Monday Malayalam: Uncle, a Movie in Which Nothing Happens, and That is What is So Revolutionary

Huh!  What an odd movie.  I am glad I watched it, because it was so unusual, but I am not sure I fully understand it.  Hopefully those of you who have already watched it can help me.

I am on a very good streak with modern Mammootty movies.  I am aware that he has made a lot of not so good movies lately, but luckily I haven’t seen any of those.  I’ve just seen the interesting free thinking young at heart kind of roles.  Strangely, I’ve also seen some of his “old-fashioned stick in the mud” roles from back in the day.  So in my particular world, Mammootty was an old-fashioned dignified young man who grew up to be an unconventional older man who related to women as people.  This movie is kind of an interesting variation on that.

Image result for uncle malayalam film

It’s a good thing Mammootty is so good at playing this role, because there really isn’t much happening besides him playing his character and being charming.  There’s also Karthika Muralidharan who does an excellent job with her role.  And some pretty scenery.  But mostly it is a 2 hour long conversation between Mammootty and Karthika, and Karthika isn’t saying much.

Joy Mathew wrote the script, the 4th film he has written, and so far as I can tell he specializes in these sort of two people, trapped together, long conversation sort of films.  It’s a particular kind of talent, to know what to show and what not to show, what to imply and what to say, what to call back to later.  It’s almost easier to write a script in real time, this almost-real time means you need to imply the rest of interaction, make the audience feel like they have seen it even if they haven’t.

Joy also took one of the lead roles, leaving the other role for Muthumani.  I recognized her from, well, EVERYTHING, and I was wondering why she was in such a boring kind of a role, but in the end I could see why she was cast.  Joy fades into the background while she comes to the front in the end.

Speaking of background, the heavy lifting of the film is done by the background score.  I don’t usually notice background music, but in this case, it is practically the whole plot.  Everything on the surface, what we are seeing and what they are saying, seems fine.  But the background music tells us to be careful, to look deeper.  It gives a tinge of drama, of anxiety, to what would otherwise be a boring everyday kind of interaction.  The end result is a very real evocation of that sensation in your gut, when you know there probably isn’t anything really wrong with what is happening, and yet you just don’t feel comfortable.  The tension builds and builds in the audience, as it does in the characters, until it finally comes exploding out.

Well, the tension mostly builds.  Sometimes it drags.  There is a fine line between building tension and boring the audience.  This might be one of those movies that really requires an intermission.  I watched it in two parts, without planning to, just because at the exactly halfway mark I found myself needing to take a break and process what all I had already seen before coming back again.  And what I found was that the first half clearly builds to a certain conclusion.  But the second half walks it back.  We are meant to watch what is happening in one way during the first half, and another way during the second.  It isn’t supposed to be two hours of the same thing, it is supposed to be one hour of one thing and another hour of another.  Divided by one night of sleep with everything looking better in the morning.

 

 

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It’s a very simple plot.  In fact, there is no plot.  There is a narrative, a narrative is just everything that happens in a film, but there is no plot, no conflict, no resolution.  Nothing actually “happens”, we just have the fear of it happening.

In fact, the only thing that actually “happens” is over the opening credits, images of a violent protest and strike.  This is the spark that sets off the plot, Karthika has to get from her college town to her home after the strike shuts down the school.  The busses aren’t running and the roads are empty, her friends have all already left.  And then while she is trying to walk down the road to the train, a car stops and it is Mammootty, her father’s friend, her “Uncle”, who offers to drive her home.

It’s a 6 hour drive at least, they take the long way and are stopped by a roadblock and end up spending the night at the house of a friend of Mammootty’s.  Finally, when they are almost home, Mammootty suggests a detour to visit a manmade lake he and her father helped build while they were in college.  They ask directions at the village stop and the villagers are suspicious of a man and woman traveling alone.  They follow them to the lake and call the police.  Karthika’s parents come to the police station, identify Mammootty as their family friend and a trusted person who Karthika was traveling with, and then go out to be confronted by the crowd of villagers.  Muthumani, Karthika’s mother, yells at them for having dirty minds, tells them that clearly nothing has happened and they should leave her daughter alone.  The film ends with Joy Matthew and Muthumani inviting Mammootty to ride in the car with them, showing that they trust him fully.

Here’s what makes this movie fascinating.  It does a perfect job of showing Mammootty as either a predator grooming a young woman to be his conquest, or a nice “uncle” who is enjoying this moment of being fatherly towards a young girl he has known her whole life.  For the whole first half, the audience is on edge, and so is Joy Matthew.  Joy is thrown off when he learns Mammootty is driving Karthika home and starts having flashbacks to seeing a woman come out of his hotel room, hearing stories of him having an affair with a divorced woman, knowing that Mammootty is divorced, drinks, and is a little bit mysterious.  And then we the audience see his behavior with Karthika in the car, being the coolest “uncle” possible, knowing the right music that the young people are listening to, knowing the right way to compliment her when she feels insecure (her skin isn’t dark, it is the color of wild strawberries), being her friend.  He casually buckles her seatbelt for her, brushing against her as he does it, insists she ride up front with him, makes her feel mature when he gives her control of his cell phone for the rest of the ride.  Suggests they take the longer route through the jungle, helps her lie to her parents that they have driven too far and can’t stay at her distant relative’s house the way her father wants them to, all of these things that look like “grooming” behavior, what experienced predators do in order to win young people over, leading up to when they are pressured into sex or drugs or whatever else it is.

But at the same time, everything he does could also just be a lonely man who wants a daughter and is charmed by this young woman that thinks all his jokes are funny and he is so cool just because he isn’t her father.  He brushes against her when he buckles her seatbelt, but he is also buckling her seatbelt, a very fatherly thing.  He gives her control of his cell phone to make her feel adult and responsible, but that is right after he has yelled at her for answering the phone without his permission and made her cry.  Giving her a “treat” of answering the phone from then on is a very parental thing to do.  He suggests a ride through the jungle, and she loves it, loves hearing his stories and seeing wild deer and all the rest of it.  Yes he is extending their trip together, but maybe he is just doing that because it is such a joy to play at being a parent for a little while?

The first half of the film builds up our suspicion.  Why does this cool wealthy international man want to drive this fairly average college girl home?  Why is he so extremely nice to her?  Why is he doing all of these things to extend the trip?  What does her father know about him to make him so nervous and so eager to have her home?

And then the second half of the film slowly disperses it.  The moment that sticks out is the interaction after Karthika’s friend-not-boyfriend joins them in the car.  Mammootty watches their meeting, seeks how Karthika is touching him and looks thoughtful.  They get in the backseat together, instead of Karthika up front with him and he looks mildly annoyed.  When Karthika pulls out the wild strawberries they had purchased together the day before, Mammootty manages to make her share their private joke and then has her feed him one straight into his mouth, stamping his possession on her.  And finally when they stop for gas, he takes off with Karthika leaving the friend behind.  Karthika is furious, and Mammootty forces her to admit that the friend isn’t her best friend, Mammootty is her best friend.  All of this is very alarming and disturbing, Mammootty seemingly acting more like a jealous lover than a mature chaperone to two college kids.

But then Mammootty reveals after they are stopped and the car is searched at a checkpoint that Karthika’s friend was carrying drugs.  Mammootty saw him take them, and then checked his bag and found more.  That’s why he took off in a hurry with Karthika, leaving boy and bag behind.  The important thing isn’t that Mammootty is saying this, it is that we the audience see it in flashback, see him find the drugs and decide to leave the boy behind.  This is, finally, confirmation that Mammootty’s character is trustworthy, is doing as he says he is doing, is not simply telling stories and trying to seduce and convince Karthika.

He is trying to be a father, he just isn’t very good at it yet.  His instinct was not to trust the boy, but he didn’t know how to distract Karthika from flirting without setting it up as a competition.  He wanted to get Karthika and himself and his car away as soon as possible once he found the drugs (and the film establishes he was right to be fearful, there were traffic stops all along the road, all 3 of them could have been arrested), but he wasn’t sure if it was better to tell them they were in danger, break her heart about her friend, or to try to toss it off as a joke and protect her from the truth.

It feels like the movie was playing a trick on us as well.  We had all this build up to Mammootty being a bad man, trying to seduce Karthika.  And it turned out to be nothing, just like most characters said it was all along.  Joy was the only one really worried, even Mammootty himself didn’t think there could be anything wrong here, cheerfully spoke on the phone about their plans and that Joy shouldn’t worry.

But the point is, we were tricking ourselves, just like Joy was.  All the obvious signs pointed to Mammootty being a nice man who was enjoying playing a father to a young woman.  We (the audience) just couldn’t believe that was possible, couldn’t believe that a man could enjoy spending time with a young woman in a pure and fatherly kind of way.  That’s why the background music was so important, the film gave us all the important details (that Mammootty called her parents constantly and told them not to worry, that he was clearly a lonely man who traveled a lot and didn’t really have a home, that he cared about their family as we could see from the many gifts from him in their house), but the background music was driving us to the wrong conclusion.  The audience is supposed to think there is something wrong, despite all evidence to the contrary, so we can have a cleansing moment of shock at the end when we realize there really isn’t.

Oh, one other thing I want to point out in the careful building of this story.  Karthika was established all along as a young woman that people are drawn to.  She is charming in her role, silly and laughing and quick to be impressed with Mammootty and joke with him.  And we see her grandmother arrive and immediately ask after her.  And the neighbor who drops off a special dish for her to welcome her home from school.  We had clues that you don’t have to be a pedophile or a predator to like spending time with this young woman.  She is so gloriously young and happy and friendly, everyone likes her, not just Mammootty.  So why should we find something suspicious in his behavior, but not in that of the neighbor who drops off the dish for her?

Image result for uncle malayalam karthika muraleedharan

(She is also perfectly young looking, natural and with clothes that don’t fit quite right and just generally a young woman that you could look at and notice she is fully mature, but also not quite comfortable in her body yet.  A big contrast to the very comfortable in his body Mammootty)

That’s where Muthumani comes in.  All along, she was relaxed.  Worried about her daughter traveling, but relieved to hear she was traveling with Mammootty.  While Joy worried, she couldn’t understand what was wrong, cheerfully went about making a dinner for when the two of them arrived, and reacted to them spending a night on the road with simple disappointment that her food was spoiled.  Joy sees her as unseeing and naive.  Right up to the end, he is surprised she wants to come to the police station with him, thinking it will be too much for her.  But in fact, she is the only one who sees clearly.  When the mob confronts them out front, after the police officer has suggested they cover their daughter’s head, she storms out and shows Karthika too them, tells them that nothing they say or do matters, they are merely unemployed louts looking for gossip, they claim to be protecting women but there are no women there with them.  Her daughter has done nothing wrong, a man and a woman traveling together is perfectly normal and acceptable and it is only their dirty minds that makes it otherwise.

And that’s the shock.  To realize that we, the audience, had those same dirty minds.  The police officer talks about how in this day and age he has to listen to the people and sexual harassment is a big issue and so on and so forth, but Mammootty cuts through that by pointing out there is no law against what they did, and if there was, he should have filed a case.  There is nothing here, he is merely making it appear there is by bringing them into the station.  The townspeople too, they claim to be protecting woman, not letting “such things” happen in their town.  But, there is nothing to protect against.  They themselves are the problem, turning a simple happy innocent interaction into something shameful by saying that it is.

This is the flip that I have been waiting for from a film.  This is what bothered me about Drishyam, about Sanam Tere Kasam, so many other plots where the irreparable damage of a cell phone video is accepted as common fact.  Or the shame of a woman being taken to a police station.  Or being found alone with a man in basically any circumstances.  These things are only problems if you act like they are problems.  If you go out in the world without shame and say “yes, so what?”, then 75% of the damage is mitigated.  No one in town will talk to you, so what?  Move to a different town, or make different friends.  No one decent will marry you, so what?  Don’t get married, get a job instead or stay home and take care of your parents.  Or just wait for someone actually decent enough not to care.  If parents say “you may hear from the neighbors about my daughter being found in a man’s room, but obviously it isn’t true”, that is so much less shameful and obvious than banishing her from the entire family.  That’s what the end of this film is pointing out.  The solution isn’t to flee the police station with her head covered, it is to go out with head held high in pride and bring Mammootty into the car with them, acknowledge him and therefore acknowledge there is absolutely nothing wrong, nothing to be ashamed of.

(Yes, I am mentioning Sanam Teri Kasam.  You 5 people who are MegaFans, get excited!)

What’s extra interesting is the choice to make it a much older man and a young woman. I am saying “pedophile” because that’s what it would be in America.  But in India, would it?  It’s traditional in the south for actual biological “uncles” to marry their nieces (correct?) and it wouldn’t be unheard of for a good arranged marriage to be between a young female college student and a much older man.  Their relationship is in this odd gray area where they see it as father and daughter, but an outsider could just as easily see it as romantic because it could easily be romantic.  And if it was within the bounds of marriage, no one would have had any problems with it.

 

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22 thoughts on “Monday Malayalam: Uncle, a Movie in Which Nothing Happens, and That is What is So Revolutionary

  1. There’s an 90s movie of Mammooty called ‘Kuttettan’ where he plays a philandering, married rich man with several young girlfriends & ends up adopting a young girl brought in as his plaything. Or ‘Ore Kadal’ where he played a renowned economist who’s a womaniser & has an affair with a married young woman. These days he won’t play anything less than the wise macho man who is never wrong. So if I were to watch this movie, I won’t be worried at all about whether he will be predator or anything remotely bad, because it’s Mammooty-circa 2018 -onscreen & he will emerge as a hero in the end. It would have been entirely different, if the Uncle was played by someone like Arvind Swamy who, off late is a revelation as the dashing devil. I guess this movie was a commentary on the increasing cases of moral policing in Kerala & also a pro-woman statement from Mammooty who won’t acknowledge otherwise that sometimes there’s a problem with the women representations in his movies.

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    • The one I was thinking of was Munnariyippu. But he played that movie very different, less the charming perfect hero, more sort of uncertain and quiet.

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      • Munnariyippu was made by a director who isn’t blinded by the task of directing a megastar. So Mammooty is also more in character than being a star. it was quite an uncharachteristic choice in his current scheme of things & something which the non-fan audience wants to see more of. But given the director & writer of this film, Munnariyippu kind of complex characterisation can be hardly expected.

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        • Oh yeah, and he had the cool dude scarf on and all the rest of the new modern Mammootty signals down pat.

          Is there any upcoming Mammootty film I should be paying attention to? I tend to sort of let the new Malayalam films drift away and watch them whenever they hit streaming if I hear good things, but if one of the big stars is about to do something impressive, I want to know about it.

          On Tue, Sep 4, 2018 at 8:36 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • There’s a Tamil film Peranbu where he’s playing father to a girl with disabilities. The three short trailers released,are impressive , showing the actor that Mammooty is. The film is also notice worthy for giving opportunity to a transgender to play the lead role of the daughter. He’s also doing a biopic in Telugu politician YSR. Don’t know much on that. In Malayalam, he’s sticking to playing run of the mill roles. I guess in other languages he isn’t burdened by the fan expectations & can experiment without fear of failure. I’m sad that fandom in Malayalam industry has become like those in Tamil/Telugu & the actors become slave to their larger than life personas. It’s then up to the new, younger actors to experiment & do the heavy lifting while the veterans become a shadow of their former selves. In that respect, Amitabh Bachan has done the impossible task of letting go of the gallery playing roles , switching gears & reinventing himself with age.

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          • It’s an interesting dynamic, that Malayalam actors (even the biggest actors) regularly work in other industries. It reminds me a little bit of British actors, who mix in BBC miniseries, American movies, and British movies, and each fulfill a different part of their acting interests. And then there are Hindi actors and Hollywood actors, who almost never break out of their home industry and perhaps suffer artistically for it.

            On Tue, Sep 4, 2018 at 9:44 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Being Hindi & Hollywood actors, they are known across the country & paid handsomely.So if they venture out of their comfort zone, it has to be for the sheer creative curiosity without looking at the monetary parts. Amitabh Bachan has worked in Malayalam & Telugu-though in brief roles. And seems he’s gearing up for Tamil. But otherwise, none of the Hindi actors seem willing to spend time pursuing a role just for the sake of it.On the other hand, top actresses like Juhi Chawla, Kajol, Manisha,Sridevi, Sonali Bendre etc did work down south even at their peak in Hindi but these days Hindi film heroines working in south is limited to outsiders like Kiara Advani, Tapsee, Aditi Rao etc struggling to make a mark & market somewhere/anywhere.

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  2. Song from Mammoottys upcoming telugu movie, biopic of former chief minister of andhra…

    Looks promising…
    Upcoming tamil movie peranbu is also really promising… Well received in international film festivals…
    he has more than 10 films in malayalam in various stages of productions… Some of them are with promisong directors like soubin shahir, amal neerad, santosh sivan, godha director etc… 2 big budget period dramas(Mamankam, kunjali maraykkar)…. As a fan i have some really intersting films to wait for..

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    • Thank you, I just asked another user about upcoming films, this is exactly what I wanted to know. Malayalam films release so randomly in America, unless I have a heads up to really pay attention, I tend to miss the good ones.

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      • Okay, there’s the info that u were looking for. I still wdnt put my money on his Malayalam movies-especially the period ones. But directors like Soubin Shahir & Godha director gives hope.

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        • Among the period films, kunjalimarakkar is promising since santosh sivan is directing it and has some good writers.
          But I am not sure if the project will happen now since Mohanlal & Priyadarshan announced another film on Kunjalimaraykkar. Another period film is Mamankam which will be a big budget film directed by a newcomer… Director was the assistant of Adoor Gopalakrishnan and has been doing research for this movie more than 10 years…
          Then there is ‘Unda’ from the director of Anuraga karikkin vellam and Anwar Rasheed producing it..
          And there are some not so promising films…Oru kuttanadan blog his very next release is from a bad director , pokkiri raja sequel, CBI5 etcc….
          And I heard there will be some more announcements on his birthday this month.

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  3. The marriage between biological uncle and niece isn’t common in Kerala. I think it is a tradition followed by people of Tamil Nadu. People do used to marry cousins, some still do, but it is also not common now a days!

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    • This film spends most of it’s time in Tamil Nadu (since it is a long road trip). I suppose it could be a thematic connection with the “uncle” idea, but I doubt it.

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  4. I had 2 problems with this movie:
    1. It was too long, it should be at least 30 minutes shorter. Many scenes was repetitive (those with the grandma and her snacks, her talking on the phone, scenes in the car, girl’s father calling people etc)
    2. There wasn’t enough suspence, in the sense that the father was worried without the reason and it was obvious. There wasn’t this “oh maybe he is really some kind of dangerous man”. His only fault was that he is divorced and has CONSENSUAL sex with adult women. In my opinion girl’s father and his drunk friends were more pervert because they were imagining and talking about things they thought he is doing with the women.

    As I said few weeks ago, I liked the first scene, when Karthika is waiting for a bus. I was really worried for her in that moment. And I liked the ending.

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    • 1. Agree, definitely dragged. And they could have gotten their point across in far less time. Alternatively, I would have liked more scenes of them out of the car, spend your screentime getting to know the Communist family in Tamil Nadu, or a flashback to see more about Karthika’s relationship with the boy. Or heck, show us more of the unseen Celine character giving birth. Just something to bring in a little variety.

      2. For a while I thought they were going in the direction of the drunk friends being the real threat, a reveal that they took advantage of one of Mammootty’s girlfriends or friends-who-is-a-woman in some way and her father thought they would do the same to her. Like, he knows they all take Mammootty’s phone when he isn’t looking and send images off of it, or something else. It kind of felt like it was going that way the first time she answers the phone when the drunk friends tease Mammootty about the “pretty bird” he is with. But then the film backs off and we don’t really see that group again.

      On Tue, Sep 4, 2018 at 3:04 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I was thinking about background score, and I agree it was good, but in some scenes it was exaggerated like in the end when the parents rush to police station, and the music is so heavy, that insteed of adding the supence it sounded funny.

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        • Still better than Sanju. Every time he tried drugs it was like a thunder storm was rolling in.

          On Wed, Sep 5, 2018 at 8:03 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  5. Uncle was just my 3rd Malayalam movie and my 1st with Mammootty. I agree with you, Angie, that it could have been half an hour shorter without loosing tension.
    Without knowing all the things you wrote, MKP, I was confident that Mammootty would not harm Sruthi but care for her, that he was a charmingly young at heart but attentive experienced.
    Nevertheless I admired the building-up of tension through the father who was ‘the other uncle’ in that movie, one who wasn’t straight-forward and open, one with a ‘dirty’ mind and one who sent two boys to spy on the man he called his friend. Well, there were moments when I gave in to the doubts the father triggered, especially when Sruthi found the knife/dagger but then my thought was “Claudia, you are pushed to think bad of the ‘trustworthy’ uncle and take the side of the ‘distrustful’ uncle”. I also tried to give not in to the menacing Background score but to rather enjoy the light songs.
    Then I got really scared at the pond when I saw the villagers coming (after the incidents with the friend and the police I somehow feared that the real threat would come from the outside), I already saw them killed and yelled at my little screen ” don’t dare to touch them”!
    The rest I percieved like you wrote it, Margret.
    It was a fine experience but in hindsight I would have liked that they would have skipped some of the nice stuff between Uncle and Sruthi so that the focus would have been more on the ‘dirty minds’ and the mother who fights exactly that.

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    • Really interesting take on the father being the other “uncle”. I missed it, but that was what the boys called him, right? And he had the same relationship to them that Shruthi had to Mammootty, friend of their father so they respected and trusted him.

      On Thu, Sep 6, 2018 at 3:51 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Yeah, right, they called him uncle and yes, they trusted his judgement…so the movie is also a take against prejudgement. The judgement of the one with a good reputation is shown as not trustworthy in contrary to the one with a not-so-good reputation shows a trustworthy behaviour.

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