This is the 4th Indian movie I saw. First Lagaan, then Rangeela, then DDLJ, then this. And I had no idea what was happening or what I was watching. But I liked it!
Kandukondain was the 3rd Indian film I saw (Lagaan, Rangeela because the movie store guys told my mother it was another Aamir movie, and then KK). I saw it first at an art theater in Chicago on a Saturday, and then on Sunday I came back to see the other half of their mini-India fest, something called “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge“. I was more excited for KK, because it was a remake of Sense and Sensibility, my favorite Austen novel. And it was a really good interesting remake, and I had the normal reaction after seeing a film of “huh, good movie, not life changing, but then what movie is?” And then came back the next day for DDLJ and went “LIFE CHANGING MOVIE!!!!!” And then got busy changing my life for Shahrukh (redecorating the dorm room, scheduling 4 hours a week for renting and returning movies, altering my friend group to primarily include people who could teach me more about SRK, adding a film studies minor, etc. etc.) and forgot about Kandukondain Kandukondain. Poor Kandukondain Kandukondain! And the sad thing is, it’s a really good movie! If it hadn’t been going up against DDLJ, it would have been an all time favorite for me instead just a “oh, and you’re here too.” But now I am trying to make up for that and do a post that explains exactly how and why this is such a good film which is worthy of discussion. And which I am really glad was my first experience of the non-Hindi industries!
One thing I find fascinating looking back on it from my greater heights of knowledge is what a coming together it was of pan-India talents. Rahman did the music (one of his all time great soundtracks, even in my SRK fog I remembered the songs from this one better than the songs from DDLJ). Farah did the choreography, I don’t think she has done many southern movies but she did this one. The two heroines, Aishwarya and Tabu, are both all India talents. They’ve each done southern films (at the time this was made, I think Aish might have only done southern films?), but Hindi films as well. Mammootty, one of our heroes, is, well, Mammootty! All time Malayalam star, also big in the Tamil industry, and dabbled in Hindi. And Dino Morea is there too! Being all young and speedo wearing. I guess the only non-All India star is Ajith? Who, The Internet is telling me, is a really really big deal in Tamil cinema? See, if I hadn’t fallen for Shahrukh that weekend, maybe I would have fallen for Ajith and spent the last 13 years of my life obsessing over him and learning everything about Tamil cinema. He was a better dancer, I noticed that through the Shahrukh love fog too.
But really the movie gets down to one thing, Tabu. This might be the best role I have ever seen her in. I haven’t seen a ton of her films, but even if I had, I think it would still be her best role. It’s always going to be a great role, Elinor Dashwood is a fascinating character, and a special challenge for an actress. To play someone so repressed and internal that she can’t express her emotions to anyone ever, and yet make sure the audience can still see what those emotions are. And on top of that to show a very subtle character development from the responsible oldest daughter, to the true head of the household.
Of course, Elinor only works when you see her with Marianne. And Aishwarya makes a perfect Marianne. Truly stunningly beautiful, I mean Aish is always beautiful, but 2000 Aish was a special kind of unearthly. And also strangely childish, in her emotions in her behaviors, in everything. And in this particular performance, also well supported. She was dubbed, so the line readings were provided by a different actress (I am sure one of the handful of very busy and experienced Tamil voice actors). And her character was a singer and a dancer, meaning the majority of her character’s emotional landscape was filled in by Rahman’s music and Farah’s choreography.
Let’s talk about that choreography for a moment. All of the songs are good, but “Smiyai” is a special kind of amazing. I can’t believe Rajiv Menon, the director, has only made two movies! Two GREAT movies, Minsara Kanavu/Sapnay also has brilliant songs in it (including my beloved Gene Kelly/Prabhudeva combo of “Love Is Here to Stay/”Vennilavae”). But still, to pull of these visual feats on minimal directing experience is incredible. I know he was Ratnam’s cinematographer (which must be its own special kind of film school), but this goes far beyond cinematography, this is putting together characters and plot and putting them over the top with the visuals. In a way that isn’t just the choreographer or just the composer, but some special sauce the director has to bring to it. Which is “Smiyai”. A simple idea, brilliantly executed.
See, Ajith is a director who is in love with Tabu. They aren’t big fancy film star people, they are a nice couple who has lunch together in the canteen. But while Ajith is figuring out the song sequence for his film, he starts imagining that he is the hero, and he is dancing with Tabu. Only, the “real” heroine keeps intruding on his dreams. And the “real” hero keeps taking his place. We go from the dreamscape of dancing with Tabu, to the “real”scape of teaching the hero and heroine the moves, to the new kind of dreamscape of the completed set and trained hero and heroine dancing together in the film. And then we keep hoping back and forth between all three. In one song it’s an explanation for the “dream factory” of filmmaking, the real dream of being in love, and how the two intersect and are shown on film. Brilliant! And also, really really fun! One of Rahman’s all time great “happy” songs performed in an all time great “happy” way!
In a different film (Jeans, for instance, my second Tamil film) the songs would overwhelm the plot, because they are so so so so so good. But this plot is also so so so so so good. I wish Indian film would do more Austen, because the kind of internal relationship based stuff she does is perfect for finding expression in Indian filming styles. Oh, and it’s all commentary on class and gender and marriage and all that other stuff that Indian film does so well! However, even if this is the only “real” Austen adaptation we ever get in India (no, I don’t count Bride and Prejudice because I am not INSANE), it might be enough for me. Because it sets such a high standard of fully understanding the inner meaning of the story, I don’t know if any other film will be able to match that (well, except for my suggestions for Persuasion)
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Sense and Sensibility was the first Austen book I read to myself, and it is still my favorite. My mother read us Pride and Prejudice as a family read aloud (when we were really too young to fully appreciate it, 6 and 8 I think), but then years later I decided I wanted to read more Austen all on my own and I got Sense and Sensibility from the library. I struggled a bit getting into it (it’s the first book Austen wrote, and the opening is a bit ragged), so I started reading it aloud to myself just to keep focused, but after the first couple chapters, I was hooked! No need for further tricks.
This is the kind of story that is the reason Austen was and is so amazingly popular. Two sisters, the oldest has always had to be a bit too sensible and practical and hides her feelings from others so they won’t worry. And the youngest who goes to far in the other direction, glories in her emotions and fantasies. And the thing is, we all know sisters like this. Heck, a lot of us ARE sisters like this. It’s a natural balancing act, one person in the family always has to be sensible and the other always has to be emotional. Especially with sisters. “If you aren’t going to say this and feel this, I will feel it for you” and “if you aren’t going to think about this things and take care of these things, I will do them for you”.
(I love this song, Aish/Marianne flirting with Ajith/Edward on behalf of her repressed sister)
But once you are set in that pattern, the “smart” one and the “pretty” one or the “responsible” one and the “fun” one, you start sort of growing into it, until it isn’t just your personality within the family, but the personality you bring with you out into the world and it’s really hard to break from it. Especially when times are hard and the simplest way to respond is to fall into your established patterns.
That’s what Sense and Sensibility is about, at its heart, the way a family of women headed by two sisters adjusts itself so that the two sisters balance each other. And how those two sisters have to break free of this balance in order to form their own identities outside of the family, how painful that is. And how invisible this whole struggle is, because who pays attention to women? Especially a whole household of women?
All of Austen is about invisible stories. The conversations you have in bedrooms and kitchens and around breakfast tables. The things that the men don’t see, that even other women outside the family aren’t told about. And the gentile poverty that everyone pretends not to see, pretends isn’t a problem because there are no easy solutions for it.
In the original novel, the household of women living on the edge of disaster comes about after the death of their father, and all his property going to his son, their stepson/half-brother and his greedy wife. The women are kicked out of their home and forced to move to a cottage, living on the charity of a distant relative. Suddenly Elinor, our older heroine, has to take charge of a very lean household budget and control her devastated by grief mother, and just generally take her father’s place. And Marianne, our younger heroine, retreats even more to the dreams that are her escape from reality. The structure of the plot and series of events in the novel is a bit messy (like I said, her first book), the film version streamlines it all and modernizes and Indianizes the situation. But the essential idea, of a household of women struggling to survive in a man’s world, and the two sisters bearing the brunt of it, that remains.
The novel has 3 stages, a time in the original mansion while they wait for their half-brother to take it over during which the older sister falls in a quiet unspoken kind of love with a quiet unspoken kind of man, a time in the small cottage in the country where rules seem to matter less and the younger sister falls in passionate perfect love with a handsome promising young man, and a time in the city when all of these love affairs come to a head and then fail. Followed by a happy epilogue after they return to the country where it is all resolved.
This works for Regency England, where there is the line between city and country that moves season by season. But in modern India, the line between city and country is a bit different. You can’t go back. Plus, that whole thing with the love stories happening in sequence instead of simultaneously is confusing.
And so in this film, they are in the country happily living in their grandfather’s house, caring for him as he slowly dies. In this seemingly secure and happy place, Tabu and Aishwarya both fall in love, Tabu with a young earnest filmmaker Ajith and Aishwarya with the dashing superstar investment banker Abbas.
(Abbas looks so stupid in this song, I am glad he doesn’t get the girl in the end)
But then disaster! Their grandfather dies, their evil uncle and wife come in and take the house and throw them out. And they have to move to the city and struggle, and slowly Tabu and Aish both come into their own and learn to get past the simple versions of themselves that they were in the country. And their love stories shift with them, Tabu’s love deepens into something that makes her willing to sacrifice herself and her own happiness for his, while Aish’s love floats away, not ready to stand up to the realities of life.
There are a lot of metaphors and backstories and things in this film that aren’t in the novel. But which don’t feel unfaithful to it, they just feel like they are adding a new angle on the same story Austen would always want to tell. In Regency England, Elinor is “old” and poor. In India, she is “bad luck”, her arranged marriage fell through when her fiance killed himself. Either way, the point is the same, all of society sees her as a burden rather than a blessing, and she internalizes this to the point that she is never willing to speak up for herself.
In Regency England, Marianne falls in love with a young man who has great expectations of an inheritance from his wealthy aunt. In modern India, Aish falls in love with a young man who has a promising chit fund scheme. In Regency England, he cowardly marries for money after his aunt takes away his inheritance. In modern India, he marries a politician’s daughter after his chit fund fails in order to pay back his debts. In either case, the meaning is the same, he could have stood up and fought for his own place in the world, but instead he took the easy way out and traded on his looks and eligibility and gave up the woman he really loved. Because handsome charming men can’t be trusted (a running theme in Austen’s novels).
Marianne/Aish is essentially the same in Regency England and modern India. A dreamy beautiful sheltered woman who breaks the bounds of society because she thinks she can and she thinks she is in love. And then has to suffer not just a broken heart, but regrets for how she threw herself into this love story and invited in the heart break. There is one big change in this version, after meeting Abbas again in the city and learning that he is marrying another woman without ever planning to tell her, Abbas finds her and offers for her to become his lover. Which absolutely seems like the kind of thing Willoughby would have done, if Austen had been bold enough to write the scene. However, the point of the scene isn’t that Men-whose-names-start-with-W-are-scum, it’s the reaction it causes within Aish/Marianne. She suddenly is confronted with how all her “sensibility” and romance and flouting of society is seen by others. It’s not beautiful and romantic, it looks like she is willing to have an affair with a married man just because they are in love. That is her turning point, to see the price that comes with an overflow of emotion.
And Tabu/Elinor’s turning point is at the very end, when she has forced herself to say good-bye for ever to the man she loves and just can’t make herself do it. Sometimes her emotions are so strong, even she can’t control them.
Oh shoot, I forgot Colonel Brandon! Just accept that he is awesome too. Not as good as Alan Rickman (the One True Colonel Brandon), but really really close. And they do a brilliant job of changing him from a shut off dignified older man, to a teasing friendly presence that Aishwarya seemingly ignores entirely, until she doesn’t. Uff, their final love scene when they come together! The way Mammootty almost seems to be crouching away from her, hiding from her because he is too scared to accept this happiness.
And finally, my favorite Austen-to-Tamil translation, our shy Edward who just wants to be a minister is turned into Ajith, who just wants to make films. Because as religion was to Regency England, so are films to Tamil Nadu.