Such a great movie! I was smiling and laughing in delight the entire time. If you will have a chance to watch it, you can read the No Spoilers review, if you already know the whole story, or won’t be able to see the film, you can read this one. It’s fun to watch not knowing what will happen next, but it’s also fun to watch knowing everything, it’s just that good.
Whole plot in two paragraphs:
When Nivin is a small boy, his father is beaten for theft and his mother orders him to run away and not look back, try to find a better life for himself somewhere else. He ends up in a village a little bit away where a kindly Brahmin gives him food and offers to let him stay in his house (a big concession, since Nivin is Muslim), but is saved from that when the local general store owner offers to take him on instead as a worker, and let him sleep in the store. A few years later, Nivin is a kindly young man who pays for food out of his own wages when poor people need it. He falls in love with an untouchable woman, Priya Anand. He decides that he wants to get training from Babu Antony, the famous martial arts teacher who comes to town every few years. He goes to beg for training and is rejected, but Priya Anand is the servant there and tells him that she can sneak him in. That night he hides in a tree and makes notes of what is taught and practices on his own. Babu catches him at it and he is set up in a fight against Sunny Wayne, Babu’s star pupil, and wins! Babu is stunned, he is a natural genius and so Babu accepts him as his chosen successor. Sunny is insulted and leaves, swearing vengeance. While crossing the river, Nivin dives off the boat in a storm to save the life his Brahmin master who fell overboard and discovers a treasure on the floor of the river. He tells his master about it, who tells the other Brahmins. They plan to raise it up in secret and split the treasure, although it rightfully belongs to the king. They ask Nivin for help, but then set him up, frame him for theft. Nivin is hung by his feet in the village square after having his hands dipped in burning oil, Priya has her hair cut and is beaten out of the village with stones for her wrongdoing (falling in love with Nivin, who is not of her caste or religion). And in this moment when all seems lost, Mohanlal rides into town and cuts Nivin free, throws him across his saddle, and rides out again. INTERVAL
In the second half, Mohanlal convinces Nivin that rather than ride off in search of Priya, he should stay and learn to fight for his people. Mohanlal trains Nivin and they go off raiding together, stealing from the Brahmin’s and giving the money to the untouchable community. Mohanlal leaves and Nivin starts routinely raiding and then giving money, to the leaders of the untouchable community. But the king has a new officer to hunt down Nivin, Sunny Wayne who recognizes him from a sketch and knows it is his rival for Babu Antony’s best student. He finds Nivin by hearing rumors that he is planning to marry his foster-sister who is now helpless and destitute. They complete the marriage just before Sunny Wayne interrupts, he and Nivin fight and Nivin wins again. Sunny Wayne then arranges for Priya Anand to escape from the British fort where she is being kept as a slave and go to the forest and find Nivin. Nivin swears to take vengeance for her, she offers to sneak him and his men into the fort. Nivin is captured. And Priya reveals she turned on him when she learned he married someone else and forgot her, she arranged all of this because they promised her freedom. Nivin is saved by his men in the forest, but then betrayed again. Sunny Wayne goes to Babu Antony who has returned to the area and tells him Nivin is using his teachings for banditry and violence. Babu gives Sunny the secret of an attack that can take Nivin down. Sunny Wayne turns Nivin’s men and his friends with the promise of money, and that Nivin would only be in jail for 3 years. Babu feels terribly guilty for this, once he realizes that he was misinformed and Nivin was not a heartless bandit but a good man. He goes to see Nivin in jail to explain, and then goes out with the crowd to watch the execution. At the last minute, Babu reveals that he secretly told Nivin a series of moves to allow him to escape, Nivin breaks free of his bonds and escapes the hangman, the crowd helps him, there is a massive free for all fight, and finally Nivin swings to safety out over the wall and rides off. Happy Ending.
This is one of those movies where both a lot and a little happen. Basic plot wise, you have Nivin being a poor Muslim boy who secretly learns martial arts and is wrongfully accused of theft, turns into a bandit who steals from the rich in order to correct social injustice, is tricked by the woman he loves and arrested but escapes, then is betrayed by everyone he knows and arrested again, and finally escapes hanging by a whisker. That’s it, that’s the whole big picture.
But in the middle of it, all these little things happen. I didn’t even go over the time that Nivin helps the king when he is out in the forest and is given a written promise of any favor he may ask in return. Or when he refuses to rob a Brahmin young man after learning he is on the way to the household of the man who fed him when he first arrived, despite that same man’s later betrayal of Nivin. Or the clever way he saves Mohanlal and the rest of the gang while they are robbing a house. Or on and on and on.
Everything is little and disconnected, but it does tend to fit into a general theme. The general theme being that people have to stop being play things in the games of the powerful, stop asking for or being grateful for little courtesies instead of demanding their own rights. And this is true in everything from the romance to the early betrayals to the action scenes.
(There’s also a long training song that is strongly 36th Chamber of the Shaolin influenced. As is the whole plot, come to think of it, the somewhat naive young man who is hardened by training and wants to actually go out and help people with his training)
Priya Anand and Nivin, they both betrayed each other. He first, by casually telling the Brahmins they were in love and asking permission to marry in return for helping them get the gold, which lead to her being banished. And her second, by tricking Nivin in order to gain favor from the British. It looks like an impossible situation for both of them, she can only gain freedom by betraying him and he can only get permission to marry by asking for it. But in fact, it is an illusion. They do not need permission to marry, no person does. And she does not need to be “given” her freedom, she possesses it, it is a part of her and she can take it with her.
That is what Mohanlal is trying to tell Nivin in his post-interval speech. Stop playing their game, running around in circles and never seeing that you can simply cross the lines. When the law is unjust, the only solution is to break the law. That is the real advantage of the lawmakers, they made the laws and know how fragile they are, how meaningless.
Several times in the course of the film there is reference to Brahmin men being very careful about caste lines during the day, and then sleeping with low caste women at night. It’s the ultimate hypocrisy, at one point a group of low caste women are being taken to a Brahmin’s house in the middle of the night to apologize for brushing against his cart at a fair, but once there he plans to rape them. Brushing against the cart is a great sin for them, but sleeping with them is no sin at all.
(There is also a really interesting scene watching an item song, followed by low caste village women being brought in to be raped. The contrast of the joyful free will sexuality of the item dancer with the terrified forced presence of the village women. And yet the British and the Brahmin’s, they see no difference, all women exist for their pleasure)
Of course, if you know the weakness and strengths of laws, you also know when it is to your advantage to use them versus when to ignore them. When Nivin is first punished for thievery the older British man, the “decent” one (gives him a medal for bravery, never rapes women) decides to look the other way, the decision is “your race, your case”. Because those are the “rules”, he shouldn’t interfere, he should respect the traditions of Indian society, and so on and so forth. And conveniently it saves him from an awkward conversation.
Even Sunny Wayne believes in the “rules” in his own way. A different set of rules, that if he was a faithful follower to his guru, studied hard and worked hard, eventually he would be the chosen successor. Babu Antony tries to explain to him that the world doesn’t work that way, that Nivin has so much natural talent he cannot look away from it, must give it its due. But Sunny Wayne can’t accept it, this is not what he deserves, this is not what he expected, this is not how it is supposed to work. And so he finds a different set of laws to follow, a different place to relax and be a follower.
But Nivin, he is against the entire system of law. Later in the film he even burns the palm leaf manuscript the Brahmin is reading off of, the most sacred of texts. Because he does not believe in them, does not believe in any written laws that are used to excuse behavior of bad men.
That is what even the other “good” characters do not fully understand. There is a “good” Brahmin, he is against all the evil that his fellow Brahmin do, he speaks out against it, but it never occurs to him to fully ally with the lower classes and simply stop following the rules, destroy the Brahmin houses from the inside, do all the things Nivin ends up doing. His greatest dream is to be given the head of the Brahmin council, not destroying the entire Brahmin council system, or simply taking the head of the council since he knows himself to be the best choice. And that is his weakness, he thinks he is winning by being “given” this things, that it is worth sacrificing Nivin if he can get this small advantage. Nivin’s humble foster family, and his other humble friends, they are shocked at the idea of stealing, they are quick to turn away and testify against him. They do not instead close ranks and lie for him. It isn’t until Nivin shows the way, breaks free of all social bonds and helps them, that they start in their own way to see the emptiness of the boundaries in which they live.
And it’s easy, that’s the thing, once you see it you know how easy it is. One of the untouchables decides to open a tea stall at the market, despite not being supposed to open businesses. Nivin simply marries his foster sister, no need for a dowry or all the pomp originally planned for their wedding. And slowly, all the lower castes join together and support Nivin, take his money and hide him from justice, and cheer as he destroys the signs of Brahmin power. Culminating in the glorious ending scene.
I know the ending isn’t historically accurate, what little is definitely known about the real person includes that he died in British custody. But it is the message the filmmakers wanted to send, the moment they wanted to have. If the people join together, all the people, they can simply reject the laws, reject the power of those above them, take back their own control and do anything.
It’s an message that resonates through Communist theory, and through Gandhi’s movement, and through any time when the mass of people have discovered that they can simply rise up and outnumber the minority that oppress them, that in fact the minority has taught them to oppress themselves, to ask permission, to be grateful for little scraps, instead of questioning the whole system.