Anjali! The One Mani Ratnam Movie That Didn’t Make Me Cry

I finally sat down and watched Anjali, all set to sob and sob like I did for Kannathil Muthamittaland it was a good movie, don’t get me wrong, but it just didn’t send me in the same way.  Maybe because I’m not the intended audience?

I was going to say that this is the earliest Mani Ratnam movie I have seen, but then I checked his filmography, and Nayagan came out before this.  Although, I never finished Nayagan (because the video I was watching stopped working halfway through).  So this is still the earliest Ratnam movie I have watched straight through.

There are plenty of elements here that I can recognize from his later work, and which he had already perfected at just a few films old.  For one, his fascination with color filters, that very particular kind of blue light he loves for interior and night time scenes, and the certain kind of dappled sunlight that is a feature of his outdoor scenes.  Also, his love for young family life.  I can’t think of another director who has so many young married heroes, in this and Kannathil Muthamittal and Bombay and I am sure other movies I haven’t seen yet (someday I may sit down and have a mini-Ratnam fest and try to fill in all my gaps).  There’s also his strong sense of middle-class city life, not the crazy wealth you usually see with the huge houses and luxury cars even when the hero is a simple police officer, but cozy comfortable apartments and bus and cab rides.

A great touch with child actors and the inner life of children is another common Ratnam feature, but I have never seen it so heavily used as in this film.  Which I think maybe why it didn’t work for me as well as his other movies that I have seen?  Because I am too old to relate to kids, and about 70% of this movie was kids.

In Kannathil Muthamittal, the little girl Amudha was our primary character, our window into the world.  And she felt like a real little girl, stubborn and short-sighted and with uncontrollable emotions and random fits of sadness and happiness.  But she was surrounded by adults, all the time.  That was kind of the point, that she was wandering into an area that is not child friendly, that children shouldn’t be there, and so she was the only one.  Because she felt so real, I was able to relate to her as an adult to a child, worrying about her safety and her peace of mind, and I was pulled into the film by seeing similar worries within the adult characters.

The same is true in the second half of Bombay, when we watch the little boys and worry about them, and relate to their parents’ worries as well.  Or in Guru when our heart breaks for the little Vidya Balan character at the same time we enjoy her spunk.  But in this, we are completely lost in the world of children, with no adult characters to serve as guides.  I can recognize this as an amazing technical achievement, it just doesn’t work as a way to pull me, an adult, into the film.

But the technique really is amazing!  Down to the simplest things, like the way the camera is constantly placed at a child’s eye level instead of an adults.  And the way it moves at child’s speed in the playground scenes, zipping around from here to there with no logical pattern, just like a kid riding a bike or playing tag.  These are the same techniques he uses in Kannathil Muthamittal and Bombay later, but he must have perfected them here.

What I do remember already being perfect in Nayagan was the way he handled the child actors.  There is a great scene of Kamal’s son playing with his friends, and playacting at being a mobster.  It isn’t the typical “cute” child character dialogue, but it also isn’t the formal kind of adult language in a child’s mouth sort of dialogue.  And they way they are standing and moving, kind of loose and confused, and wriggly, that is all natural as well.

Ratnam must just have an amazing touch with child actors.  I’ve never read anything about his on set policies, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he spends days just playing with the kids and getting them comfortable before the cameras start rolling.  And I assume he lets them figure out how they want to deliver their dialogue and hit their marks, not expecting them to stay strictly with the script.  It feels like they are just going about their days and leading their regular child lives, and the cameras just happen to be there watching.  There’s never any self-consciousness or “now I am ACTING” feeling with the kids in his films.

In this film, he chooses to live mostly with the children and mostly within their tiny little world of the apartment block, in order to keep his message as simple and clear as possible.  The idea of the film is that those society shuns, fears, or hates because of their various disabilities can be blessings, they have a gift to give us, they can love and be loveable.  And rather than make this a big statement with politicians and speeches, the film shows society in miniature, these small children in this small apartment block, and how they are able to adapt and accept those who are different from them.

Like I said, I can appreciate the idea and the execution, it just didn’t work for me because I’m not a kid.  I found myself sitting up straighter and paying a little more attention whenever the parents came on screen and we started dealing with the adult storyline.  Even though some of that adult storyline felt very shoe-horned in.

Oh, and SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER

This film has a great opening, pulls you right in, with two tiny little kids in big yellow raincoats trying to hail a cab to take them to the hospital.  The older child finally stops a cab by lying that his father is a traffic officer with the police.  The younger child tries to correct him and gets shushed.  Right away we are in the child’s world, I don’t think the parents even find out about this lie.

On the way to the hospital, the two kids talk about how they want their mother to give birth to a little brother or a little sister and how excited they are.  But then at the hospital, their father is called in to talk to the doctor and the kids watch through the window and see that something is very wrong.  The younger child can’t take it and runs in and asks their father if their mother is dead, if they can see her.  Their mother is fine, but when the family goes in to see her, the father tells her that the baby died.

And then we jump into a new world, the world of children at this one small apartment block.  They ride their bikes, they sing, they terrorize the older residents.  And when our young family moves in, they put the new kids through a hazing ritual.  Until they are accepted, being introduced as part of the gang of kids just as their parents are being introduced to the adults of the housing society upstairs.

This is also when we get the first of many scenes in the same locations.  Running up and down the winding stairs of the colony, in the little fenced in play area, in the society meeting room.  The locations are purposely repetitive, making the audience feel more and more at home in this place with every repetition.

The family’s apartment is one of the most important locations in the film, and now is when we get to see it empty, as they first arrive and run through the space.  Just as we will slowly be building our understanding of this family and their lives over the course of the film, so will this empty space be filled in with furniture, toys, tools, and art over the course of the film.

The arrival and acceptance by this new community is wonderful, but then things begin to get distressing for our little family.  They go to visit their father at his job site and are told he was called away.  But later, at dinner, he says he was working late at the site all day.  The kids immediately spot the lie and question it, and the mother gets up and leaves the table.  They also see him talking with a young woman and tell their mother.

What is so great about this sequence is that it is all from the child’s perspective.  They see something odd, they talk about it to their parents, but then they are shut out of the fall-out, because that is part of the “adult” world.  This part really did pull me into that uneasy unsure sense of things that you have in childhood.  And the resolution is entirely from their perspective as well, their mother suddenly interrupting their play and dragging them into their father’s office to make him swear, on their heads, that he will stop seeing the other woman and stop sending her money, which the mother has just found in his bankbook.  We don’t see the scene where she finds the bank book, or the moment she decided to force this vow on him, or even the aftermath between the two of them, but just the moment the children were privy to.

Later, the mother (Revathy, who is FANTASTIC in this, especially in a scene I will get to in a minute), sees him talking with a young woman while she is riding the bus and gets off and follows him.  This is one of the few times we break entirely from a child’s perspective and see only what the adults are doing.  Revathy finds him entering a house with the other woman, and then we see her arriving back at the apartment complex in a cab (again, such a great sense of middle-class life in these films, the idea of taking a cab instead of a bus immediately feels like something momentous must have happened).  She grabs the kids and starts packing their clothes, while they cry and ask where they are going and if their father is coming with them.

(So good in this!)

The father comes home (Raghuvaran, who was also very good in this, and who died in 2008?  That’s sad!) and chases them down the stairs, again we see all the heads of their neighbors poking out and watching them as they fight, just like the other times we have had a stairs scene.  But this time they are beyond worrying about the neighbors and Revathy insists on knowing the truth of what is happening or else she is leaving with the children.  Which is when Raghuvaran tells her that he is seeing someone and giving money, but not to a woman, to a child, Anjali.

This is the scene that was so good.  We saw way back at the beginning that they had already decided to name their 3rd child Anjali.  And there was a scene early on when their daughter, Anu, was sad for no reason and finally pointed out that it was “Anjali’s” birthday.  It did a great job of making the baby not just a “baby who died”, but a person that the whole family thought about by name and mourned, even if they never met her.  So all Raghuvaran has to do in this scene is to say the name and Revathy immediately knows who he is talking about.

And then, in the bit that I loved, she grabs him by his collar and plows him all the way down the stairs until he hits the wall on the landing, demanding to know where her child is.  Revathy is this little bit of a thing in a sari, and Raghuvaran is a good foot taller than her, and she is just throwing him around like nothing.  Plus, she goes straight from hysterical wife furious at him for cheating, to completely focused strong woman demanding to know what happened to her daughter.

I guess the explanation he gives is okay?  He says that she was so weak after the birth the doctors were worried for her health, and that the baby was expected to die within hours or days.  So they recommended that he tell her the baby was still born to save her from the shock of thinking her baby was alive and then learning it had died.  It’s not the best explanation in the world.  Wouldn’t telling her that the baby was alive and very sick be the best solution?  Because the shock of telling her it was still-born probably isn’t the best for her health either.

And then he takes her to see her daughter, at a really very nice and pleasant home for mentally different children.  She is an adorable little two year old, who has a hard time making eye contact and enunciating and with general motor control.  I saw some plot description somewhere that she is supposed to be autistic, but the script is very careful not to say that.

According to what the dialogue says, she had brain damage when she was born and wasn’t expected to live, which to me sounds like it is more on the level of oxygen deprivation to the point that the vital life functions part of her brain were affected.  And now she is breathing and moving on her own, but is clearly not developing in the usual way or at the usual level for a 2 year old.  It is an excellent choice on the part of the writers, giving her brain damage from birth lets them be very open as to what kind of issues they want the character to have, without being locked into a particular pattern of mental issues.  It also ties into the description of the birth as being very difficult for Revathy, and resulting in a Cesarean, since all sorts of horrible birth complications could have resulted in oxygen deprivation or brain damage for the child.

Naturally, Revathy wants to take her daughter home immediately, and is also FURIOUS with her husband.  I’m right there with her!  And then the woman who runs the home tells her that Raghuvaran has been spending hours with Anjali every day, her whole life, and if she is still alive, than it is all thanks to his efforts.  So she forgives him.  Hmm.  I think they are addressing a different reason to be mad at him from the reason I have.

If she was angry with him because he put their child away in a home, fine, learning that he has been spending time with her and loving her and never forgot about her would resolve that anger.  But what about the anger of him keeping their daughter all to himself for the past 2 years?  Not letting her mother bond with her like he did?  Not letting her mother enjoy whatever small amount of time they may have?  That is what is making me angry, and I’m not really seeing an argument to forgive him for that.  Not like he had bad motivations or anything, but he still made a decision on behalf of his wife and his daughter that he had no right to make and which is going to harm them for the rest of their lives.

But, plot-wise, I can see why it had to be like this.  We needed to see Anjali as a child old enough that her developmental differences would be immediately apparent.  But we also needed to see the family function without her in order to understand how dramatically she would change things for them.  So, the only solution was to come up with some reason that she couldn’t be brought home directly after birth but only after a few years had past.  Actually, when I first read this plot description, I assumed that it would be both her parents who had been secretly visiting her and only the children were unaware of what was happening until she was old enough and healthy enough to be brought home.  I still think that makes more sense, but then we would have lost the “Revathy turns into the Hulk” scene, which I love.  And all the other scenes of Revathy trying and failing to make a connection.

Anyway, this is the point where the film begins to lose me, because it starts going more and more into the child’s world.  To the point where they have to throw in a completely extraneous plot just to give the parents something to do.  While his wife is home trying to bond with the child who was taken away from her and deal with the emotions of her other two children, Raghuvaran is at work and witnesses a murder.  And is then threatened when he agrees to testify.  And then there’s a whole fight scene with the noble misunderstood ex-convict neighbor, and it’s got nothing to do with anything else, really, but it gives him something to do, while all the important stuff is going on in the children’s playground.  Although it does tie into the themes a little bit, with the society learning to appreciate the ex-convict just as it does Anjali.  But it’s still a distraction from the playground were the real stuff is happening.

I mean, that’s the point of the film after all, that all the important stuff happens in the children’s playground.  Not just in this film, but in, like, life.  That the prejudices and lessons we learn as children will change us forever and dictate how society will function in the future.  So the children teasing Anjali, being beat up by her brother (who also finally learns to love her thanks to this experience), and then learning to see her as a real person and enjoy playing with her, that is the meat of the whole film.  And, like I said above, it just didn’t pull me in as much as it could, because I am too old and set in my ways to relate to kids any more.

But that’s fine, because if the movie is showing us that the changes and things we learn as children can forever effect our lives, than this movie is right to be aimed specifically at the child audience.  It’s not supposed to change the minds of adult set in their ways people (although if it does, that’s fine too), it’s supposed to change the way children look at the world, by showing them their world and how they can make it better.  The children are the ones who really accept Anjali for exactly what she is, and they are the ones who are all called in to stand in silent witness of her death at the end of the film, being made responsible for her whole short life.

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