I put off writing this review, because I wanted to make sure I had enough time really say good things. Because this is a very good movie and it deserves a good smart review.
Whole plot in two paragraphs:
GV Prakash is a lower cast Christian, from a traditional drum making family. He is a dedicated Vijay fan, failing college, kind of at a loss in life. And he falls in love with Aparna Balamurali, a nursing student who lives in the neighborhood. Then one day his father sends him to deliver a drum to Nedumudi, the greatest Carnatic drummer in India. GV falls in love with drumming and practices and practices and waits outside Nedumudi’s house and begs to be taught by him. The problem is, Carnatic drumming is a religious practice, and GV Prakash is a Christian and lower caste, Nedumudi is reluctant to allow him in and Vineeth (Nedumudi’s assistant teacher) is even more dismissive. But finally GV wears them down and is taken on as a student. He befriends another new student, a wealthy NRI. Vineeth gets into another fight with Nedumudi over GV and Nedumudi sends him away and starts teaching GV personally. But Vineeth conspires with his sister, Dhivyadharshini, a TV talent contest host, to humiliate Nedumudi. They convince the NRI to compete in the show and when he figures out what is happening and runs away, GV is left behind, thinking he is doing a soundcheck but actually being recorded. He is furious when he realizes he was tricked to be on the show against Nedumudi’s orders, and gets into a fight with Vineeth and has his hand crushed. INTERVAL
In the second half, GV is released from jail after his Vijay fan club president threatens protests by the lower caste community about his arrest. GV is told to leave town for a bit. He goes to talk to Nedumudi and is thrown out, Vineeth lied that it was GV’s idea to be on TV and Nedumudi is angry with him for it. GV and his father go back to their village and GV sees the way the community lives in the country, in far worse condition than they do in the city, and starts to understand more of the pain of the lower castes. He returns home and tries to rejoin his father making drums, but feels empty inside. He ends up wandering the city, drunk and miserable. Aparna tracks him down and takes him back to her apartment and cleans him up and comforts him and they have sex. But he admits the next morning, he still isn’t fully “with” her, because he still hears the drumming in his head. Aparna suggests he stop thinking of Nedumudi as his teacher, and think of the whole world as his teacher. GV goes on a trip through all of India, learning different styles of drumming. And meanwhile back home, Nedumudi loses all his students, the NRI is the last one, he leaves saying that he is going to be a contestant on the TV show. Nedumudi is no longer invited to perform at the Carnatic Society concert (the highest musical honor), but the winners of the TV show contest are, and the president of the society is one of the judges. Nedumudi is finally convinced to look for GV, his greatest student. He goes to GV’s parents, and has them call GV. GV comes back and trains again, this time for the TV contest which Nedumudi is sure will give him the prestige he wants. GV appears and at first he and the NRI are tied. And then in the final round, they are challenged to play something original, and GV is inspired to play a rhythm that brings together everything he learned in his whole life, the audience claps along, cheers, he wins. Nedumudi walks out, GV rushes after him to apologize for not playing a rhythm Nedumudi taught him, but Nedumudi says it is all right, he played something even greater. Epilogue, we see GV playing at the Carnatic association, with Nedumudi in the audience holding a baby (perhaps GV and Aparna’s child).
The plot written out like that can’t fully express how beautiful this movie is. It’s in all the little things. Like, the moment Aparna admits she loves GV too. She sewed him up when he got into a fight late at night, and he started following her around, joined the German language classes she was taking, leaving her little gifts. She gently turned him away because he wasn’t like her, they had nothing in common (meaning, he is from a low caste working family and she is a nursing student with a bright future working overseas). But now she runs into him late at night at a tea stall with Nedumudi and makes fun of him and threatens to tell Nedumudi how he used to chase her. He begs her not to do it, and she is angry, says “all of that, and don’t you even think about me any more?” He says yes, he thinks about her. And she says “I think about you too. All the time” and turns and walks away. But, what makes it beautiful, is the moment she stops talking, the movie cuts to the song “Maya Maya” and we see her missing him and thinking of him over and over as she goes about life, and then it cuts back to the same second as she finishes turning and walks away. Any movie would have the reveal that the girl he likes has liked him all along. But to do it this way, with that split second cut, the way their whole emotions change in just a moment, that’s something special.
Really, the plot is the weakest part. The first half is perfection, seeing over and over again GV’s pain in trying to learn something and being cut off from it because he is the wrong caste. And then his joy and dedication once he is allowed in, and his humility, taking the insults and revering and obeying Nedumudi. All the way to the NRI, his seeming friend, betraying him. Revealing the down deep belief that he matters less, because he is poor and low caste and the NRI is rich and high caste. GV goes to his village and sees what his father escaped from by moving to the city. He comes back, fully awake to the pain he carries and unable to move with it. Aparna saves him, and he travels through the country, learning that music is everywhere, it cannot be restricted by the powerful Brahmins, the world belongs to everyone.
And then it all goes strange. The solution to all of this is for GV to win the TV talent competition. With training from Nedumudi. After the TV talent competition was established as being a shallow idea created partly just to give a space to talentless Vineeth after Nedumudi refused to work with him any more, now suddenly it is being redeemed as a true place where talent can be appreciated outside of its origins. And after that moment of understanding that GV doesn’t need a teacher, the World is his teacher, Nedumudi takes him back and GV goes right back to the Guru-student relationship.
The movie was heading towards one message, one that is organic from what we saw, GV might not have been the first person from his community with the talent to learn drumming, but none of them were ever allowed, only his spectacular talent got him a chance. Nedumudi is “kind”, but still reluctant to listen to or help GV. GV shouldn’t have to struggle this hard, the world should be free and open to anyone who has the talent. It shouldn’t be this one in a million chance, will GV winning the TV talent show help the villagers? Will Nedumudi visiting his father’s workshop one time make up for Nedumudi keeping his father outside the walls of his house for years so he did not “dirty” his home? The message the film is moving towards is something larger than just a TV talent competition.
But then that message goes away. It’s about GV’s personal artistic journey, and Nedumudi’s quest for his one true disciple. And it kind of works, there were seeds for this story planted at the beginning. One thing that the film does well is show the passage of time as GV keeps learning. At the beginning Nedumudi promises him it will be 3 years of dedication before he is a master. We see GV start in a class with 5 other students. Then it goes down to 4 others. And then 3. And then just GV and the NRI. GV studies the basics, the NRI lends him recordings of master drummers from all over the world and he listens obsessively. He plays music everywhere, at Aparna’s hospital, at home, everywhere. He is thrown out, and keeps studying on his own, traveling India and drumming everywhere. He comes back and it is finally 3 years later. Nedumudi has lost all his students and come to appreciate GV as his one most faithful disciple. GV has traveled and learned and it has served to bring him to a greater appreciation of Nedumudi. He joins the competition to bring honor to Nedumudi, but then goes above and beyond, loses himself in his own music, and proves he has moved beyond his Guru. Fine, that’s an okay story. But if that is the story they wanted to tell, they should not have focused so much on the caste issues in the first half.
In my cut of this movie, GV goes on his journey and returns to the city to play for the younger man who is head of the Carnatic Society (who already challenged Nedumudi for not being willing to change with the times). He gets a chance to play on stage, a chance Nedumudi lost, and Nedumudi watches him and finally comes to understand how he judged him unfairly, how he did not believe in him because he still saw the low caste Christian boy, not the amazing musical talent he had. The greater message that cast distinctions don’t just harm the lower caste community, they harm everyone, the world loses out on all this beauty because it doesn’t have a chance to flower.
But, the current cut is fine. And they can’t really end with leaving it at “TV talent shows are just about ratings and are shallow contrived things”, because AR Rahman not only judges TV shows, he has found a lot of his collaborators on them. Heck, even Arijit Singh had that kind of career, after a lifetime spent learning classical music, his Guru recommended he go on a TV show as it would be his best chance to get noticed and find a career. It’s a little shallow and simple to just have him win a TV talent contest, but it’s better than the ending I feared, the Drona ending.
Early in the film, when Nedumudi is refusing to teach GV, GV cuts his photo out and puts it on his wall, practicing in front of it. Like Eklavya, watching from a distance and using a statue of Drona to teach himself archery. Nedumudi mentions frequently his fear of shaking hands, that he might suffer a broken finger and lose his rhythm. There is foreshadowing that GV is going to somehow break his hand just like Eklavya having his thumb cut off as the price for learning archery as a lower caste. Thank goodness, the film doesn’t go that way, doesn’t go with the impossibility of change, with inevitable tragedy to the lower castes. GV gets his hand broken, but keeps going, finds a new way to drum and move past the pain.
Even without the Drona-Eklavya plot, or the “GV triumphs outside of the established system” ending, there is still a subtle lesson about the importance of all parts of society. The Vijay fan society that he was a part of at the start stays with him through out. It is the president of the society who helps him get out of jail, and later the society raises the money for him to go on his cross-country journey. And they show up for his TV show, cheering him on. It is his father’s lessons about what makes a drum, and about the suffering of their community, that helps him connect more deeply with his craft. Even Aparna, it is his love for her and their night of sex that snaps him out of his artistic depression. And the wealthy NRI with the Harvard degree, who can’t connect the way GV can, his life is empty. Music isn’t about Nedumudi reaching GV and giving up the rest of his life, it is about GV learning to bring that whole life into his lessons with Nedumudi.
There are all the ways the plot could have gone, but really all of them would have been fine. And the film we got is fine. Because it’s not about the plot, it’s about the feeling, it’s about the drumming like a heartbeat in the background of every scene, it’s about understanding a passion that is so overpowering it is greater than family, than love, than friendship, than anything else in life.