Well, this is awkward. I have almost no qualifications to write this post. But on the other hand, I started writing about Sarkar and realized half that post was just a discussion of the film that RGV used as a jumping off point. And I already dumped paragraphs and paragraphs on it before I could start talking about Raajneeti. And I can feel the same thing coming with Chekka Chivantha Vaanam. So, I guess I have to do this. Write a post just so I have something I can refer back to in all those other posts rather than starting from scratch each time. Even though I am far from the best person to write about this film.
This movie and Star Wars and Gone With the Wind are the ones I think of as coming close for American culture to how film exists in Indian culture. The kind of stories you tell your children at bedtime, characters who are so well known they become shorthand for personality types, dialogue that changes the way language works, becomes its own new phrases and slang, something that you don’t have to watch because you somehow inhaled the whole story before you could even talk and you go out in the world already knowing it.
I saw it for the first time in college (Star Wars I saw when my father rented the VHS tapes and showed them to us, Gone With the Wind I saw in the theater with my sister in high school when it had the theatrical re-release). I was lonely and homesick and it seemed like a good time to finally watch this thing. I could see it was brilliant, of course, but I was surprised by how much I already knew, how much had somehow seeped into my consciousness. I suspect for many of you who have never seen this movie, reading this post will be a similar experience. You’ll discover you already knew much more about this film than you would have thought, and you have no idea how you know it. For those of you who have seen the film, it will probably be the opposite, as I fail to mention several things that you find interesting and important.
Okay, here goes! The basics of The Godfather. Oh, and for once I am using character names instead of actor, because that’s how important these characters are. I’m even going to put them in bold so it is easier to follow. Well, except Brando, he’s bigger than his character:
Brando is one of the top gangsters in the New York area, head of one of the 5 families. He has 4 and a half children. His oldest is Sonny, raised to take over after him, with a hot temper and a big heart. Next oldest is Michael, quiet and smart and set up to be the respectable one of the family, good schools and everything. Then there’s Fredo, weak and alcoholic and sweet. And finally Connie, the only daughter, spoiled and protected. And the half a son, Tom Hagen, picked up off the streets by Sonny when Sonny was little and Tom was a homeless boy, brought home to be raised with the rest of the family and considered their other brother. Sent to law school and trained to be the top consultant and trusted adviser to the family.
Michael comes back from WWII and things seem good in the family. Connie is getting married to a young Italian Carlo, Sonny is being trained up, Michael has brought his clean high class WASP girlfriend Kay Adams to the wedding and they seem ready to be married soon, and Tom Hagen is wise and solid and reliable. But then out of nowhere a gang war starts. Brando is shot and almost dies and Sonny is furious. Michael steps up and uses his smarts to see through a few scams and keep his father alive. And then after he is beaten and arrested by a corrupt cop, he volunteers to be the one who goes to the meeting, the one no one will suspect, and shoot both the cop and the gangster he works for. Michael does it, and leaves the country to hide out in Italy. In Italy he falls in love at first sight with a beautiful local girl Apollonia and marries her. Back in New York, Connie’s husband Carlo has started beating her. Sonny is furious and tries to protect her, beating up and threatening Carlo despite Connie’s protests that it is her fault. And then Connie calls him in tears because Carlo is beating her again, Sonny tears off without thinking and drives right into an ambush and is killed. Back in Italy, Michael’s wife is killed by a car bomb meant for him. Brando is broken by Sonny’s death and brokers peace, only then learning through the way the meeting is handled that his real enemy was someone else, another top gangster using a smaller gangster as a front. Brando lets it go but tells Michael and Tom Hagen who their enemy really is.
Michael takes over the family, and then tracks down Kay, his old girlfriend. He begs her to marry him, to help him turn the family legitimate, tells her that he needs her. She agrees. Three years later, Michael is running the business with consultations with his father. Fredo is in Vegas setting up nightclubs that they will run as a legitimate business when they leave New York. But they know (without saying it) that once his father is dead, the war will start up again. Brando dies, and Michael is approached by an old friend who tries to arrange a meeting with their enemy. Michael knows it is an assassination attempt. He arranges simultaneous perfect murders of all the conspirators while he is well alibied at the christening of Connie’s baby. After the christening, he pulls aside Connie’s husband Carlo and asks to meet with him in private. He takes him back to his house and tells him that he knows it was him, he knows he was the mole and he was the one who set up Sonny. He tells him he won’t harm him, just needs the truth. Carlo confirms it and Michael gives him a ticket and tells him he is sending him to Vegas. And then once Carlo is in the car on the way to the airport, Michael’s men kill him. Back at the house, Michael is confronted by a furious Connie, accusing him of killing her husband. Kay overhears and after Connie is carried out, insists on knowing the truth. Michael lies to her that it wasn’t him who killed Carlo. Kay believes him, but then walks out and sees through the doorway as the door closes in front of her, men coming up to Michael and kissing his hand, calling him “Godfather” and realizes she doesn’t know the man she has married, doesn’t know who he has become.
The reason this is such a great movie is because it contains so much within it. An American story, the crime lords that ran things for so long in so many ways. And covering a decade of American history. With pitch perfect period filming, exactly right cars and costumes and everything else. And a story that makes you think about morality, about where you believe in right and wrong. We come to care about these characters, the funny men who make pasta in the kitchen and joke with each other, everyone surrounding the central family and the family itself. And when we first meet them, they are under attack, a poor old man shot in the street, poor Sonny rushing to save his sister, and so on. But then at the end we finally see what they do, the killing that is involved in staying on top, the coldblooded murders ordered by Michael. How do we handle that, how do we judge who is right and wrong? And of course it is also the story of a family.
There were two main flaws I saw with the film. Well, “flaws”, things that could have been different but it was also a reasonable choice to do them this way. The first is the downplaying of WWII. Michael is set up as the “clean” son, with no discussion of how he must have dealt with killing and fear of death over and over again as a soldier. We never even learn where he served or what he did during the war. And later, when he is in Italy, he is told all the young men died in vendettas, no acknowledgement of the massive war time casualties and damage done to the country. And the second is that we never actually see the regular work of the mob. We see them go to war and kill enemies who are trying to kill them, and we see them do favors for their friends, but we never see them pressure small businessmen into giving them protection money, or beating up men for gambling debts, or any of the even moderately unsavory tactics. We certainly don’t see women being forced into prostitution or any of the truly unpleasant parts of life in organized crime. But both of those have reasons, we need the surprising journey of Michael from clean to dirty and so what he has already done in wartime must be minimized, the whole war must be minimized. And the film has to shock us with the ending, with the first time we see the true evil of what they do, so we can’t see the implied evil before that. So I will let both my flaws go, you can decide for yourself if you can forgive the flaws you see in the story.
But the basic family story, that is flawless. That is some kind of deep human truth distilled into movie form. The 3 and a half sons, the oldest always taught to be strong and confident, with the biggest heart and good instincts but no need to ever think. The younger smaller one, the quiet thoughtful one who no one really understands and turns out to be the strongest and nastiest of them all. The baby of the family, indulged and forgotten. And the daughter, spoiled and petted but never treated seriously. And of course, the half-son, the one who is more loyal than all the others because he feels he must prove his way, but at the same time more noble than the others because he is kept a little bit apart, able to judge them and their actions from a distance.
And on top of that, we have the Michael-Kay love story. The clean outsider who doesn’t understand their business, maybe disapproves of it, but he is drawn to her and the promise of redemption she gives. More to what she represents than the person, he is able to move on and love someone else when he thinks his life will be something else. And she is the one true innocent, the one brought into this family and then slowly disgusted as she sees what it is and what her husband has become.
As translated in Indian film, it is usually the two brothers that become the focus of the story. The anger and heart and tragedy of Sonny, and the mysterious forgotten Michael, the strong smart son who was supposed to get out of the family but ended up leading it. The only Indian version I can think of that deals with the brother-sister-brother-in-law conflict is Ek Rishtaa: The Bond of Love. And that one wrote out additional brothers entirely, instead focusing on the idea of the educated intelligent son who is different from his father’s methods and the traitorous brother-in-law. Akshay becomes both Michael, misunderstood and underestimated by his family, and angry Sonny driven to a rage when his sister is mistreated.
But the two brothers, especially the idea of Micheal being the clean one with the easy life and Sonny being the angry one who works for the family, that has a peculiar resonance that is universal. The oldest son is asked to struggle, to work, can remember the bad old days before the family was so wealthy. The younger is protected, both by his parents and his brother, all the struggle used to pave his way. He is given longer to grow up, to learn, to polish himself so that he can cross over to the unknown areas behind where the family has already reached. He has to pay them back by leaving them behind.
This is the story of Deewar, of Ram-Lakhan, of Trishul, of Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, of Dilwali, or every brother-son story in the history of Hindi film. The older brother sacrifices himself so the younger doesn’t have to, most often by replacing their father. Whether that means Amitabh in Deewar becoming the de facto head of the family and protector once his father disappears, or Shahrukh agreeing to be the next head of the family business and marry the woman of his father’s choice in K3G so that Hrithik can make his own life.
What makes The Godfather different, and the remakes of it so distinctive, is that it looks at things from the side of the younger brother. Who is torn between a desire to become a part of the family he has always been kept separate from, and between his learned behaviors out in the world, the different world where he was sent to learn how to dominate it. In Indian terms, in most films, that means the Michael character is returned with a high level degree from overseas, and an overseas girlfriend. He wants to marry her and stay out of India. But at the same time, he also longs to be a part of the family he has been away from for so long, to prove to them that he belongs in their world as much as this other one. And of course there is the crushing responsibility, once his brother dies he is the one who must carry on because he is the only one left.
(Sarkar is such a great movie. The way it handles the Michael/Abhishek character, scared and uninterested but also loving his father and with a strength inside that tells him he can do this)
The romance is also a bit different in the Indian remakes, translated to something that makes sense for Indian culture today. In the original, Kay represents old white America, respectable and clean and proper. Michael longs for her as the opposite of his Italian crime family, the ones who still speak Italian at home and follow old traditions and just generally aren’t “American”. It becomes more and more clear as Michael takes control that his vision of perfection is something closer to Kay’s world than his father’s. He wears suits and redecorates in a modern style and wants to move the family from their Italian American community out to Nevada, where they can blend in. And his brief fantasy with Apollonia, that was all a part of his Italian vacation, having been exiled from America he reacts by falling in love with what he sees as a pure untouched Italy. That’s what he wants, the purity, all American or all Italian, not the betwixt and between Italian-American woman who surround him. Once his dream of Italy is dead, in many ways (it was one of his Italian friends and bodyguards who set the bomb that killed his wife), he returns to a new dream of America, selling Kay on the idea that with her by his side, he can turn his family legitimate.
But that’s in the American version of this film. In the Italian, I suppose he would have stayed with the Italian wife and Italy and forgotten the American girlfriend. And in the Indian version, it is the American woman who dies, or leaves him never to return, while it is the Indian one who stays and lasts. He returns to an Indian dream from his American fantasy.
(In Ek Rishtaa, both woman are combined in one, Karisma starts as the western woman pulling him away, but becomes increasingly traditional and Indian as she falls in love. Also, how CUTE is their wedding????)
The thing I would love to see an Indian take on someday is the Tom Hagen character. In the original trilogy, it was supposed to build to a confrontation between Tom and Michael. Tom was smart and knew as much about the family as Michael. But he was always kept just a little bit outside of it, especially by Michael. And perhaps because of that distance, he could see the flaws in it, was the one to question Michael even if it was just with something as minor as a raised eyebrow or a tightened mouth. By the end of the second film, Tom was drifting away already, had begun to confront Michael. The third film was supposed to be Tom turning against Michael, the one man he respected and loved trying to defeat him. But, that didn’t work, because Duvall asked for more money than Coppola was willing to pay (the price of being a subtle actor, no one realized how good he was) and so he wasn’t in the third film and it went a different way.
But it is such an Indian idea. The son brought in off the streets, loved as much as the other children, but there was always that little distance. I want to see that! I want to see the two sons everyone thinks about, and the other one who is forgotten and unnoticed but secretly the real power behind the thrown. Not to mention the way Hindu versus Muslim conflicts would mirror the Italian versus Scotch-German difference. Put it either way you want, the original family is Muslim and the adopted son is Hindu and in moments of emotion it comes up that he can’t really understand, or the other way around. Most of the time it doesn’t matter, but when there is a fight between them, this old hurt gets dragged up.
Oh well, maybe that is what Chekka Chivantha Vaanam is going to be about. There are 3 sons and a cop in that, allowing for all kinds of changing meanings. Plus 3 daughters-in-law, allowing for variations on the Kay-Apollonia doubling.