What a great movie! Made me so happy to watch a really good classic Malayalam film after so long. And my first young Manju Warrier movie! And Thilakan gets his comeuppance! It’s all good.
Manju Warrier has such an interesting face. You start out thinking it is average, then start to think it is plain, and finally decide it is beautiful. This whole movie is spent just studying her face and trying to figure out what she feels and why. Manju was only 21, but 4 years into her career and already retired, marrying Dileep just before this film came out. And I can see why it felt like such a loss when she stopped acting right after this. She is the pillar that holds up this whole film, everything else revolves around and relies on her.
It is so easy for heroine lead films to feel like they were written for a man and the names changed. But not this one. Manju wants revenge just as much as any man, but the way she goes about it is not like any man would. She stays a woman and does the things a woman does, exploits the weaknesses that only an unnoticed weaker member of society would ever see. And gets her revenge for the way those weaknesses were exploited in others.
With all of that, the hero of the film is no lightweight. Abbas is SO MUCH better here than he was in Kandukondain Kandukondain. He is funny and sweet and sincere and even a little bit noble. He doesn’t get in Manju’s way, and he doesn’t help her either, he is just there for her, supportive and sweet and kind. This is the perfect hero for a heroine lead film, and the perfect romance, he is her reward and her next chapter, but he is not her only goal.
And then there’s Thilakan. As always, I don’t like him. But it is a very particular kind of dislike. He seems so harmless, an old man who can barely walk, until we learn just how harmful such old men can be.
Biju Menon was somewhat surprising. As was his character. He starts out seeming the most one-dimensional predictable character of all, and then as the film goes on we discover unexpected depths. He isn’t the predictable one at all, and Biju handily moves from his surface character to the surprising man that is underneath.
What makes the story really remarkable for me is how raw it is. Thilakan’s body hair is shown growing all over him, the women in the field wear blouses stained with sweet and straining with their efforts, and the peaceful perfect village is shown to be a complicated heap of secrets and lies and tragedies, with happiness somehow mixed in at the same time.
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This is a very well-constructed movie with an excellent use of flashback. We start with a simple version, a little girl calling for her father and digging for a hand coming up out of the mud. Standard birth-of-vengeance kind of origin story. And then we jump forward to see a boatload of female workers being brought out to a plantation for the harvest. It seems if not idyllic than at least not terrible. The woman are smiling and happy for the work, Biju Menon (son of the landlord) comes up to look them over and some of them smile and appear happy with his attention. The sun is shining, the water is glistening, it’s nice. And there is Manju Warrier, looking like an average young woman, fitting in with the rest of the work group.
We learn more about the area, the landlord is Thilakan, his knee is stiff and he can barely walk. We see him in his house, he has a priest and an Ayurveda doctor to help him, plus a nice older wife. His son, Biju, is lustful and all that but seems to have a long term relationship with a woman who he protects in return for her loyalty. They aren’t the best people, but they aren’t bad.
That “not bad” feeling is increased when we (seemingly) here the story of how Manju’s father died, what she wants vengeance for. According to the old woman of the workers, there was a break in the dam. According to old legend, only a dead body could seal it, so the leader of the workers bravely jumped into the breach and ordered the other workers to dig and bury him alive. He is a martyr and a hero for the local Communist Party. We see Manju lighting a candle for him at the little shrine kept by the healed breach, so we know that is her father.
So, what’s the problem? He sacrificed himself and she, in her childish confusion, blamed the landlord? Who doesn’t seem great but isn’t horrible, and neither is his son, just a little handsy and flirty with the field workers. Not to mention that the very nice traveling salesman Abbas, a young Muslim with a boat full of little bangles and mirrors and scarves to sell the workers during harvest, wants to marry her. So Manju should learn to forgive and forget and move on and get married, like a wholesome good woman.
Her initial efforts at vengeance seem almost childish as well, she tricks her way into the household as an extra servant, and smiles and sings in happiness at having gotten so close to her goal, like a little girl. She smiles and buys bangles from Abbas in happiness when asking him to sharpen her machete. And then she takes the machete and clumsily brings it down on Thilakan’s bed in a darkened room only to discover he is not in it and she has destroyed a feather mattress for no reason.
I could feel the shift coming, feel the message of the movie switching from a standard revenge story to understanding and forgiveness and maturity and love. Manju is childish and mistaken, she will stay in the household and come to see the hidden goodness and kindness of the people she hated. And once her heart softens and the hatred leaves, she will give in and marry Abbas and be healed.
I thought that would happen right up to the turning point, when she captures Biju’s mistress and threatens her with a knife. I thought the mistress would explain to her how Biju has helped and protected her, they aren’t bad people. But instead the mistress tells her she is doing the right thing and they deserve to die, she deserves to die. !!!! Such a twist! Vengeance is good! Female vengeance is good! Female violence is good!
The second flashback, the detailed flashback, suddenly lets us see the reality of this place. Manju had an idyllic childhood with her strong happy father and beautiful mother, and their close friends and neighbors, a younger married couple that spoiled Manju. Only in the midst of this idyll, there was Thilakan. He saw Manju’s mother from a distance, and looked at her and desired her. He wasn’t handsome and young, and he wasn’t pitiful and old, he was just middle-aged and frogfaced and confident in his power. While Manju’s father led a worker’s strike, Thilakan went to her mother and threatened her. She turned him down, and in order to get her unprotected and punish her for rejecting him, he stopped Manju’s father as she was walking home from the strike with Manju. He beat him up and pinned him to the ground, then caused the breach in the dam and had his men bury Manju’s father alive, and prepare to spread the story that he sacrificed himself for the greater good. Manju watches it all, and is still there when her mother appears. In horror at what happened, and in angry refusal to give in to Thilakan, she sets herself and fire and dies as Manju watches.
There is so much here! First, that the workers were duped with the story of Manju’s father’s sacrifice. So ready to believe this pretty fairy tale rather than looking directly at the ugliness around them, just as we the viewer were ready to believe in the pretty fairy tale of this rural land of sweet old landlords and confused young women.
Second the way Thilakan and Biju’s dominance over women is reframed. We see the willing flirtation of the field workers with Biju, Manju refuses and he backs off. And we see the close relationship between Biju and his regular mistress, she mentions feeling guilt over having testified for her husband’s killers, he reassures her that he will keep her safe and take care of her. But now we see the hidden power that drives these women to seeming compliance. They may smile, they may flit, but it is because of spoken or unspoken threats to them. The landlord cannot sleep with the fieldworker without the power differential making a difference.
And third, the reasons for Manju’s vengeance and the need for it becomes so much clearer. If this is the kind of wrong that was done to her, and could be done to others, than Thilakan and Biju must die. They don’t just deserve death, they MUST die, for the greater good.
This is also when we first learn that Manju’s father always told her to be “daring”, not sweet or girlish or anything else feminine. And her old friend/Biju’s mistress tells her to remember that. Manju coats herself in male determination and confidence, not female shame. And when Biju’s mistress fails in her attempt to kill him and is killed herself and her body dumped in the river, Manju’s determination doubles as does her deceit.
Manju’s mother ran from her female beauty, was afraid of Thilakan’s advances. And killed herself in a last act of defiance. Manju has no shame and will use any tool at hand, including her own body. And she has no guilt for that either, she plans and hopes to marry sweet Abbas after this is all finished, and she does not apologize to him for what she is doing or even explain. She just asks that he wait until she does what she has to do.
Manju’s final plan, her careful thought out plan, ruthlessly uses the weaknesses of her enemies and turns her own weakness into strength. She convinces poor Biju that she loves him and wants to marry with him and will not sleep with him until he marries her. And she convinces Thilakan that she is attracted to him, wakens desire within him again. Seemingly both men are being used by her, are at her mercy and she is betraying them. But then we saw Biju heartlessly murder his long time mistress, and we saw the lengths Thilakan went to get a woman who attracted him. Both men may be at her mercy now, but that does not mean they deserve mercy from her.
Manju’s strongest point as a character, for me, is when Abbas surprises her seducing Biju and fights for her, demanding that she tell Biju she belongs to him. And Manju resists. She does not give in to Abbas’ pleas, she does not even bother to explain to him later. Or to ask for his help and protection. She asked him to wait and trust, and she steels herself to have faith that he will, to know that this is hard but it is a path she must travel. She truly loves Abbas and wants their future together, but that does not mean she NEEDS Abbas for anything.
Her final plan is so magnificently perfect, and brilliantly filmed, that I forgive the way it is also a wee bit unbelievable. She dresses as bride and plans to secretly meet Biju to marry him, at the same place she entices Thilakan to come and sleep with her. As Biju arrives, she begins to struggle with Thilakan and call out for help. Biju arrives and starts to fight his father, who fights back. Both men struggle in the water while Manju breaks the dam where her father is buried, burying them in a flood of water and killing them.
If Thilakan had been a better man, good enough that his own son did not know of his history of raping women, Biju would have listened to him rather than attacking him. If Biju had been faithful to his mistress instead of killing her, or faithful to his official arranged fiance, then Manju could not have enticed him. If either man had been true in their relations with women and with each other, they would not be fighting now. Father kills son, son kills father, the snake eats its own tail and the circle is closed. And to put the finishing touch, Manju breaks the dam, releasing her own father’s body and destroying the dam itself which brought all the wealth to Thilakan.
It was only at this point in the film that the overriding metaphor finally clicked into place for me. Thilakan had mentioned before that the river is what gave him his wealth. He controlled it, dammed it up, and made himself king of the land. He dams it further when he kills Manju’s father in his attempt to possess Manju’s mother. The first present day scene of the film is a boat load of women being brought down the river. Abbas, he works in his boat, floating above the water and working with it. And now, at the end, Manju lets her revenge flow and the water pours forth and kills Biju and Thilakan together.
The water is women, flowing and slowly wearing down obstructions, taking the soft bending way instead of the frontal attack, but eventually finding that one crack in the dam that will release their power. Thilakan seeks to control it, Abbas works with it. Manju is one with the water, its power is her power, and in the end she floats away with it, not in death as she feared, but in life, finding Abbas and redeeming his promise to take her away with him on his little boat.