Look, I watched an actual good movie! A classic even. It just took all of you listing off the good movies for me on HotStar so I could avoid their gosh awful search function and go directly to what I wanted.
This is a Mohanlal movie from back in 1984, before Spadikam, before all the rest, back when he was just an actor. And he does a really good job being just an actor, just one of many characters in the film. He has a good body and a sweet smile and a clever way of playing a few scenes, but he isn’t the most important person there.
The most important person is Nadhiya Moidu. Who, I am just now realizing, is the same Nadhiya that I fell in love with as Prabhas’ mother in Mirchi. So I guess she has spent her whole career being the surprisingly strong female lead of a film even though you would think her part would come a far second to the hero.
Second to Nadhiya still isn’t Mohanlal, next comes Padmini, former dancing star of Tamil, Telugu, and Hindi films, who married a doctor and retired to New Jersey but returned for this role. It is a role worthy of her, not the usual grandmother. In three levels, there is how she appears, there is how she thinks of herself, and then there is the reality.
Everyone in this film is acting on at least two levels, denying who they really are because it is easier that way. Nadhiya has the greatest denial, but Padmini has the most deeply buried, the one the script and her performance have to tease out very gradually. And Mohanlal is the shallowest, no more interesting or unusual than any teenage boy pretending not to be interested in the girl next door.
That “girl next door” is the most important part, this is a film of a neighborhood, an apartment block, and the community that springs up around it. The warm magical unappreciated by those who live there community. Nadhiya runs away to join it, Padmini refuses to leave it, Mohanlal doesn’t realize how special it is. It’s a little island in the world, with no doubts of fears or future or past, time stands still and stretches out. Which is why Nadhiya is there, that very special quality of a place where time doesn’t matter.
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Padmini is the grumpy old lady of the building. The little kids constantly ring her bell and make fun of her. And she complains about Mohanlal, the young man of the building, playing his music too loudly. Into this clearly defined small world, comes Nadhiya. Young and modern in jeans and a t-shirt, stepping off the bus alone with her bags and boxes and ringing Padmini’s doorbell to announce she is her granddaughter. She befriends the children who bother Padmini, teases Mohanlal, and eventually softens her grandmother’s heart by dressing and acting like her mother used to. But she is hiding a secret that Mohanlal finds out first, she is dying. She has a brain aneurysm, either she gets a surgery that has a slight chance of success and a much higher chance of killing her immediately, or she enjoys the time she has until the aneurysm kills her. Her father wants her to have the surgery, so she runs away to her grandmother’s, the one place she thinks her father will never look. In the end, the truth comes out and her grandmother, after first promising she will never have to leave, goes back on the promise and insists on her leaving. But she rehangs the bell outside her door, keeping faith that Nadhiya will return again.
Like I said, it is a film about denial and seeing the world as we want to see it. Nadhiya says over and over again that she has time, and yet we see that she doesn’t. There is a scene late in the film when Mohanlal takes her for a walk on the beach after he finds out about her diagnosis. He is acting cautious with her, and she laughs and says not to worry, she has time, she won’t die today. And then minutes later she suddenly grows weak and sits down. No matter what she may say, she is dying. She just can’t admit it to herself, let alone anyone else. It is this denial that drove her to her grandmother, to come to a place where no one knows her, where she can escape into a fantasy of life where everything is safe and planned and within the few walls of a house. She is so strong in her denial that it appears like certainty, she tells Mohanlal she will not die, she tells everyone else that she wants to live every minute of every day, she seemingly has herself fully together, has made an informed clear decision to live until she dies. But then, slowly, the denial is peeled away. The audience goes from seeing her as she wants us to see her, a normal happy teenage girl, to seeing her as she wants to see herself, in charge of her own life and making decisions for herself, to seeing her as she really is, a terrified little girl who runs from her problems until she has no where else to run.
(Her last Christmas, even if she can’t admit to herself it is probably her last Christmas)
Mohanlal has the shallowest denial. He is a teenage boy pretending he hates the girl next door instead of having a crush on her. He wants us to see himself as the clever prankster who tricks her and then plays his music loud in triumph. But it only takes his friend from out of town to recognize Nadhiya and tell him the truth about her condition for that facade to go away. He turns into the sweet sensitive caring boy who was there all along inside, he is just letting him out. The only final denial is one we can forgive, pretending that he just feels sorry for her as a person, not that he is a little in love with her.
But then there is Padmini. She has a very complicated series of denials. Her first layer is the grumpy mean old lady that all her neighbors know. And which is how she stays during Nadhiya’s first few days in her house. Until, suddenly, Nadhiya manages to break through and turn her into a loving grandmother again. Which is how Padmini always saw herself inside, the loving good saintly mother and grandmother that hides her soft heart under the stern exterior that everyone else sees. But Padmini doesn’t see that even that vision of the saintly loving mother and grandmother isn’t quite right.
She tells her story, her version of it, to Nadhiya. Her husband died and she poured all her love out on her daughter. And when her daughter fell in love, she let her be married and welcomed her husband into the family, and only asked that the couple keep living with her after marriage. Her son-in-law evilly took her daughter away, breaking both their hearts. Her daughter returned, pregnant, to say she was unhappy in her marriage and wanted to be back with her mother. Padmini helped her give birth and then her husband came back. Padmini begged him to let her keep her granddaughter, but he took her away. And then Padmini’s daughter died, but she kept up hope under her bitter exterior, that someday her granddaughter would come back to her.
It’s a very sad story, but also a story that already sounds a little odd. Padmini paints a picture of mother and daughter, happy alone. But then, why would her daughter want to get married? And asking her daughter and son-in-law to stay her her house, that is not the one small thing she makes it out to be, that is a big big thing!!!! Just like asking to have her baby granddaughter to raise was also a big big thing. And finally, if she really was that perfect giving grandmother, why did she hold off on loving Nadhiya at first? And why did she strangely forbid her from certain things, like taking an excursion boat?
And there is the oddity of Nadhiya seeming perfectly happy and healthy and all those other things that you would expect from someone raised in a loving home by a loving parent. How could her father be the ogre Padmini makes him out as? But on the other hand, if he wasn’t an ogre, then why did he keep Nadhiya from her grandmother for most of her life? And why is Nadhiya running away from him now?
This is the denial at the center of the plot, intersecting with Nadhiya’s illness and her denial. Padmini is the master of denial. She denied that she needed her daughter more than her daughter needed her. She denied that she was keeping her daughter from growing up. She denied that it was wrong to force her daughter and son-in-law to live with her after marriage. She denied that she drove her daughter away. And she buried herself in denial with the idea that her son-in-law was evil and she was the one who deserved to raise her granddaughter. And finally, she denied that she actually HAD turned into that bitter old woman, that she resisted opening herself up to Nadhiya not just because she was afraid of being hurt, but because she had come to enjoy holding on to her bitterness and walls around her, she didn’t want to let that go.
Padmini’s denial intersects with Nadhiya’s, Nadhiya learns that she has a grandmother who wouldn’t let her mother out of the house even after she was married, who tried to keep her granddaughter away from her own father, and immediately knows to run to her when she needs to get away from the realities of the world. This is a woman who will hold on and keep you in a safe little world away from everything that is difficult, that tries to make you grow up a little. That’s what her father was trying to save her from, this woman who would never let her go or let her grow. And that’s what he is still trying to save her from, gently convincing her grandmother to let her go, to finally voluntarily let her child leave and face the dangers of the real world, and have faith she will come back.
And thus the ending. Padmini putting her doorbell back up. This time not out of denial, not out of a crazed belief that her granddaughter will never be happy without her, but out of hope. Hope that her granddaughter will survive the operation and choose to come back to her. She has the stubbornness of mother love that is simultaneously a blessing and a curse to those who receive it.