An interesting movie! A heroine who I wouldn’t expect to be a heroine for many reasons, and she is supported not just by the narrative, but by actual literal angels within the film.
This was such a nice lowkey return to Malayalam film. I skipped, then I watched Koode which exhausted me, and then I skipped again, and now I am back! With a very nice little movie of the sort of slice of life village tale that Malayalam films do so well. And with all my familiar old friends in it, Nedumudi and Joju George and Lena as the heroine.
In some ways, all of Malayalam film feels like a village sometimes. It’s the same familiar faces, not just playing leads but everywhere. Even the guy with just a few lines will make me go “Oh, I know you!” And the beauty of the scenery, the green and the brown and the water and the beautiful teak furniture and doors and steps, the clean white washed houses, everything feels like something I have seen before, like I am visiting my hometown after years away. Familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. There is something special about the Malayalam village films that I just don’t feel in films from other industries. In Telugu, it tends to be so locked into the few big family houses. In Hindi, the villages feel so fake I keep waiting for the chorus line to appear between the false fronts of the little houses. And then it does. But in a Malayalam film, this is a village it feels like I could actually visit, not just something that exists in a producers imagination.
None of that is directly related to this film, this is a nice little film with a nice little story. And good performances, and some halfway decent songs. But I can’t seem to remove this particular film from the whole history of Malayalam village songs. It feels like Mohanlal and Shobhana are flirting in the house down the road, and Nivin Pauly is following Madonna Sebastian around, while Nazriya Nizam chases him, and somewhere Dulquer is riding a motorcycle in a pure white lungi. Mohanlal isn’t chasing tigers, and Mammootty isn’t giving big speeches, because it’s not that kind of movie. Those movies belong to one person, but this movie, this sweet little village movie, it belongs to the cast as a whole, just like the village belongs to everyone at once.
Maybe that’s why it is a story told from far away. From heaven, and from a radio station. When you are within a narrative, you always feel like you are the lead character of it. But if you are far away, up in heaven or behind a radio microphone, you see the person you care about as part of a larger tapestry of people and how what she does has to fit in with all the rest of them.
Like Biryani. So many flavors mixed together to make something wonderful.
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Bit of an odd structure here. We start with a famous cook telling a story on the radio. And then we go up to heaven, and then down back to earth, and it’s not quite clear why or how. The heaven part is a narrative requirement and at the same time also not. It’s a requirement to explain how certain things happen through divine intervention. But there’s also a bit that feels like filler, or exposition, which could have been cut. The radio show part of it could be cut entirely, and is a bit confusing with the heaven part. Did she just make up that story? Or did she somehow know what the angels were talking about in heaven here? It does lead to a lovely ending shot and moment, but it makes me very confused about the rest of the film!
Anyway, without the framing device, it’s a very simple nice story. There is a village with a famous Mosque. It is famous for two reasons, first because a former member left his lucky walking stick with gold and jewels to the mosque. And second because a current member, in memory of his wife, has donated money to provide free biryani to any who come once a day. It is a joyous village tradition.
Not so joyous is the attitude towards Lena, an older woman whose husband is dead but she does not seem to grieve like a widow should. The villages assume she is a fallen woman. Meanwhile, in heaven, Aju Verghese is in trouble because he let a child seem him in his angelic guise, and he has lost his halo in punishment. But he has a chance to get it back if he can help in a special case, Lena’s struggles.
As Lena’s trials continue on earth, Aju and his friend/mentor Vinay Forrt talk about her in heaven. Lena speaks up for herself at the joint temple and mosque committee meeting when the biryani cook dies and they need to find another one. She offers to cook the biryani, there is a brief disagreement over it, but then she is given the job on a trial basis. Only while she is walking there, happy on her first day, she suddenly swoons. Two nice men near by pick her up, partly excited at the idea of touching a woman but also sincerely worried. And take her to the clinic to learn that she is giving birth. Only, her husband died over two years ago.
Lena loses her job and any status she may have still had in the village. She is left alone with her baby. And it is at this point that in heaven, Vinay Forrt reveals he has been watching over her all her life. When she was born, she was orphaned and left alone for 3 days. He cared for her and fed her until people found her and took her to the orphanage. And because she was fed on heavenly food, some of that taste sneaks in to anything she cooks.
The village life continues around Lena. A tailor dreams of being a poet. A young wife waits for her husband who is overseas and irritates her mother-in-law by talking on the phone too much. Nedumudi, chair of the temple committee, gives opinions on everything. There are some petty thefts of tablets and other small items. And then the husband returns from overseas and meets his wife late at night, only to overhear the new biryani cook plotting to steal the valuable walking stick! Shock and horror, the police are called, and now the Mosque is short a biryani cook again.
There is another meeting, and now there is talk of stopping the biryani offering all together. Perhaps this was meant to be. And it is at this point that Lena appears and declares she will tell the truth and they will let her cook biryani again. She explains, first, that her husband is not dead. He found a second wife and left her. She was all alone in the world, desperate to leave the orphanage, and married the first man who offered and made a bad choice. But then she found another man who was kind to her and good….Nedumudi!!!! He is the father of her daughter, their relationship started over biryani in the temple line and ended with a baby. They have been together for 2 years. She only kept silent out of respect for his dead wife, but she has done nothing wrong.
Nedumudi storms out declaring it is all false. And Lena gives the best possible response to that, if she was going to make up a story, why would she pick him? Why not lie and say it was a stranger who was the father, or that it was a young rich man who would be forced to marry her? What is the advantage in saying it is old widowed Nedumudi?
(Nedumudi, who does things like suggest that a young priest not be so free in talking to the women)
And finally, Heaven takes a hand. Aju Varghese comes to earth in the guise of Lal, the man who left the walking stick to the Mosque, and encourages the biryani donor to give Lena a chance. And so, finally, she is allowed to cook. And as the smell spreads through the village, it brings everyone in. Even Nedumudi, who is preparing to kill himself in his home. Instead, he comes to the cooking shed and picks up and acknowledges his baby daughter. Everyone sits down to a meal together, and we have a Happy Ending.
And then in the radio station, the old woman finishes her story and the camera goes around to reveal Bhavana. She is the DJ and she explains that this is a fully female run station and she is proud of that, and grateful to her village for giving her this chance and helping her get started. And then she goes and carefully helps the elderly cook to take off her headphones as the music of a song Bhavana introduced as one she herself wrote and sings rises up and the camera pulls back to reveal this radio station is within a building within a village just like the village in the story.
It’s a lovely ending, the whole thing, the villagers sitting down together to eat biryani, and Bhavana revealing that this isn’t some fancy city radio station, but a little station in a village made by women for women. The whole thing is just an odd to the Kerala village, where Hindu and Muslim and Christian can all sit down and eat together, where a woman can run a radio station or have an illegitimate child, where anything is possible and acceptable and survivable.
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