This was one of my first Malayalam movies, back when I was young and foolish and watching anything where Nivin looked cute on the poster. But now it is on Netflix, available for a whole new audience, so I thought I should circle back, being old and wise as I am now, and see if I had any new insights. (here is the old review for comparison). And also because I am still stumped by 2 questions about this film and I am hoping some of you can help me.
The first time I watched this, I was dealing with a deep hatred for Amala Paul based on Oru Indian Pranayakadha, where she was pretty unremarkable. So I was resisting her in this movie for quite a while. But now I have seen her in a bunch of other stuff and discovered that she is a good actress. Not good enough to elevate blah material, but good enough to make the most of good material when it is given to her. And this is definitely good material.
(Poster sold it as mostly Nivin, don’t be fooled, it is Amala’s movie and he is a supporting player at best. Although he is a really cute awesome supporting player)
At least, it is good material for Amala, and for Nivin. But the rest of the narrative is a bit fuzzy. I thought on a second watch, I would be able to understand all the complications and obstacles. Nope! Still a total mystery! Completely confused. The writers understood their main characters, and knew where they wanted to go by the end, but the first half is a confusing mess as they try to get to where they will be on firm ground.
It’s an odd movie, because that first half is such a disaster in terms of story clarity that I can’t really recommend it. But then what they do with Amala’s character is so remarkable and unique that I feel like I should recommend it. Maybe I recommend it but suggest that you skip the first hour? Or don’t pay that much attention to it?
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Amala’s character backstory and journey is perfect, there is just this bit at the beginning that is way too confusing. She was a shy little girl who never did well in school and felt embarrassed to tell her school teacher father. Her mother gave her unconditional love and support, but died when she was young making her retreat further and further into herself. She didn’t do well enough in school to go on to more studies, but also didn’t seem able to fully stand on her own two feet enough to make marriage a reasonable option, so her father talked it over with the aunt who helped raise her, and they decided to send her to live in a hostel in the city and have a job for a while, with the support of an adopted “big sister”, one of her father’s former students.
She struggles in the city, unable to relate to her hostel roommates, shy with everyone, leaning too much on her big sister, only opening up with the little kids at the daycare where she works, or her big sister’s elderly mother. She starts to make friends with her roommates when they need her help hiding something from the hostel. But then the misbehavior is found out, her father is called, the other girls leave the hostel, and she is moved to an old lonely back room. And she is fired. Luckily, her big sister’s brother is Nivin Pauly, a life coach type person who notices Amala and notices that something is really wrong with her. He encourages his sister to be more patient, to give her more responsibility and less sympathy. Amala still struggles, but then finds an old trashcan in her room, in the shape of a teddy bear with a wobbly nodding head, and it gives her the support she needs, constant encouraging head nods. Slowly she comes out of her shell, with Nivin’s encouragement she moves out of the hostel into a shared house with roommates who become her friends, and with her big sister’s encouragement, she starts her own day care center. There are obstacles, especially with her day care center and clients being unwilling to trust her, but she manages to overcome them all. It ends with her triumphant and smiling at a concert she organized for her day care children, giving a speech about how important it is to encourage your child and make them feel safe and loved.
This is a great character journey! Nothing is really “wrong” with Amala, which is why she is so frustrating to deal with for the people around her. She is just so miserable and odd and shy that it makes you feel miserable when you are with her. Everyone is tired of her complaining and blaming others for her problems and just generally being unhappy about everything. But it is easier for them to give her a quick fix, or ignore her, than to really listen to what is wrong and try to help. Even the audience is pulled into that, we want to reach through the screen and shake her, convince her to do the reasonable obvious thing that we can see, instead of taking the harder path she is on.
Her triumph is a different kind of triumph, not winning the big race or defeating the bad guys, not even one big triumphal moment of fighting her inner demons, but incremental change as she slowly finds things she is good at and gains confidence in herself. And there is no big reveal of the issues that drove her to this or anything, it is just finding a way to cope in the world. It’s cognitive therapy, not talk therapy. And we almost never get to see cognitive therapy in films because it is so much less cinematic.
Cognitive therapy doesn’t give you that dramatic flashback, or the big sobbing breakthrough moment. Instead it just gives you tools for coping, to try to survive in the world when it all seems overwhelming. A “quick fix”, but sometimes that is all you need. Something to keep you going just long enough so that you can solve your own problems without needing a talk therapist to help you. Or long enough so that you have the energy to continue your talk therapy until a breakthrough that really solves everything.
Because Nivin is a cognitive therapist not a talk therapist, they have a different kind of relationship with each other. He isn’t gaining her trust and hearing her deepest darkest secrets. He is giving her basic simple advice, and giving similar advice to those around her on how to treat her, and it helps. She likes him for him, not because he is creating an emotional bond as part of therapy. And he likes her for her, not because he is fascinated by unpacking her psyche. They aren’t even spending that much time together, Amala is doing most of her work herself, we only see a few moments of her with Nivin, him noticing the cut lines on her wrists, asking a few probing questions about why she is avoiding her father’s phone calls, and beyond that simply agreeing that her day care idea is a good one, suggesting she move out of the hostel and into a group house, and giving her a few books to read.
And because Amala is the kind of sick that can be treated with cognitive therapy rather than talk therapy, she is a different kind of character than we usually see. She doesn’t have a hidden secret pain that will change her immediately once it is revealed. Instead, she has a daily inability to function in the world, which has lead to her depression. Or her depression has lead to her inability to function in the world. Ultimately, for this character in this movie, it doesn’t matter which came first. The cure for her depression is for her to feel cared about and seen, she needs friends and a job. And to get that, she has to “fake it till she makes it”, learn how to interact with people in the world, force herself past her insecurities, until eventually she gains what she needs and those insecurities go away.
All of this is great and fascinating and different, and even leaves the door open for a Nivin-Amala romance in a way that traditional therapy never would. But what is terrible is the first few steps to get Amala to where the plot needed her to be. She had to hit rock bottom, to try to change her life the wrong way before she finds the right way. Which means her roommates have to befriend her falsely and betray her, and she has to lose her job. The job part is easy, a parent complains and Amala isn’t able to defend herself because of her lack of self-confidence and accepts the dismissal. But the roommate false friendship is CONFUSING!!!!! There’s something about a couple that elopes? And maybe someone staying in their room secretly who shouldn’t be there? Amala goes along with it because she is so starved for human companionship, she will agree to anything. And then once the truth comes out, everyone turns on her. The actual plot details make no sense and are not presented clearly, but at least the emotional journey works, Amala is desperate for friends, thinks she has found them, and then is even more despairing when she loses them. And it nicely comes full circle when she meets one of them again later, and offers to help her sincerely, not out of desperation for friendship but because it is just a nice thing to do.
On top of this, there is something odd about a boy Amala has a crush on who likes her roommate better and then betrays the roommate? And then way at the end of the movie after we have all forgotten about that storyline, she meets him again at a club with her friends and stands up to him? Feels like they ran out of time to do as much with that story as they wanted to, something about Amala’s low-self esteem making her unable to flirt the way she wants which makes the boy she likes not like her, which starts her final cycle of despair, and her final triumph is therefore realizing it was never him she needed or wanted, he was just a symptom of her miserable life, and now that she is happy, he is nothing to her. But not just the plot details are lost there, even the emotional journey makes no sense.
All of that though, that is all in the first hour of the film. Once Amala starts climbing up, that is where the film finds its voice and purpose. Nivin helps her, she helps herself, and she proves that sometimes all you need to get out of the hole you have dug yourself is not a rescuer, or a magical change, but just a few tools handed down to help you save yourself.
Now, the real reason I am writing this review! Please say you have watched this movie and can help me with 2 questions:
- What the heck was supposed to have happened between Mili and her hostel roommates that made them get in trouble?
- Is there a romance between Mili and Nivin teased at us, or is it a romance between Nivin and the young woman he introduces Mili to who becomes her first real friend?