A special treat! I saw a Malayalam film in theaters! So there will be two Malayalam reviews today, first this No Spoilers one, and then a SPOILERS one later. Fun fun!
I dragged myself out to the movie theater again, after seeing Manmarziyaan on Friday, because I just had to see this movie. Partly because Prithviraj, partly because I was curious about the topic (desis in Detroit), but mostly because I had stumbled across the title song several months back and fell in love with it. It is SO GOOD, I just had to see the movie that surrounded it.
The movie doesn’t quite live up to the song. But it comes close! It really does try to dig in and understand the way aging American industrial cities are struggling and surviving. It misses some vital points, but it really isn’t terribly far off. I should have known a Malayalam film would understand worker issues. Marxism really does travel well!
There are a few things that the film gets wrong which itched away at me and distracted me. I love it when Indian movies are set in places I am familiar with, but then I pay the price by noticing the missed steps. The thing with Detroit (and Chicago to a lessor degree) is that the problem isn’t Detroit itself, it’s the areas around it. Thanks to a combination of factors (cheap cars and cheap gas, the killing of public transit, and the GI Bill funding home purchases) in the 1950s there was a mass exodus from midwestern cities of anyone middle class or above. Leaving the inner cities to only the lower income workers. Which also meant the tax base for the funding of the cities was eroded. The schools, public transit, general infrastructure kept declining and declining. While the suburbs that fed on the city flourished and became wealthier and wealthier. Of course, there was also a strong racial component. The phenomenon known as “white flight” encouraged those who could afford it to move out of the inner cities and into enclaves where the public schools, public libraries, and other public services paid by their high tax dollars were state of the art, and also sparklingly white.
The simple solution, to take suburban money and pour it back into the city, has failed over and over again in state after state. Including mine, which features the 17th best public high school in America (104 million dollars just spent on a new renovation), and the elementary school I attended where we had classes in the boiler room. But the suburban people are really not thrilled when it is suggested that their money be taken out of the 100 million dollar renovation for the school their kids will go to, and given to the school miles and miles away where some child they’ve never met is learning to read upside down because there aren’t enough textbooks to go around (also me. Good times!).
(The new pool. It’s like something out of Student of the Year, isn’t it? All paid with tax dollars, while just a few miles away in a different city, elementary schools are struggling to buy textbooks. The property tax system of funding is terribly broken)
The schools are the most shocking glaring example, but it’s more than that. The suburban money doesn’t go to the roads, the libraries, the police department, the public transit, any of the overworked and over used public needs of the city that supports their communities, gives them the economic base that keeps them going. That’s the missing ingredient in this film, and it’s kind of a big one. Yes, Detroit’s issues are broadly class and race based. Yes there are a random collection of people who are all affected in different ways. But those people are not going to be living close together. The class division is a geographical one as well. And it is a division that crosses racial lines, within the desi community, in a way that this film doesn’t fully investigate. Detroit is surrounded by up and coming communities where successful desi engineers, doctors, and academics live comfortable lives. There is no sense of how that community interacts (or fails to interact) with the working class desi community in the inner city. In my limited experience, that is one of the most interesting things about immigrant communities in America, the way primary allegiance to the greater class community versus the greater ethnic community shifts back and forth depending on the situation.
(Richa Gangopadhyay, born about an hour and a half outside of Detroit, son of a tech company executive and a museum manager, winner of the Miss India Michigan pageant and star of Mirchi)
That’s the overarching thing that bothers me a little bit, the sense that they are missing the way this city truly functions (or fails to). But there’s lots of little stuff too. For instance, the younger characters are described as going to college or high school scene to scene. They are young enough that they can’t drive, so in America that would be high school. And the kind of scenes we see in the school are high school as well, cafeteria conversations and hanging out on the basketball court and so on. But in India, that might be college. And so the dialogue slips occasionally. There’s a lot of little things like that, stuff that doesn’t quite match.
And the big thing, English dialogue! Ugh! I figured out why it bothers me, I think. Or rather, I know why it bothers me (because it is bad) but I figured out the manner in which it is bad. It’s the vocabulary, that’s what bothers me. It’s technically correct, but it is always the most basic and boring and unpoetic version of the statement. There aren’t even contractions used. And of course the delivery is particularly bad in a film like this where some of the characters are intended to be American by birth, meaning they have to deliver it in an American accent which is flattens out any intonation or fluidity because all the focus has to be on the pronunciation. It’s much easier in films set in India, the English can be the casual Indian English with natural accents and non-English words thrown in to add the shadings and vocabulary. The western set films where they attempt to do full English are just BLECH.
(See? Great trialer, and then the English dialogue lands like a wet sock)
Other stuff I didn’t like, the stories weren’t quite as locked together and poignant as they needed to be. Some of it worked, notably the Prithviraj-Isha Talwar track, but some of it was just a little confused and unclear. There wasn’t the inevitable Greek tragedy feeling that there needed to be, the way every single piece should be fitting together with every other one. And there wasn’t the sense that we were seeing just a few random people out of millions in the area, it felt like maybe we were seeing every single Malayalam in the greater Detroit area, all of whom coincidentally interacted with each other.
But then there’s that song. Which is just so very very good. And it gets at the heart of what is good in this movie. It sincerely tries to explore the reality of all these people in pain who can’t quite touch each other even as they live their lives just a few miles away from each other. Prithviraj running, Isha Talwar dancing, and so on and so on. And the way the reality of their life mixes classical Indian music, English rap, and American style rap sung in Malayalam.
That’s what makes me glad I saw this movie. It’s Nirmal Sahadev’s first movie as a director, but he assisted on Ivide, another movie that told a story of life in America. He experienced America himself, studied in Atlanta and New York. And he wrote the script for Hey Jude, another movie that managed to build a connection between characters that should not have made sense. I was hoping for that kind of a film again, and I got it. A story no one else is telling in America or India, the story of the immigrants who are struggling to build a life in a place that doesn’t really want them.
(Lovely song, until the English dialogue at the end, blech)
Well, that and Prithviraj. Prithviraj can play a lot of things, but there is something peculiarly beautiful when he plays a wounded warrior. The muscle who isn’t supposed to have a brain or a heart, the one no one notices who is secretly as much of a victim as those he attacks. Who doesn’t think he is worthy of love or hope or a better future but will selflessly sacrifice himself for those things for others. This is a perfect role for him, and he elevates the entire film with his performance and even his mere presence.
And for all the little things this film misses, it does understand the essential realities of life in dying American cities. The cheap houses in falling apart neighborhoods, the odd mixture of classes and friendships that happen between high school students, the random interactions between strangers in stores or on trains. And it treats the people crushed between economic necessity and impossible legalities with real respect and justice. As an added bonus, there is no glaring racism (as I have almost gotten used to from Indian films). Even the necessary “random Americans threaten our pure desi woman” scene is careful to make the gang of would be rapists mixed between Black and white.
It’s a good movie, is what I am saying. Especially when you understand it is made by people from outside this culture, and this language, and they are sincerely trying to build a story within a particular unique setting with a full understanding of the whys and wherefores of how these people got to this position.
(But not as good as City of God. It was trying to do that again, the same Prithviraj, the same story structure, even a similar look. But it isn’t as good. Which is what reminded me about City of God and made me decide it will be next weeks Malayalam Rerun!!!!! So you have advance warning, watch it NOW and then discuss it in a week)