Happy Birthday Nagarjuna! Geethanjali, Your Mani Ratnam Film

Mani Ratnam strikes again!  Another great romance with a complicated heroine and interesting supportive hero. Oh, and I am going to assume for this entire review that you at least know the big thing that is revealed 10 minutes into the film, so if you are obsessive about SPOILERS and don’t even want to know that, DON’T READ ANY MORE!!!  But if you are fine with the 10 minute in reveal, but want to be protected from what happens in the remaining 113 minutes, keep going until the usual SPOILER marker.

Most movies about death take one of two options, they either make it about death, all sad and sobbing and sort of misery porn.  Or they make it about life, all vibrant and living to the fullest in the last days and so on.  This movie takes a third option, and makes it about love.

I was avoiding this movie because, you know, SAD!  But what’s so brilliant is that it isn’t actually sad.  And not in a “whistling past the graveyard kind of way”, but in a very real philosophical kind of way.  The movie takes a firm stand that early death is not actually a sad thing.  It’s just a thing that happens to everybody at some point, some sooner than most.

That sounds kind of crazy, like romanticizing suicide kind of crazy.  But it isn’t doing that at all.  If anything, it is un-romanticizing death.  Saying that death is just a thing that happens, and we shouldn’t give in and make it all we think about.  That it is unnatural to focus so much on death.  That the natural thing is to just be like anyone else, and we shouldn’t expect our “tragic hero and heroine” to be tragic all the time just because thinking about it makes us sad. Let them live the life they want in the way that they want.

What’s really great is that our hero and heroine are just the same kind of hero and heroine they would be in any other movie.  Not aggressively “good” like the saintly dying types normally are.  But also not aggressively wild and crazy and nihilistic, or dark and deep and bleak.  No, they are the usual hero-heroine types, attractive and charming and just a little bit more interesting than everyone else in the film.

It’s the usual love story too.  It isn’t extra deep or extra shallow or extra anything.  It’s just two young people who fall in love with all the ups and downs that implies.  Of course, it’s also a Ratnam love story, so it is super super cute.  But now more than his love stories for any of his other couples.  Young people fall in love, it’s what they do, no matter what else is going on in their lives.

The one thing I found slightly unusual was how it handles family issues.  While our hero has aggressively removed himself from his family, our heroine is even more embedded within hers than is common for a heroine.  But I can believe both their reactions as natural for their individual personalities.  That’s one of the things that is so wonderful about this film, that they are allowed to be different from each other.  Yes, they are in love, and they have one big thing in common, but they are still their own people otherwise.

Okay, now I want to get into the specifics of how this story is built up and unfolds.  So, even though I am assuming everyone knows the general outline of the story, I am now putting in SPOILERS in case you want to be surprised by the details.  So, SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

We start with the standard hero introduction.  He’s graduating college, big song and dance number, he is the lead dancer, the one everyone revolves around, big smiling happy guy, just like in any other movie.  And then, shocking accident!  Car runs into him and song smashes to a stop!

It’s surprising, but it’s also part of any other movie.  The surprise exciting accident, we’ve seen that before.  Where it gets different is in the hospital.  Because movies don’t usually go to the hospital or spend time with nurses and doctors going in and out or any of that.  It’s just exciting accident, and then death scene, or romantic reconciliation (I just talked about that in Alaipayuthay/Saathiya) at the hospital, and then back home.  But this movie slows down, suddenly we are watching people coming in and out of Nagarjuna’s room and speaking in quiet voices.  It’s a slowly growing sense of dread, that there is something not quite right about what’s happening.  There’s a brilliant moment when the female doctor is leaving the room, and Nagarjuna’s asks if he can ask her something.  She says “yes”, and the dread has been built up enough by this point that we are braced for him to ask if he is dying, if something is really wrong.  But instead he just asks “will you marry me?”  It’s lovely, acknowledging the nerves in the audience, but also reminding us that this is still just a silly flirty boy.

But he can’t put it off forever, eventually he has to go meet with his doctor and learn that his injuries from the accident will heal easily, but they discovered cancer when they ran the tests.  He only has months to live.

In another movie, this would be all drawn out with much sturm and drang.  But in this movie, it is handled in a few simple conversations.  The doctor talks to him.  We see his father struggle to have a normal conversation, his mother having an even harder time, and finally Nagarjuna tells them that he has to leave, he can’t stay here and feel like he is dead already, he’s going to stay in their country place in the mountains, by himself.

And suddenly there is a complete change of pace!  We are back to another traditional introduction scene, this time for a heroine.  Girija Shettar (who got a doctorate in philosophy from Cardiff University in 2003!) is sweet and pretty and a little naughty.  She is sent away from the table, where is is eating with her 3 younger sisters and her father and grandfather, and sneaks food from all of them onto her plate as she leaves.  And then drops the plate and gets caught.

She lives in the same small mountain town that Nagarjuna has just arrived in, of course!  And of course she sees him in the market and is immediately intrigued by this handsome young silent stranger.  And, because she is so naughty, she starts to tease him, saying she is in love with him, she wants to run away with him.

(And also there is this odd song at a cemetery.  Maybe I should save it for a Halloween post?)

I’m not sure, but I think she is just teasing him at this point?  She doesn’t actually think she is in love with him or anything like that, she just enjoys trying to get him to react, to get him out of his funk.  And the threat of romance is the best way to do that, because he is a young man and she is a young woman and it is the most radical thing they could do.

It works, in the end, he gets mad enough to take action.  He shows up at her house, declares they are eloping, carries her to his car, and then dumps her out a few miles from home and tells her to walk back.  She has already broken through his reserve, whether he admits it or not she has gotten under his skin, just like the romance in any other movie.

Only, of course, he’s dying.  She may have gotten under his skin and gotten him to react, but does he even have any right to do anything more?  Can they go forward just like any other romance?

Which is where the film takes it’s only real “twist”.  Because her family overreacts to his harmless little joke, and breaks the news to him that she’s dying!  She has a heart condition, she could live for a few more years, or she could suddenly get worse and die.  It’s not a secret, her family knows and in a town like that, most other people probably know too.  But Nagarjuna is an outsider, he didn’t know.  I wonder if that is part of the reason she picked him to tease?  Because he didn’t know she was anything but another young person?

Nagarjuna seems fascinated by this, partly because it shows him a different way to live with his diagnosis, but also because it means he no longer has to feel bad or conflicted about falling in love with her.  And suddenly he is the one chasing after and teasing her.  Until, finally, she gives in.

This sequence is sort of fast, him courting her and convincing her that he is serious, it isn’t just turn about for her teasing of him.  But it works better that way, in a kind of “life will prevail” sort of way.  Even if they both know their lives will end soon, they are still young people and young people can’t help falling in love.

That’s the bigger message of the film, that they can be young people in love just like anyone else, the rapidly approaching end to their lives doesn’t have to define them.  And their love scenes can be just like anyone else’s love scenes, secret meetings in the forest or in her bedroom, embraces and kisses and love songs.  Even marriage!

Kind of the most revolutionary part of the film for me is when Girija’s father catches Nagarjuna sneaking out of Girija’s room late at night.  And he doesn’t yell at him or get all upset!  He has more of a “yeah, whatever, you kids are both going to die soon anyway, I just want you to be happy now” kind of reaction.  Shocking!  Father’s are always supposed to over-react to this stuff!

But he is surprised when Nagarjuna says he wants to marry Girija, in a kind of “what’s the point?” sort of way.  But then, what is the point of marriage ever?  It’s about building a life together, not how long that life will be.  Which is Nagarjuna’s attitude, he is in love and wants to get married.  But it is also, just a little bit, him escaping into love.  Girija’s father points out that Nagarjuna is going to die very soon, sooner than Girija, and she doesn’t know.  And Nagarjuna kind of brushes that off.

I kind of think he is so far into denial of his death, of everything except his new love, that he isn’t even thinking straight.  Because shortly after this, his mother comes to visit him, and he makes no effort at all to prevent her from meeting Girija, or telling Girija the truth about his future.  Instead, he acts just like any other boy in love.  He plays a joke on them, having his mother answer the phone when he knows it is Girija, knowing Girija will embarrass herself by saying love talk.  And knowing his mother will rush over to meet her.  But not thinking that of course it will come up in their conversation that he is dying.

This is the first real “conflict” of the film.  Not the fatal diagnosis of the two leads, but whether that diagnosis will tear them apart.  Girija declares she isn’t afraid of her own death, but she can’t face losing him.  And the resolution of that conflict is what really sets this film apart for me.

It would be so easy to end on a downer note, to make it all about death.  Girija in fact almost does die, she has to have emergency surgery.  In a different movie, he would come to her bedside and they would reunite as she died.  Or he would come to her bedside and heal her with his love.  But no!  He has no effect on her health.  That’s not what they are about, really.

She gets better all on her own.  Well, “better”, she still has a bad heart, just won’t die right now.  And after getting better, she wants to rush to the train station to stop Nagarjuna, just like in any other heroine in any other movie.  And he rushes up and kisses her, just like any other romantic hero.

That’s what we end on, their romantic kiss.  Not death or sorrow, or even ranting against the dying of the light.  But a love story, like any other.  And the chryon which says something like, if I am remembering right (translate if you can read the Telugu below), “They lived happily for the rest of their lives, however long they were.”  UPDATE: Yay!  Moimeme translated it! “They don’t know how many more days they will live. But as long as they live, they will be happy.”

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6 thoughts on “Happy Birthday Nagarjuna! Geethanjali, Your Mani Ratnam Film

    • Yes! Although, I am always a little cautious about Ratnam actresses, he is so good at pulling performances out of them, or else casting them in a role so perfect that they can just be themselves, and then they never are quite as good in anything else.

      On Fri, Aug 31, 2018 at 8:19 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

      >

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      • That’s actually a really good point!

        I looked her up and she quit acting after 1992. Apparently, she was originally supposed to do Ayesha Jhulka’s role in Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar but she dropped out of the movie after the first schedule.

        Like

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