I finally found a way to watch this with subtitles!!!!! YuppTV, which I still don’t fully understand, had it. And it was, indeed, very much worth watching. Mostly for Nani. Who was not our protagonist and therefore had the best part. Because the most interesting role always goes to the character actors.
Sanjeev Kumar back in the 1970s was famous for taking any role that was offered if it interested him. While other big name actors might worry about their status and their fans and their reputation, Sanjeev would play villains or old men or sometimes fathers of his contemporaries (or in Trishul, all three!). Sanjeev found his own dedicated group of fans, and he found the everlasting respect of his co-actors. He never found the all powerful all important position in the industry that other stars did, but maybe he found something even better.
That’s what I was thinking of watching Nani in this film. I’d already liked him for taking the thankless first half role in Eega/Makhi, for being charming in Ninnu Kori, and for really every other movie I have seen him in. Always relaxed, always interesting, always willing to serve the plot rather than try to make the plot serve him. And in this movie, it goes to the extremes. For most of the film, he is seen out of the corner of the audiences eye, through the way other people seen him. He is off center, not targeted by the plot, just along the sides, serving the stories of the other characters. And since he is serving their stories, he gets to be something a little different to each of them. It’s a great performance, and also a very selfless performance, making everyone else into the star while he disappears and is just the utility player, whatever is needed scene by scene.
Because the real stars are the two women, Surbhi and especially Niveda Thomas. Super satisfying that Niveda, who was previously shown as the LITERALLY LOCKED IN HER ROOM TO DIE FOR TALKING TO A BOY teenage daughter in Veruthe Oru Bharya, gets to turn into Awesome Action Heroine in this. She beats up her uncle, picks her own boyfriend, and goes undercover and has secret missions and is just generally AWESOME. Surbhi isn’t bad either, taking control of her own romance when her father tries to arrange it, being a loyal friend to Niveda no matter what, and eventually surviving all the things everyone thought she was too “fragile” to handle.
Oh, and also the plot is the star. Director/writer Mohan Krishna Indraganti worked on his first script for 3 years, it was so intricate that people thought it was unfilmable. And then he went on to Ashta Chamma, a somehow even more intricate version of the famously intricate classic play The Importance of Being Earnest. This plot is brilliant, because it doesn’t actually exist. The whole film is just slight of hand, everything that actually matters happens off screen. But it is put together in such a way you keep watching and don’t notice. And at the end, when the illusions are swept away, you admire the intricacy so much that you don’t care about the way it all managed to keep everything that really mattered offscreen.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
We start with the two heroines. They are sitting next to each other on a flight in first class and Surbhi, being a friendly nice person strikes up a conversation. Niveda, being cool and nice too, responds to her. And they naturally start talking about their love affairs. It sounds regressive when I write it out, like women only care about boys, but that’s not how it plays. Surbhi is in love and excited and she wants to tell the world about it, so she asks Niveda if she is in love too. Surbhi is engaged (socially accepted love) and Niveda only has a boyfriend (automatically rebellious love) but Surbhi is super excited for her and Niveda is super excited too. They are just natural instant friends who are happy that the other is happy, however it happened, no judgements.
Niveda tells her story first. It’s pretty, but it isn’t perfect and clean and nice. She meets him outside a wedding, he follows her in, and then he shows up at her house just in time to see her having a big fight with her uncle who is in love with her and doesn’t want her to move out. Nani 1 fights with her uncle and helps her leave. He shows up at her office and bothers her and flirts and is cute. They fall in love, she goes over to his house and meets his Mom, they are happy. It’s not an arranged relationship, and it also isn’t a relationship that is as “filmi” as Surbhi calls it later. They aren’t total rebels, his mother gives them her blessing. And they aren’t running off together, because there is nothing to run from, they are both already adults living their lives. And she isn’t a perfect damsel in distress, she is running from her uncle and a messy home life and perfectly capable of saving herself, while still being grateful to have his help. And finally, while they are in love, they are NOT engaged. They probably will be someday, but they are building a relationship outside of those simple social definitions. Oh, and he is Hindu and she is Christian.
And then there’s Surbhi’s story. Which is also not perfect, but is closer to it. She is engaged to a brilliant honest young entrepreneur, daughter of a family with it’s own big company and tradition and so on. Her father and her father’s protegee approach Nani 2 on her behalf, and then she surprises him at his office for their first meeting, declaring that she is spoiled and selfish and he should stay away. He says he doesn’t believe it, and then she makes a suggestion, they go off for 2 days in the mountains, just themselves, and really get to know each other before the engagement is official. He will convince his family, she will convince hers.
Ugh, written out like that it sounds like some shallow rich girl flirting type thing. It doesn’t come off like that at all, she is open faced and nice and sincere about it, it’s clear that she really wants to get to know Nani 2, and that she is presenting herself in the worst possible way because she wants to be fair. This is a nice good rich girl trying sincerely to make a go of the engagement her family has arranged for her.
And so they go on the 2 days in the mountains, and they fall in love. Through shared adversity, swearing to put away their bags and money for 2 days and survive on their own. Which they do, through scamming for food and sharing bus seats and trying mushrooms in the woods, and finally him buying her the cheap ring she saw at the roadside stall for their engagement, and admitting they love each other. It’s sweet and happy and perfect, not like Nevida’s messy complicated romance. It’s also very innocent, they spend 2 days together but there is never a suggestion that they will so much as kiss, that’s not who they are.
The two woman leave the plane together, fast friends. Niveda can appreciate Surbhi’s sweet romance and be happy for her, Surbhi can filter through Niveda’s darker romance and declare it “filmi”! And waiting for them outside is Nani 2, Surbhi’s perfect fiance. Niveda is stunned when she first sees him but then, as he fails to recognize her, brushes past it. Instead she rushes to see her own Nani 1, only to discover as she enters the house that he is dead, his mother breaks the news to her, he died in a car accident while she was overseas for her training course that she just returned from.
What I really love is that your first thought with a plot like this, as an audience member, is “there must be one Nani pretending to be 2!” But the film has predicted this and already shown us that it can’t be true. We see Nani 1 with his mother, he has a whole backstory, he can’t just be made up. But then, Nani 2 can’t either, we see him with his father, and winning an award, outside verification that he exists beyond his relationship with Surbhi. So, like Niveda, we decide there must be two of them. A coincidence, which becomes more sinister when Nani 2 appears to be connected to the death of Nani 1.
Niveda is approached by a reporter, also a woman. One of those roles that in most films I would think “now, why does this have to be played by yet another man? There’s no reason for it!”, only in this movie, they KNEW there wasn’t a reason for it and it is played by a woman! Yaaaay! The reporter is investigating Nani 1’s death, she tells Niveda that there is a connection to Nani 2, brochures for his project were found in Nani 1’s room and Nani 2’s uncle and business partner died the same day Nani 2 did. There’s some bigger plot and Niveda has to discover it.
Niveda volunteers to go undercover, very easy since Surbhi is so nice and immediately sympathetic and offers to help her get a job with Nani 2 to help forget her poor dead boyfriend. Surbhi welcomes her into the engagement celebrations, makes her part of the family, is just generally wonderful. And Niveda plans to repay that friendship by saving her from Nani 2 and avenging Nani 1’s death at the same time. She gets a job at the company, listens in on Nani 2 and Surbhi’s father’s protegee Srinivas Avarasala (Ashta Chamma reunion, what-what!) scheme together, flirts with Srinivas, exchanges angry intense glances with Nani 2 who almost seems to know what she is doing, and finally we the audience see the result of all her schemes. Nani 2 confronting Srinivas over some secret they share, and THEN KILLING HIM!!!!! Nani 2 looks super dark now, when Niveda goes to confront him the next day we are terrified for her safety. Clearly Nani 2 is the villain, he killed Nani 1 to cover up something, he tricked Surbhi into falling in love with him, Niveda is going to confront him and destroy him and save the day.
But, NOOOOOO! And this is the final trick of the film. Revealing to us that the real film, the one we should have been watching, was happening just out of sight. Happened during that month that Niveda was away. After she left, Nani 1 saw a photo of Nani 2 in a magazine. He thought it was funny how much they looked alike and planned to use that as an opening to meet with him and ask for funding for his business plan. He went to the hotel, but a drunk Nani 2’s uncle mistook him for Nani 2 and told him that he had stolen all the money from the business, they were in big trouble. Nani 1 doesn’t know what to do, rushes out of the room, to see Nani 2 in the parking lot. He starts to go over to him, when Nani 2 is KIDNAPPED!!! By Niveda’s jealous uncle, thinking he is Nani 1. Nani 1 rushes after Nani 2, wanting to save him from this terrible mistaken identity, but he is too late. Nani 2 is already stabbed when he finds him. Nani 2 understands immediately what happened, explains that they kept saying his name instead of Nani 2’s name. Nani 1 apologizes, feels horrible, wants to take him to the hospital, Nani 2 says it is already too late. And then, in a very nicely written bit, keeps asking the question “what’s your name?” as though the injuries have made him unable to remember. Until finally Nani 1 understands what he has to do and answers “My name is Nani 2”.
This alone is a lovely movie, and a classic movie, Hum Dono to Yeh Raaste Hain Pyar Ke. The feckless young man who takes on the responsibility of the dying lookalike. Nani 1 had a mother, and a girlfriend, but not much else. Nani 2 has a fiancee who (he says) will die if she knows he is gone, and a father in the hospital, a mother, a little sister, and a business about to go bankrupt thanks to his uncle. So Nani 1 decides to kill “himself”. To make atonement for this other man dying in his place by living for him. It’s the perfect plan, he tells his mother the truth and they say their good-byes, he leaves with her blessings on his sacrifice. He disappears into the life of the other man, takes over his business and learns about it, supports his family in the hospital, says his good-byes to his father, everything. And is the dutiful loving fiance to his girlfriend. The only problem is Srinivas, who was there at the death and videotaped the whole thing. He has been threatening Nani 1 while Nani 1 has been gathering evidence on him. Until, finally, he was sure that it was Srinivas all along. He embezzled from the company, his financial mismanagement was about to come out thanks to Nani 2’s familiarizing himself with the company as they prepared for the marriage. He asked his friend, Niveda’s uncle, to kill Nani 2, but Niveda’s uncle thought it was Nani 1. That was the mistake. He killed the right man without intending it. Nani 1 finally has enough and confronts him, kills him, and now it is over. He can marry Surbhi and take the company forward knowing the threat is over.
(Oh Yeh Raaste Hai Pyar Ke! Does anyone remember you exist?)
Only, Niveda messed up his plans. While we, the audience, have been thinking hers was the most important story, in fact she was the problem. Nani 1 was working on his own thing that she couldn’t even see. And through out, he had to keep seeing her everyday, having her bring up all his feelings of his past self. He was ready to give it all up, to truly kill his feelings for her, until she confronted him and it all came out. To be overheard by Surdhi, who does not in fact die of grief, but rather is grateful for his sacrifice. As is her family, accepting him as the generous person he is, willing to set aside his own desires for their happiness.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff here. For one thing, the way Nani 1 becomes Nani 2. It’s not through watching old videos of him and stuff, although there is a reference to digging through his phone to find out more about him, it’s more spiritual than that. A real feeling that, as he died, Nani 2 sent his spirit into Nani 1 somehow. There’s also the friendship between the two very different women, which remains strong through out. And the way that Nani 1 and Niveda’s relationship is almost a secret weapon, because dating relationships are naturally a little secret.
But what is most interesting to me is the reveal that we haven’t been watching the actual movie all along. Nani 1 is the one with the amazing exciting unbelievable story, with the action scenes and investigations and crazy coincidences. But we didn’t watch him, instead we watched Surbhi plan her wedding and Niveda work through her grief and try to investigate, and the two girls talk about their romances on the plan. It’s a really unique structure, I can’t think of another film like that, where the twist isn’t just “you didn’t know this one important thing” but rather “you didn’t know ANYTHING, the whole movie was pointless”. And it also gives us a bit of a message, we shouldn’t forget those girlfriend’s of the hero, they are doing their own thing and that matters and we should watch it.
Like I said, Nani isn’t the protagonist of this film. He is the enemy, the love interest, the surprise ally. And that is a much more interesting series of parts to play. With Niveda in her flashback, he is charming and funny and sometimes has fight scenes. With Surbhi in hers, he is a little shy and serious but with a quiet humor to him. And as Nani 1-being-Nani 2 there is a strange energy with him that at first reads as danger and hidden evil, but then in retrospect is discomfort and misery at the role he is playing. We are never quite sure what is going on in his mind, and that is a very hard role to play. Unlike our heroines, who play the traditional part of the hero, always pure and good and just and easy to predict.
I would say I was reading into that, but the end of the film is Surbhi, winning the same award Nani 2 did. Her whole family ignored her, her father was ready to give his company to either her eventual husband, or the male protege he picked out, and now here she is, running both her company and Nani 2’s, surviving and thriving after his death. She still misses him, but she can keep going, she has her own story.