Saavn recommended the soundtrack for this movie, which is how I heard about it. Saavn knows me very very well, in fact counting smashhits (the pre-Saavn Saavn), Saavn has known me longer than anyone else in my life besides my family. Sheesh that’s scary! Either I am overly dependent on my Indian music streaming sources, or I am underly dependent on friends and tend to let them go after ten years.
Anyway, following the advice of my good-friend-since-sophomore-year-of-college Saavn, I hunted around a found a copy of this film. Because it has Nivin Pauly and Jayasurya and is directed by Shyamaprasad, and fall is my favorite season. Good news is, fall looks really really beautiful in this! If you want an orgy of fall, I recommend this movie, Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, and Dhoom 3. Dhoom 3 being my favorite, because it is Chicago in fall.
Bad news is, it’s not a perfect movie. It has a lot of similar themes to Ivide, but Ivide did them a lot better. And had, kind of, a point to it. I’m okay with a lot of Malayalam “the mood is the point, let’s all just sit around and have snatches of dialogue in the sunshine” film styles, but this is extreme. Or not extreme enough? It feels like there is supposed to be a point, some sort of grand “we are all connected” message, and it just doesn’t happen. The movie kind of drifts away without being complete.
Which could be the point, all of these disconnected travelers in London, struggling to learn to live life in a different language (thus the title), and their stories are left unfinished, their lives unresolved. But if that is the idea, then Ritu did it better. And if there is supposed to be a conclusion, a making peace with this new place and your new self, then Ivide did it better.
But I do appreciate the effort to honestly investigate what it is like to be part of this immigrant community. In all its flavors and hidden challenges. From the young man who aggressively rejects his identity until it pops up and surprises him in an unexpected way, to the illegal immigrant who is proud of what he was back home and a little broken now that he is here, to the housewife who has never quite made her peace with her new home, to the middle-aged man who feels like his family is growing away from him.
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This film follows 4 seemingly unrelated characters, but it doesn’t feel like a hyperlink film so much as 4 separate short films with a related theme (being a Malayali migrant in London) that are all cut together. It reminded me of Lust Stories more than Udta Punjab, there was no one moment when a greater conflict pulled them together. Which was kind of the point, the disconnect from the greater community, no real ability to reach out and connect, the blindness to everyone else’s inner life.
I’ll start with Nivin because I love him. Not in this, just in general. He is a Malayali by birth, but was raised in England. He speaks English without an accent and Malayali poorly (at least, so the dialogue tells me). He also spends most of his time in the British world, not the Malayali one. He lives alone in an apartment, works at a fancy office, is introduced having just spent a casual one night stand with a white woman, followed by flirting with another woman at the office.
His one close Malayali friend is Sinu Pillai, another young professional type who has just gotten married and brought his wife from Kerala to London. He is eager to introduce her to Nivin and to let Nivin take the lead in planning fun outings for them, just as he always (seemingly) took the lead in their lives as single men. Nivin is happy to do this, immediately starts suggesting plans for the 3 of them and they all enjoy spending time together, Remya Nambeesan as the wife seems eager and happy to get to know her new London world, but maybe also a little lonely. Eventually, Nivin falls in love with her. He doesn’t say anything, just steals a barrette that smells like her hair, and silently listens to an argument when she discovers Sinu married her partly for dowry and kept it from her. Sinu has to travel for business and trustingly asks Nivin to entertain and take care of Remya while he is gone. Nivin takes her to lunch where she half-seriously tries to get him interested in photos on her laptop of potential brides, but Nivin is drawn only to photos of her. He almost admits his feelings, but stops himself, leaves her at her apartment, where she goes in and hesitates as well, indicating that she can sense him on the other side of the door and maybe feels the same way. And the Nivin talks to Nadhiya in the elevator, and it makes him think about this impossible situation, he throws away the barrette on the way home indicating that he has decided to kill his feelings.
Next, Jayasurya! Because I love him next best after Nivin. Jayasurya is a sweet man who can barely speak English. He works as a waiter and cook at a Malayalam restaurant, and lives above it with his friend and fellow waiter/cook. He is in England illegally and terrified of being caught. Back home, he was a trained Kathakali dancer who could make a good living performing for tourists. He came to London to make money and impress the father of the girl he loves back home, but he is miserable. His boss at a party cheerfully suggests he dress up as a Kathakali dancer for their Christmas party, along with a Santa Claus. Jayasurya is furious and quits, insulted that the profession he trained for is being treated as a joke rather than art. He finds a job working outside at a gas station and a little room to share with other immigrants, and is mugged one night on the way home. He is found at the gas station by his old friend and coworker who insists on taking him back to the restaurant, says that the owner has forgiven him. Jayasurya returns to this marginally better life, only to be called on to serve Nivin and Remya, who he recognizes as his sweetheart from back home and realizes, while he was suffering for her in London, she had moved on and married some wealthier man and was now a patron at the restaurant where he worked. Jayasurya’s mind snaps, he rushes home, dresses in his Kathakali costume because Remya used to like him in that, and wonders the streets of London, finally dancing alone on a rooftop, a beautiful image that ends the movie.
Now Nadhiya! Because I love her 3rd best of the cast. She is an upper middle class housewife to a successful doctor with two daughters. But she never leaves the house, her life is about taking care of it, cooking, her best friend visiting, and waiting for the next trip home. She sprains her leg, and to help her out around the house her husband Murali Menon hires a Bangladeshi woman to help clean. At the same time, Nadhiya finds a box of condoms in her husband’s clothes. And he announces he will be taking overtime, to help pay for the household help, and staying in central London 3 nights a week. She is suspicious and, with the support of her friend and the free time the household help gives her, she goes into central London to follow Murali around. After several failed attempts, she tells her friend that she still doesn’t know what he is doing, but whatever it is, she is sure she can survive it now. The greatest gift was just getting out of the house, knowing she could go out in the world and do things. Finally, she follows him to his apartment knocks on the door. To discover he is there with another man. He closes the door, and she leaves, to bump into Nivin in the elevator and ask him what he would do if his life fell apart (or something like that). Nivin doesn’t give her an answer, but just asking the question seems to free her and she walks away by herself.
And finally, Mukesh! Who I don’t dislike, I just like the other 3 actors better. In this particular film, I think his story is the clearest and best. He is a shopkeeper, and firmly embedded in London. He lives with his wife who seems to be a healthcare worker, not a nurse but maybe a nursing assistant or something like that. They have one child, a teenage daughter Verada Sethu that Mukesh feels increasingly alienated from and suspects is dating a Black British boy. And Mukesh has a younger brother with a younger wife and a young son. He also has a better job, working for a tech firm, and is always too busy to help out with Mukesh’s ailing asthma ridden mother. His mother gets sicker and sicker and finally is brought to the same hospital where Murali Menon works and he becomes her doctor. The doctor finally gives them a choice of removing the ventilator and seeing if she will breath on her own, or a tracheotomy. Mukesh’s brother opts out of the decision, leaving him alone to make it. He decides on removing the ventilator and goes home to bath, unable to be there. He comes out of the shower to find his daughter waiting to tell him, they took the ventilator out and her eyes opened, she is breathing on her own again. Mukesh breaks down crying and his daughter holds him. Meanwhile, at the hospital, his mother looks through her window and sees Jayasurya dancing Kathakali on the roof.
So, it’s your basic immigrant themes. Class for one. Jayasurya and Remya back home were sweethearts and lived next door to each other. And then she went to school for engineering and he trained in Kathakali. Back home, he was making more money while she was unemployed. But in London, she is able to marry an office worker (or doctor? not clear) and move easily through the world, while he is stuck doing kitchen work.
And there’s Mukesh’s hardworking shopkeeper and his extended family. He doesn’t have the luxury of keeping them isolated from the larger world as Murali does, his wife has to work, his daughter has to go to public school, everyone has to pitch in and work at the shop. Except for his brother, who by virtue of being born just a few years later was able to start from a slightly better place and move up and out of their world, and now resents the ties that pull him back.
Class is, ultimately, about choice. Nivin has choices, he can date a string of white women, spend his weekends with his friend and Remya, live where he wants, work where he wants, have all of life before him and all of the city before him. But ultimately he will run into something he can’t have, Remya. It’s a reminder that he is an immigrant after all. He wants and will love a girl from back home. But he can’t have her, because he needs the friendship with her husband more, that one person he can talk Malayali too, who bridges the gap between Kerala and London.
Jayasurya has no choices. That is what drives him mad, in the end. He can’t even quit his job, it just leads to an even worse life of scrounging in the cold, being attacked at night, sharing a room with strangers. He had in his head that all of this terrible life with no freedom on London was so he could go home and be “rewarded” by marrying Remya. Only to learn that he had no choice in that either, in Kerala or in London he is equally powerless.
Class is also about gender, or rather, intersects with gender in interesting ways. The working class woman longs for the luxury of not having to work, and her husband/father longs for the luxury of keeping her away from the world. While the wealthy class woman is terrified of the world, so fearful as to be incapable, her own misery and loneliness constantly magnified. Jayasurya has no women in his life, his state is so low that even working class women cannot touch it. But Mukesh is surrounded by strong women. His wife, who helps him take care of the family through her income and her intelligence. His mother, who he reveres for how she went out and worked to support them when he was young. And his daughter.
It is Mukesh’s daughter, Verada Sethu, who I find most fascinating. The casting alone is interesting, she is an actual British actress, born in Kerala but brought up in England. They knew that for that character, it had to be someone authentically British, and she feels that way, feels different from the others in her look and her attitude. Mukesh finds her puzzling and terrifying, he is afraid of her disrespect towards him, her hiding in her room with a cell phone sending texts, her going off to places without asking permission, her strength. But late in the film a group of British young men come into his store and start messing around with the merchandise. Mukesh weakly tries to warn them off, threatening police, and the Verada comes up behind him with a metal pipe, and raises it up and orders them out, or she will beat them up. And then once they are gone, silently goes back and sets the pipe behind the counter.
(Here she is in Now You See Me 2. Is that Harry Potter with her?)
The storyline isn’t explained perfectly (because the film didn’t give it enough time), but I think it is supposed to be a story of Mukesh fearing his British daughter, and eventually coming to understand and appreciate her for who she is. She will never be the innocent young woman he wants her to be, the one she might have been in Kerala or even if she had been raised in a wealthier household in England that could afford to keep her out of the world, but she is strong and brave and better able to weather the changes of this world they live in than Mukesh is. He always saw and appreciated the strength in his mother, but it took him a long time to see the strength in his daughter.
Nadhiya is on the other end of the class level and is the opposite of Verada. While Verada is so strong it frightens her father, Nadhiya has become so weak it frightens her husband, especially when she tries to make their daughters the same way. Nadhiya is afraid to leave the house, to acknowledge the larger world around them in any way. She is afraid her daughters will be corrupted, warns them not to do this and that. She sees Verada outside her gate with her boyfriend and reacts in horror and terror, fearing that her daughters might end up the same way. She is afraid to even hire a household helper, insisting on doing everything herself. It is handled lightly, she wears western style clothing and lives in a large comfortable western style home, but if you read between the lines of her dialogue, it is clear she is afraid of the world, because she has had the luxury of staying out of it. There is no driving need for her to leave her house, not like Mukesh’s family who must work. And there is no driving desire either, not like Remya who is eager to learn about her new home. It is only when she fears her husband is cheating that she brings herself to leave the house. And discovers that the world is not as impossible as she feared, she can survive it.
And that’s where we end, with simple survival. Nivin will move on, hide his heartbreak and find a way through this first major difficulty of his life. Nadhiya, she may not have made a decision yet, but at least she knows she has choices, she can decide if she will stay in this marriage and this life or go. Mukesh, his mother survives and so does his family, his wife and daughter are there for him. And Jayasurya, poor Jayasurya, he survives too in his own way, bringing a part of Kerala to London in his dance, no longer scared and unhappy and hiding himself, but bravely triumphant and strong in who he is, at least for this last little moment.
All of these stories have only the vaguest connection to each other, but that’s also what life in a city is like. They are all Malayali, not a very large community, but while you may go to the same restaurants or work in the same offices, you don’t necessarily truly know each other. Mukesh is in his little shop, Jayasurya is in the restaurant kitchen, Nivin is in his fancy office, Nidhiya is in her kitchen at home, they are all trapped inside bubbles of a world, little ships afloat a sea of “others”, unable to see the other ships like them traveling through the same world.