This is a very long and detailed review, as is appropriate for such a deep and complex movie. So, prepare yourself! Strap in for a lot of detail and discussion!
I said in my Amen review that I was going to look at Pellissery movies in terms of the one distinctive technical flourish he used, and assume that indicated what was theme for the film. In this movie, what he experiments with over and over again is moving back and forth in a story to show us the same scene from a different angle, or through the eyes of a different character, or after we know what happened next.
That’s what the film is about, I think, how the same thing can look so different depending on whose eyes you are watching it from, and if you know what will happen next, or what has happened last. And that’s what makes it a city film. In a village, we all know that already. I talked about in my review of Megham how there was so much that Mammootty didn’t know, because it never occurred to anyone in the village to tell him because they are so used to everyone knowing everything about everyone and every incident going back to the beginning of time. But in a city, you are constantly having moments of interacting with strangers, not knowing their story and how you are playing a supporting role in it. And it’s that feeling with Pellissery is trying to give us here, making us relate one by one to each person, and with them, barely notice the other stories surrounding them.
Of course, it’s technically brilliant and kind of impossible too. Every scene done twice or three times from two or three different angles, with different editing, but the same performance from the actors. Either he used invisible cameras, or he somehow managed to get an inhumanly exact replication of the same performance from numerous actors in every scene. And it’s not boring! The same thing over and over again, and I am never bored! Because each time it is like I am experiencing it for the first time, along with the characters.
In Amen, the biggest flaw was that it felt like the beauty of the images kind of built a distance between us the audience and the characters. But in this film, the technical fireworks are in service of drawing us closer to the characters. The film is a journey from watching them as strangers to watching them as people about whom we care deeply. That’s why we watch the opening sequence over again at the end, one of the few moments in the film which we see twice with no alterations in the visuals. What is altered is ourselves, how we feel about what is happening now that we have learned to care about the people involved.
And the same is true of the characters onscreen. That is the very end of the film, a voice over saying that she can’t believe how someone she never thought about before had now become the only thing that matters in her life.
What makes this film different from the other movies in which those living in a city find surprising connections between each other is that they already had connections in place. It’s not that they went from “oh the loneliness of city life” to “with great difficulty building a connection”. No, they all already had connections, some good and some bad. But a city is just like anywhere else, you can’t live without making a connection somehow to someone. The difference is that in the city you have options, there are new connections that you can make, new people to know and care about and who can care about you. That’s, I think, what makes it a “City of God”. That ultimately there is a just God looking over and controlling these people, making sure virtue is rewarded and the good find each other. And the greatest virtue you can have, is love.
Like in Angamaly, it feels like the actors are in service of the characters, not the other way around. They are all fantastic to greater or lesser degrees, but it is the brothers Sukumaran who stand out. They never really have a scene together, which could have been just a wink to the audience that was waiting for them to share screen space, like the build to Amitabh and Abhishek in Bunty Aur Babli. But it could also be because their characters were such opposite forces, they couldn’t exist in the same scene. Indrajith is everything earthy and human. And Prithviraj is so powerful as to be almost godlike, he wins every fight, solves every problem. Honestly, in his fight scenes in particular, the only comparison I can think of is Amitabh in the 70s. And, put it another way, Prithviraj in this film is the only time I have seen a performance come even close to the effect of Amitabh onscreen in the 70s. But what makes Indrajith and Prithviraj ultimately the same is that both of them are driven by love, driven to fight and sacrifice and do to their utmost because of what they feel in their hearts.
Everyone in this film does something that is more or less “wrong”. They drink, they fight, they lie. But the difference is why they do these things. If it is for love, then the God of the film forgives them and they can find their happy ending. If it is for hate, or desire, or greed, then there is no happy ending. Come to think of it, that’s literal! The film shows that love is the happy ending, the only possible happy ending. And if you don’t have love in your heart, you can never be happy, because there is nothing worthwhile waiting for you in the end.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
This is going to be a funny one to talk about because if you write it out straight-forward it doesn’t mean anything. It’s only the way it is shown, and re-shown, to the viewer that gives it meaning. But at the same time, it is very confusing to follow on first watch without some idea of the basic storyline (why I suspect it did not do well in theaters). So the ideal way to watch it is with some general concept of the plot, but still able to be surprised by the details and how it all comes together. I’m going to give my best shot at recreating that. So, firstly, the basics of the characters and plot:
Indrajith and Parvathy are Tamilians, day laborers living in a Tamil colony in Kochi. They are good friends, and in love with each other, but Indrajith knows Parvathy has an abusive husband she is separated from and so never considers acting on his feelings. After they get caught in a fight with some rowdies at a movie, Indrajith brings Parvathy back to live in the same quarters as himself and his sister Rohini and other friends. Rohini is touched by Parvathy’s story and decides to marry her off, not to Indrajith, but to another acquaintance who pretends to be rich and passionately devoted to Parvathy. On their wedding night, the new husband is arrested as a thief and Parvathy goes running back to Indrajith and they finally admit their feelings. But the danger is still there, in the end, Parvathy’s abusive husband tracks them down. And they are on the run from him, trying to get out of town, when their motorcycle swerves in front of a jeep, causing it to veer into a lightpost.
Meanwhile, Prithviraj is an enforcer who works for Rajeev Pillai, a land developer. He is an enforcer, but more than just muscle. We first seen him negotiating with a Dubai based businessman who is backing out on an agreement to sell them land. Prithviraj both handles the talking part of the negotiation and, when they are turned down, he handles the muscle part of it, leading a team that wayleighs the Dubai businessman that night and stabs him to death in front of his screaming wife. One night Prithviraj is waiting for Rajeev and sees his girlfriend Rima Kallingal, a beautiful young actress. Rajeev sends him to pick her up and drive her around occasionally. Prithviraj falls in love with her through their small interactions, although she never even notices him. And when he learns that Rajeev is working an elaborate scheme to entrap Rima, he tries to reach Rima to tell her, but doesn’t get the chance until it is almost too late. In the end, he forces Rajeev to do the right thing and is driving him and Rima to the police, when Rajeev tries to molest Rima, he is distracted trying to separate them, and doesn’t notice Indrajith and Parvathy on their bike and veers into a light post. After the accident, Rima is fine, Rajeev is dead, and Prithviraj is arrested. In the end, Rima calls him in jail.
Rima is a troubled actress. We learn that she eloped with a man in college and when they were desperate for money, Rajeev came to their rescue and helped her get a job in TV, which eventually turned into a job in films because of her talent. She and Rajeev were in love but he was too cowardly to run away with her and risk the anger of his family. Now he pops up in her life periodically, expecting her to be available to him, and she rejects him because she doesn’t love him any more. Her husband beats her for this, wanting to keep Rajeev’s money and patronage coming. Just when she thinks the marriage is getting better, her husband has a job and seems to be trying to take care of her, there is an accident at the construction site he is supervising, and he is arrested. To get him out, Rima needs Rajeev to sign a paper saying it was his construction site and his responsibility. But what she doesn’t know is that Rajeev and her husband planned this whole thing between them to blackmail her into going back to Rajeev. Prithviraj tries to tell her, but she thinks he is just a thug and won’t see him. Finally, when she comes to give in to Rajeev, Prithviraj bursts in and drags her away, telling her that it was all a set-up job, then stays back to convince Rajeev to do the right thing and let her go. He goes to tell Rima that Rajeev has agreed to sign the papers and free her husband, and finds her having attempted suicide, now that she knows her husband cared so little about her. He saves her life, then comes back the next day to take her to Rajeev and bring them both to the police station to free her husband. Which is when they are in the car accident. Later, Prithviraj is in jail paying his debt to society, and Rima is preparing for her next film, when she has a few moments and calls him on a cell phone snuck into his cell, because he has changed from someone she never even noticed to the most important person in her life.
And finally, the character given the briefest backstory, the only one who doesn’t get a “happy” ending. Swetha Menon is the widow of the Dubai businessman killed by Prithviraj in the beginning. She teams up with the young man who is a land mafia business rival to Rajeev and seduces him into swearing vengeance for her husband. Their team spends most of the film trying to kill both Prithviraj and Rajeev. After multiple failed attempts (resulting in multiple fight scenes displaying Prithviraj’s loyalty and bravery, and Rajeev’s cowardice), the gang is chasing them all down when their jeep gets into the accident, and Prithviraj fights them all off, despite his car accident injuries. With Rajeev dead and Prithviraj in jail, Swetha agrees to marry the young man who has been helping her. But she is still obsessed with vengeance, leaving Kochi for London with him only reluctantly.
(Yes yes, she’s a good actress, I liked her in Salt ‘n Pepper as well, but I will never be able to resist inserting this song any time her name comes up)
That’s how it is when the movie is over, we know that Prithviraj fell in love with Rima and was trying to do right by her, we know that Indrajith knew about Parvathy’s husband and that’s why he never made a move, we know that Rima is a gorgeous actress on the surface but an abused wife underneath it all, and all their previous actions make sense once we know these things. But the first time we see it, none of it makes sense. That’s why we have to watch it over and over again, to fully understand why these people are doing the things they do, what is going on under the surface.
In the American movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray at one point argues that maybe God isn’t all powerful, maybe he has just been around so long that he has seen it all before. That’s what it’s like watching this film. We in essence get to sit in judgement on these people, seeing their actions, and then seeing them again once we know the motivation behind them, and deciding if they were right or wrong in what they have done, if they deserve to be rewarded or punished.
Indrajith and Parvathy, for instance, are the most seemingly innocent characters. But even they have flaws. They live life whole-heartedly. They drink, they fight, they lie when it is expedient. And they don’t seem to care about anything, Indrajith starts the film by describing Kochi as his version of Dubai. Plenty of money, plenty of fun, and without the restrictions of life in his home village (at least that’s what I got from it). Indrajith also in that first voice over explains that he likes Parvathy. And, with our superficial knowledge of them at this point, it seems like kind of an earthy joyful love.
(This song is from later in the film, but it gives you an idea of how the Tamil worker community is presented)
In the same way, when we first meet Prithviraj, he seems like he might be the “villain” of the piece. Or rather, the villain’s second in command. Rajeev is the one who runs things Prithviraj just follows his commands. He is evil, but not even the “important” evil. We see his threatening meeting with the Dubai businessman, and then we see the murder. And the aftermath of the murder, the sobbing widow covered in blood, at shock at the police station. It primes us to see Prithviraj as someone who destroys, who doesn’t care for anything.
And then there’s Rima. Coolly avoiding the advances of her directors at work, talking her way out of a traffic ticket with her beauty and fame, and coming home to snap at her husband for having friends over at their apartment. He beats her, which is terrifying and wrong. But it appears that she has everything she wants in life and uses men to her advantage, in order to escape a husband who beats her.
This is how the audience sees these characters, and this is how they see each other. At least, on the first go around. The widow is a tragic victim, Prithviraj is a heartless aggressor, Rima is a beautiful woman with all the problems and powers that come with that, and Indrajith and Parvathy are the carefree underclass who are barely noticed by the others.
But then we go back and see it all over again. And this time we know that Indrajith knows Parvathy is married and she knows that any man she takes up with will be in danger from her estranged abusive husband. Their casual joy in each other isn’t because they are shallow, it’s because they are brave and strong. Indrajith would rather just be a friend to her and no more than pursue any other woman. And she keeps him at a distance not because she doesn’t care, but because she cares too much to let him get close and endanger him.
And we know that Prithviraj does what he does out of love. Not for Rima, not yet, but because he loves Rajeev. Not romantic love, but love all the same. We see him help Rajeev after he overdoses, dunking him in water and then lovingly putting him to bed. And we see how they are together over the course of many scenes, it’s not simply a master-servant relationship. They hug, they talk, they care about each other. Rajeev loves him back, but he isn’t as strong as Prithviraj. Prithviraj has to constantly protect him, guide him. And that is why he kills. Not for money, or in anger, but out of love, because it is what Rajeev needs him to do.
And finally, we learn that Rima isn’t the powerful beautiful actress with a difficult marriage. She has also been torn apart by love. First the love which made her elope against her parents’ wishes. Then the love for Rajeev which lead her to start an affair with him after her marriage. And now what keeps her going, what keeps her acting and living with her husband in their shame of a marriage for the sake of publicity, and keeps her holding Rajeev at arms length as mucha s she can and still be able to work, is love for her family. She is working to send money back to them, not for any other reason.
And then we see everything happen a third time, and this time it is because of events that have occurred over the course of the film, as we learned the backstory the current story kept moving forward, and now we see not just the deeper level of these characters, but how what they have recently experienced has changed them.
Indrajith and Parvathy love each other so much, that they both agree to Parvathy’s marriage to someone else. Indrajith because his sister Rohini convinces him that there is a prospective groom for Parvathy who might be rich enough to able to protect her from her first husband and let her reunite with her son (left for safe keeping at her mother’s house). And Parvathy because she doesn’t care about anything once she learns Indrajith doesn’t care about her marriage. The marriage sequence, with the wild drunken party to celebrate, followed by a “first night” interrupted by the police, and then Parvathy showing up on Indrajith’s doorstep to find him drunk on the bed, could all have been played for comedy. And maybe, if we had only seen Indrajith and Parvathy once at this point, instead of over and over again from every angle, we would have found it funny. But they are no longer just funny carefree workers. They are a decent man who is in love with a woman he can never marry and embraces the situation with brave acceptance. And a woman who has suffered unimaginable tortures (married off as a teenager to an abuser and a murderer, found the courage to escape him, but knows she will never be really safe and accepts the fact that he will find her and kill her someday), and now has the new torment of a broken heart. This moment when they come together, it’s not played for laughs. Or even for sexiness. It’s played as the greatest moment of pure beauty in the film, two people whose love makes this tiny room with film photos, and this love story that started on a construction site and continued in the cheap seats of movie theaters, into something shining, precious, magical, something that all of the events of the film before and after conspire to save.
Prithviraj loves Rajeev, his service for him is strangely noble because it comes from that pure love, that love that delights in fearless service. Which means his willingness to go against that love, his internal struggle to pick Rima over him, is not just a matter of “damsel in distress”, it’s a matter of working through his sense of what is “right” and adjusting it to fit in his new feelings and new knowledge. Rima is beautiful, we see through silent glances of his eyes how he is reacting to her. But what makes the difference is when he randomly sees her in a village hospital and learns that she is visiting her widowed mother, and that she is the sole support for the rest of her family. This is shortly after Rajeev has just driven off, leaving him to die while they are both being chased. It is love with makes the decision for him between the two, but not his love, their love. Rajeev has shown that he is not capable of true self-sacrificing love. And now Prithviraj has learned that Rima is capable of it.
Rima, finally, gets to find someone to love. We see her with her family, her nephew and sister and brother-in-law (or else her brother and sister-in-law, I wasn’t clear). She is relaxed and happy there in a way we have never seen of her before. She needs this in her life, everyone needs someone to love in their lives, and that is what is tearing her apart. She gave her whole heart to her husband, only to have him let her down. So she gave her whole heart to Rajeev, and then had it broken. And now she is trying to somehow force her marriage to work, to fit her big heart into this small useless man. We see her with her husband, overly proud and eager just to hear that he is taking a job, she so desperately wants him to be someone that she can love.
Now we know who these characters are. We know where they came from, we know how the current events are affecting them, we want to see how they will react, what will happen next. And only now do we return to the accident that opened the film, the accident that the audience initially reacted to as no more than spectacle on screen, but which now has so much more to it.
Prithviraj is a force of nature let loose. We have seen how he could fight and defend Rajeev, now that he has a more noble goal, something which has made him leave Rajeev, he can fight that much harder. When he bursts into the room to save Rima, we have no doubt that he will be able to do so. Our only doubt is if she will understand him. Prithviraj, as we have learned to know him, is too big to be understood. His love isn’t about honeyed words or romance, it’s about actions. Giving up his life for the one he loves. Will Rima see that? Will she see that he is the one to save her, not by fighting Rajeev for her, but by finally giving her someone to love in her life, someone to belong to herself?
Indrajith is not a force of nature. He is just a normal man. And Parvathy is just a normal woman. And the odds are stacked against them. Her first husband has come back, with the support of the police and his hired goons, and dragged her away. He challenges Indrajith to come find her and take her back if he loves her. We know they love each other, Parvathy and Indrajith, and that this love is the greatest thing in the world. But will they be able to save it? Even if they use all their combined strength, will they be able to fight back the forces that seek to destroy them?
And that brings us to the end. Indrajith and Parvathy barely managing to escape and riding a motorbike through the night, desperate to leave the city that brought them together and now might break them apart. Rima has come close to trusting Prithviraj, but is still struggling to see the size of his greatness. He burst into her life, saving her from Rajeev, and then from her own suicide attempt, and then telling her that all her worries would soon be over because he had arranged for Ranjeev to take responsibility. It’s too much, too much all at once. She doesn’t really see it yet. Not until the car crashes, and they are surrounded by goons, and Prithviraj fights one last time, despite his injuries, keeping them all away from the car.
And now the end. Some of them are still in the city, some aren’t, because that is the nature of a city. But they have all built new connections, have re-structured their lives lead by their hearts. Parvathy and Indrajith are living in Indrajith’s home village, with her son, and she is now pregnant. Their love has guided them into an entirely new path, but so long as that is still safe, they will be happy.
And then there’s Swetha Menon. Remember her? She isn’t really a “main” character, but she is the closest there is to a villain. She doesn’t change over the course of the film, not after that first shock of her husband’s murder. Instead, she just grows more set in her ways. And we, the audience, don’t change in our understanding of her, don’t grow to care more about her. She begins as a sad widow, then is reintroduced as a cool businesswoman who has let her grief harden into vengeance. And she never tries to move beyond that, to let love back into her heart. It is offered to her, and she rejects it. Straight through to the end, she has agreed to marry the nice young man who is in love with her and helping her with her vengeance, but it is all just a means to an end. She is looking forward to a move to London, but only so that she can return again to Kochi some day and continue her crusade of hate. And so her ending is sad. Not because of the circumstances, but because her heart is empty.
As I understand it, this film did poorly on release. And I think I can see why because a simple version of the plot, the kind that can fit on a film poster or in a regular review, would say that it is the story of an enforcer who falls in love with a movie star. Or a comic love story between two Tamilians working in Kochi. But it’s not “about” that at all, it’s not about any kind of a plot. It’s about what is inside these characters, and any situation around them is only there to help show what is at the heart of it all. We watch their actions over and over again, so that we can see past their actions and into their souls.