress by going to visit Lakshmi’s parents where their son loves playing in the fields and talking with his grandfather.  But back in the city, Lakshmi is nervous because Biju isn’t strong in English and the schools will interview the parents along with the children.  The first interview goes terribly, with Biju misunderstanding the question asked him.  And so they try something new, a training course for parents on how to pass the interviews.  At the training course, coincidentally, Biju meets up with his childhood sweetheart, and they flirt a little behind the backs of their spouses.  Finally, it is time for the interviews.  Biju and Lakshmi go and follow all the rules they were advised by the training course, but their son fails in his questions, just babbles about stories his grandfather told him and playing in the fields.  All their friends from the training course have been accepted at schools and they have not.  Lakshmi is angry at the training course, and at her son for not being perfect.  She goes to the school and confronts the principal, and the principal reminds her that nothing is more important than her child’s happiness, all children are wonderful, no matter what test they fail or pass.  And the principal tells her own story, that she pressured her son to do everything perfectly and when he failed, he felt so bad that he tried to kill himself and is now in a handicapped state, and she is happy if he just smiles at her, it taught her to appreciate children no matter what they do.  As she finishes telling this story, Biju arrives, and Lakshmi realizes she has lost their small son.  They run through the building, eventually finding him standing on the edge of the roof.  They rush to grab him, of course he was only looking at the view, and Biju reveals they just got a letter and that he has gotten into the school after all.  HAPPY ENDING

 

 

So, here’s the thing I love.  The training course they take is very clearly focused on flipping the system on its head and showing how empty it is.  It starts by acknowledging that an English education is required now, and they only way to get it is through these gatekeeper schools.  It doesn’t say that English is better, or even that these schools are better, just that is how the world works now.  And the best way to make it work in your favor is learn the secret game of what those schools are looking for.

As someone who has broken out of that game, I know the same thing is true for education everywhere.  I was taught at home from age 9 to 18, no need for a school at all, and at the end of it if I wanted to, I could have gotten into any school in the country for college, I know that.  And if I wanted to, I could get into any school in the country now for a PhD.  But, why?  It only gives you a small advantage, and it doesn’t have much value.  Either in terms of the quality of education received, or later in life advantages thanks to those fancy names.  It’s all a game really, you know how to play it, and you can get in.  I know how to play it because 6 generations of my family went to the best schools in America and I grew up knowing it.  It’s as easy for me as knowing the “right” kind of shoes to buy in a store.  But if I was someone else and didn’t know how to play the came, I couldn’t get in.  Ability, intelligence, it’s all meaningless, everything is just a game with invisible rules that control everything.

That’s what the training course part of this film focuses on.  There are certain behaviors that tell people you “belong”.  The key isn’t in doing all that work in order to actually belong, the key is just learning those behaviors.  This goes for any society.  If you are, for instance, an immigrant coming to America, you don’t have to learn skills in order to belong, you have to learn how to present yourself in American society as though you have those skills.  And so in the training course, they learn little things like always asking a woman’s permission, saying “may I” before they sit down, holding doors and chairs.  Wearing outfits with plain colors.  Speaking in short clear statements while maintaining eye contact.  It’s the kind of stuff you learn subconsciously over a whole life time of being part of the “right” group, but it’s really very easy to mimic if you just have a few simple directions.

And that’s what the parents want for their children, that magical slow subconscious learning, so that they will go out into the world as adults without needing these training courses, without needing to carefully practice and consider their behaviors but just naturally do the right thing.  Not because it is a “better” way to be, but because it is an easier way to be, it is an enchanted key that unlocks a whole world of options.  The important thing is to realize the key only has value because of the value society gives it, and that your children are innately equal no matter where they go to school or what language they speak.

There are all kinds of ways this film hints towards that.  The over priced English tutor who is merely a selfish woman with a fluent grasp of English, no real ability to help a child learn.  The fact that their son enjoys spending time at his grandfather’s farm more than anything else, has a natural talent for remembering Puranic stories, that is a sign of intelligence just as much as knowing English, but a different kind of intelligence.  Being able to spend time playing with his friends outside is as important as staying inside with his incompetent English tutor.  Learning and growing doesn’t take place only inside of a classroom.

But there are also contradictions and blind alleys and bits left out.  We never get a clear idea of why Lakshmi is so determined for him to go to a good school, beyond just a general sense that it is the right thing to do.  We see an elderly couple whose son went to all the best schools and has an overseas job now but never comes home, but that story isn’t clearly tied to anything else.  And we have Biju’s childhood love and flirtation that never really goes anywhere besides being a funny running gag to kill time.  Just, overall outside of that central idea, it doesn’t seem to really know what it is doing.

And the ending is terrible.  The school headmistress out of nowhere having this sick son in a room just outside her office and giving this loooooooooooong speech, but more distressingly, that their son actually does get into one of those schools.  They are rewarded for learning to see through the system by succeeding within it.  I’m not sure what would have been a better ending, maybe something like what Hindi Medium did, voluntarily removing themselves from this rigged system, realizing that even if they have to struggle to get their child admitted, there is a family behind them that is struggling even more, and that child is just as worthy as their child.

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19 thoughts on “Monday Malayalam: Salt Mango Tree, Love Children Just For Being Children

      • It’s a very cheeky reference to an old film of Mohanlal where he fakes being an English teacher. The kids in his class ask him what’s the English word for Upma(breakfast dish)pronounced as ‘uppumaavu’ in Malayalam. He has no idea and breaks up the word into uppu(salt) & maavu(mango tree) & comes up with Salt Mango Tree as the English word for Upma. This film is based on the idea of faking English or elite behaviour-hence the name.

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        • Thank you! That is excellent background information. It also shows how so much of the film is communicated just by its title, at least to its intended audience.

          There is a film of Madhanvan’s whose title is “Nala Damayanthi.” Now, to anyone familiar with puranic stories, that will immediately tell what the story is about. It was remade in Hindi titled “Ramji Londonwalley”, which only communicates one small aspect of the film (and not the most important). The Tamil title was much funnier, I thought, for the context.

          (I am not going to explain the meaning of Nala Damayanthi, as an experiment to see how many people recognize the allusion.)

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          • I will give it a try-story about a mismatched couple where the traditional gender roles are reversed? Man is the cook & the gentler one while woman is the smarter one? I haven’t seen the movie but love the song ‘Enna ithu, enna ithu..’

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          • Not exactly. The hint is in the phrase “puranic stories”, i.e., stories from the Puranas.

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          • i think you are talking about Nala Damayandhi story from Hind Mythology. where nala had a weakness of playing gambling and they were separated 12 years right. so my guess is hero might have some weakness and for some reason they will have to live separately

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        • Thank you! That makes so much sense. Kind of the same as Bol Bachchan, which leaps off of that nonsense speech Amitabh gives in Namak Halal. Although not quite the same.

          On Mon, May 14, 2018 at 1:07 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  1. So you were homeschooled after age 9? So, grade 4 or 5? That’s very interesting. You were the first generation that was just beginning to be accepted by colleges, I think. Now it is no longer such a stigma (former homeschooling mom speaking here). Actually now, in the U.S. at least, there is a movement of sorts (led by various corporate types) to do away with “college” altogether, with the argument that all sorts of instruction is available online nowadays, so people don’t have to go to “college” to acquire knowledge, and save themselves a ton of money. While the saving money part is good, and the learning part is correct, there is still the “recognition” part that comes with an accredited degree. But things are certainly in a flux.

    I haven’t seen either of these films, but I agree that the ending on this seems like a cop out (the same thing I felt about Tare Zameen Par).

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    • Yeah, when we applied, most of the schools had to sort of invent a standard. My Mom would call the admissions department, explain the situation, and then they would get back to her with a seemingly random collection of materials they needed which varied school to school. I think one of them wanted a syllabus, which meant we had to invent a syllabus, and another one wanted a grade point average, so we had to invent that. The big thing of course was recommendation letters, test scores, and essays, that was easy. There were maybe one or two schools that already had a “home school application” department and a standard set of requirements, I imagine that is much more common now. And then once we got into college, none of it mattered, because everyone just looks at your college information and doesn’t care what you did before that. And once I got my first job, college stopped mattering (beyond the bare fact that I graduated), because everyone just looks at your work experience. A lesson in the meaninglessness of all these credentials, you can always just jump into the system at a later point and skip the first steps and no one cares.

      On Mon, May 14, 2018 at 12:20 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. IMO schools don’t serve any particular purpose other than offering an environment for controlled and safe social interaction.Of course they do it by stamping out any semblance of individuality in the children.All that rote learning never does anyone good later on in life.

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  3. My parents both studied in a Malayalam medium school in a poor rural part in Kerala. My mom was able to pass her 10th class examination in flying colors and go to nursing school in Mumbai, in which, we are in the USA, while my dad dropped out and went to Dubai. When my parents were school age, there were very few English medium schools, so when my parents had me, English medium schools were on the high rise.
    Saying that your child goes to English medium schools meant a high social regard as well as success that one could send their child to english medium when they themselves went to malayalam medium.
    My mom would say that it was so hard for her to get admission for me at a good english medium due to my parents education; nursing isnt as respected in india and my dad was drop out, so i was pushed to the back of the enrollment and got in via lottery.
    I didnt like the ending either, a lot of at the moment connections but if it was like hindi medium, it would have been such a nice message to say screw western influence and send your child to malayalam medium, because there are so many government run schools being closed due to this mindset.

    I dont know how to read or write malayalam and it is such a shortcoming. Preety soon the whole of kerala will be westernized and malayalam speaking will cease to exist as many parents look down upon teaching their child malayalam.

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    • I hadn’t thought about the issue of writing. At least with languages that share a text with English, if you can speak it then you can read it. But the Indian languages don’t use the Roman alphabet (part of the reason for my constant spelling troubles, the way spelling varies in the Roman version of words), you would need to make an effort to be able to read and write even if you can speak it.

      I understand a parents’ desire to open doors for their child and give them the best, but it seems like there might be other options. Especially with language, which is so easy to pick up outside of schools in different ways.

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