Interesting movie. Some of it I liked, some of it I didn’t, but most of all it had a middle aged working woman heroine going up against a young single guy antagonist! Very odd combination, very satisfying.
I’ve been watching a lot of kind of weak movies that skated by on warm feelings for their aging stars. This is one of the better films of that type, a good movie with interesting characters and little moments and all of that, but what makes it really unusual is that the aging star we have warm feelings for is a woman!!!!! Revathy is 100% the lead of the movie, more than that, is 100% the whole movie! Prithviraj shows up eventually, but he doesn’t have nearly as much to do. It’s Revathy’s show all along.
I didn’t realize that I had already seen other movies by the same director, Ranjith Sankar, most recently Ramente Edenthottam. If you had asked me cold to identify the director of this, or at least other films by him, I would have been stumped. But looking at them as a group, I can see it.
Ranjith does a good job of showing characters who have learned, or are learning, not to care about the greater society if they feel like they are doing the right thing. Not gangsters or political enforcers, not that kind of right thing. Not even saintly doctors, or inspiring teachers. Just people doing what they are doing as it comes in front of them, without thinking about anything else besides what is exactly in front of them. Jayasurya in Punyalan Agarbattis had no shame in picking up elephant droppings and carrying them on his bike, because that was what made sense for him at the moment. And Revathy here has no shame in talking back and talking loud about what she believes, even though she is a middle-aged woman, because that is what makes sense to her in the moment. And often the villains are the ones who serve to represent that higher society, school teachers in Su…Su…Sudhi Vathmeekam, the temple committees in Punyalan Agarbattis, and in this film, the tax authorities.
What makes this film a little extra different is that our “hero” is a middle-aged difficult cheerfully determined woman, and the tax authority villain is the educated dedicated handsome young man that would be the hero in another film.
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We come at Revathy sideways, through how other people see her. Starting with her mother-in-law and family. For them she is the odd one, the one their son married and they can’t understand why, the one who has mysteriously landed back in their lives after years living overseas. And then it’s a bit of a surprise to see her arrive, this somewhat dowdy and flustered middle-aged woman.
I had to keep reminding myself not that this was the same Revathy as from her younger films, but that this was the same Revathy as 2 States in the same era. In that film, a calm demeanor, beautiful saris, and a quiet voice made her the almost invisible gentle traditional mother. In this film, pants and loose fitting shirts, a short hair cut, and big rapid flustered movements made her into a force of nature to be reckoned with, not quite fitting in with the south Indian world in which she found herself. We can see why everyone immediately identifies her as American and why it is so strange to them that she came back.
Revathy gives a lot of reasons. She says that she took leave from her bank job to get married, but has come back to finish out the last two years before her mandatory retirement so they can have the extra money for her daughters’ educations. That she has to sell the little bit of family land for the same reason. But it doesn’t quite make sense, because she is so clearly miserable and misfitting in India.
Not in the usual way of filmi NRIs. Not complaining about the water or the food or unable to handle the bureaucracy. She is fine with that, she has friends, she cooks, she speaks the language, she does well at her job. It is the little things that itch at her, her friend’s shyness in exercising in public when men might be watching, not being able to part her car for 5 minutes to mail a letter, the bank not being able to think outside the box a little bit in order to better serve customers, for instance moving a teller over and splitting a long line into two. She is someone who just doesn’t fit in India any more, can’t accept the rhythm of this way of life. So, why is she there?
This film spends an inordinate amount of time in getting to the point. It’s not exactly waste, we get to know fully just how much Revathy doesn’t fit in (for one thing, she keeps having to move house because she can’t seem to work with her landlords), and we get the backstory of her having a husband in America and her in-laws not approving of her and secretly selling the family land. But it does go on a bit, so much that it is hard to notice when the actual plot picks up and starts.
Revathy gets a letter in the mail from the tax service. She goes to ask about it, and the assistant at first puts her off, and then tries to get a bribe. She refuses, reports him, and then gets another letter for a far larger amount. She goes back to the office and finally meets the assistant collector, Prithviraj. Who has no patience for her, explains that it is not a mistake, she failed to pay taxes for the salary she was getting, and for the land sale. With 2 years of interest, this is the amount it has come to.
Everyone in her life has advice. That she should somehow find the money and just pay it. Or that she should just go back to America and forget about it, so long as she doesn’t return to India the case won’t matter. But that’s not who she is. She is someone who will keep arguing no matter what and not accept that there is the easy way out everyone else will take.
So her husband arrives, Lalu Alex, and they have one of the best moments of the film, a late night conversation in the bed room, not in bed, which makes it more “married” feeling to me, just the two of them sitting up talking with the lights out. And we start to fully understand who Revathy is and why their marriage works like this. After all his friends and family shaking their heads over her, Lalu Alex admits that he misses her, misses getting to clean up all the messes she causes, and she laughs at all the things she has put him through. She is too old to change, she isn’t your usual youthful heroine who is going to learn a lesson and do better, she is who she is and she knows it and he knows it.
So they keep fighting, they hire an old advocate who helps them see their best argument. They need a reason to claim that they should keep the money instead of giving it to the state. Revathy had already given a speech about not minding paying taxes in America because she gets something for it, but why should she pay taxes in India when the whole country is falling apart? The advocate suggests expanding on that. Will the money really go to the poor of the country? Why should they give it up just to go into the pockets of corrupt politicians?
And Prithviraj, the antagonist, is not looking great. At first he was calm and reasonable, Revathy broke the law and he sent her a notice. But after she sees him at her work and attacks him for trying to influence her boss, when in fact he was simply there on personal business, he is furious with her. He is taking advice of his own, how he can put more and more pressure on Revathy up to and including taking her passport, and finally threatening jail for herself and her husband.
It’s a direct confrontation of the NRI attitude of “why can’t things be better?” and the Indian attitude of “what is the most I can do with the little I have?” Prithviraj wants as much money as possible from Revathy however possible. Revathy wants to improve the whole system within which Prithviraj lives.
And then we have our final reveal. Done with sketches for flashback images, the 3rd of fourth time I have seen that in a Malayalam film. I am sure it is a cheaper option, it’s also very artistically pleasing. I wonder who did it first that everyone else is imitating? In my life, the first time I can think of is Kill Bill Vol. 1, but that’s probably not what all the Malayalam films are picking up on. For one thing, that came out 15 years ago and I am just seeing it in Malayalam films recently.
Anyway, the reveal is that Revathy wasn’t really trying to make money for her children’s education. She and her husband were trying to fund an orphanage for victims of the 2004 Tsunami. Inspired by the son of an old friend who was left orphaned, and Revathy sponsored him in an orphanage that ended up falling victim to a government scam and never being built, so Revathy decided to build it herself for him and all the other orphans similarly abandoned. They school was almost built, but they never registered as a charity, never tracked the money that way, have no proof it was all donated.
Prithviraj learns a lesson about assumptions. I appreciated that, that Prithviraj had thought she was this strong selfish independent stubborn woman and didn’t realize she was actually hiding a soft heart. But then the audience learns the lesson about the importance of individual charitable giving untracked by any official channels, and that I did NOT appreciate.
The general idea is that you shouldn’t have to pay money towards the common good if you are already donating money towards the common good. That’s why charitable deductions are standard in most country’s tax forms. However, it is also standard that you need to track those donations and make them to officially recognized groups. Because, you know, people lie!!!!! This film seems to be arguing that we should just trust the good people because they are good and believe what they are saying.
What bothers me more is this larger message that it is not just up to the individual to fix social problems, but in fact it is BETTER for the individual to fix social problems. Revathy and her husband are taking care of 50 orphans, fine. But the government can take care of 50,000 orphans, if it is given the resources to do so. And Revathy and her husband can build this orphanage on their own, fine. But for long term sustainability, it is going to need a lot more people involved, and that’s why you register it as an official charity and hire professionals to run it and all the rest.
(Swades was different. Because Shahrukh was really really really handsome. No, it was because our hero actually fell in love with the village, and moved back. He didn’t just complain and try to do a quick fix, he became Indian again himself and didn’t go home again. He was one of them, not an outsider looking in. And also really really handsome)
I see what the film is getting at, the same outside the box thinking that drove everyone crazy about Revathy is why she and her husband were willing and able to take this great leap and do this good thing. Sometimes the people who seem the most difficult on the surface are the nicest underneath. In the same way that cocky nemesis Prithviraj was in fact a little insecure and trying to prove himself. I just wish it had found a better way to get there than implying that India should rely on NRIs to show up and magically solve all their problems and then run away back to America. It is what I now think of as “Bharat Ane Nenu type thinking”.