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.
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?
(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.