I think this might be the first Malayalam review I ever wrote. Either first or second. So, before reposting, I did some adding and subtracting and improving.
This was only the 3rd Malayalam movie I watched and I think the first I reviewed on this site. I just went back to read my review, and it’s pretty darn good!!!!! Which isn’t a sign of how brilliant I am (although that is the underlying theme of everything I write), but rather how universal this story is and how clearly it is told.
I didn’t need to know a lot of Malayalam history, or film narrative style or anything else. I just needed to understand teenage girls and loving parents and young men who are trying to be responsible. And small towns where everyone knows everyone else and everything that has ever happened to all of them. And that feeling of confidence from being so firmly embedded in a community and a family like that which lets you take huge risks and survive huge failures.
I was fully able to enjoy the film just on the first watch, but it is on rewatches now that I am able to appreciate what is a little different about the film a bit more. It’s simpler for one thing. At the first watch, I was blown away by how the theme of waiting until the time is right was woven in, how every little character had their own story, and so on and so on. Now, having seen a whole bunch of Malayalam films, all of that is just kind of to be expected. And in fact, this film looks shockingly simple! There is no sudden twist and refocus at the interval, there is no deeper level to the characters that is slowly revealed. Okay, there kind of is, but not nearly as much as in other films.
There was also way way more clever little magical realism kind of touches than in other films. The way the bed comes up to meet her when she goes to sleep after finishing her board exams. The way the perfect background music is always playing on TV to match her mood. All of that is not quite the same as what is in other films. Sure, it’s there, but it’s not in every movie and it’s not quite the same kind in other movies.
Also, the strong heroine! I knew vaguely that Malayalam films had much more interesting female character parts than other industries, and I thought this film was just more of the same. But no! Since then, I have learned that there is the same old male star power structure as anywhere else. It’s not unheard of to have a film built around a female lead, but it’s also not common. More common is to have a male hero paired with a recent discovery in her first film.
What I appreciated more and more on subsequent watches is how this film looked at those tropes and called them out. Starting way back at the beginning, when an older male narrator starts and Nazriya leaps in to declare that this is her story and SHE will be telling it. Continuing through to our innocent village belle character who confidently goes off to the city and builds a career, instead of being all about the love story. Heck, making a teenage girl who, instead of being the magical pure spirit that lifts our hero out of his dull life, is the one who picks out the person she wants to be with and lifts her own self.
It’s kind of an interesting comparison with director Jude Anthany Joseph’s one other film (so far) Oru Muthassi Gadha. The films have almost nothing in common. Except that both of them focus on the familiar characters from other films, only making them the lead. This film ticks all the boxes of the familiar hero’s story, only told from a different angle.
This is a film that really isn’t like any other, now that I have watched multiple Malayalam films I know that. There are other films with female protagonists, with village romances, but none of them that have this particular combination of lightness and romance with a female lead. Especially none that make the romance into a coming of age story as well, so we get to see our heroine go from 16 to 24.
A large part of what makes it sing is the absolutely perfect casting. Nazriya Nizam first of all, so natural and youthful and happy. Really remarkable performance from someone not yet 20, but then on the other hand she is mostly playing herself, a cheerful confident teenage girl. And then there’s Nivin. We must both find him an enigma, not sure quite what he is thinking, but also fall in love with him. And he has to play a role carefully so that we understand his character’s ethical dilemma and see that he is doing nothing wrong.
But it doesn’t stop there. Renji Penickar as her cheerful father, Vineeth Srinivasan as her friend, Aju Varghese as the funny cousin, everyone is light and careful in their performances, no hidden darkness, but no lack of depth either. And definitely no effort to upstage the young lead, everyone is happy to step back and let her go where she wants to go.
Which is the point of the film, it is about a teenage girl, traditionally the most forgotten and powerless kind of character, grabbing life with both hands and taking control of it. And everyone around her being happy to see her do it.
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In a different kind of film, we would follow dark and interesting Nivin Pauly. He is traumatized by his father’s death, finds solace in true love with his high school girlfriend. Their relationship has ups and downs, he turns to Communism, following in the footsteps of his dead father. He has a violent incident, and around the same time his first love leaves him to marry someone else. It is a turning point in his life, he settles down, dedicated himself to taking care of his mother and occasionally protecting the women from his village from unpleasantness. At this point, he meets a teenage girl who is sweet and has a crush on him, she makes him smile but he is still conflicted and not ready to move on fully. She disappears out of his life, he helps a friend achieve the romantic happy ending he couldn’t by assisting in his elopement, and pays the price in being banished from his village and his mother. Years later he returns to see that sweet teenage girl again, now grown up, and slowly finds himself falling in love with her. But is torn because he is now engaged to a nice girl who has been his friend for years. That engagement falls apart and, in the end, he has closure of his romantic heartbreak and accepts the love of the teenage girl who has been in and out of his life since intermission.
This is the same plot as Maheshinte Prathikaram, Vaaranam Aayiram, and dozens of other movies on my review list going all the way back to Chenkol. Broken heart, recovery, fresh innocent young thing who serves as a balm to your wound. Only this movie focuses on the fresh innocent young thing instead of the wounded hero! What is it like to fall in love with a damaged and recovering older man? What is she doing while he is off having recovery adventures? What are her struggles? What makes him the right man for her?
(What is she doing in the 5 years or so between when we last saw her and this scene? Who knows!)
And that’s this movie. The heroine who barely gets 3 scenes in most movies gets to tell her own story, for once. Just as in Oru Muthassi Gadha, it is the elderly grandmother who pops up to give advice right at the end after being ignored the rest of the film who finally gets to tell her own story, what she is doing while the hero/heroine is living their life and ignoring their advice.
This is different from the other female lead films I’ve seen, 22 Female Kottayam for instance, which built a whole new original plot that required a heroine to lead it. This film took a familiar plot and just slightly twisted it. Kept the hero and the village from all those other movies, but just put the focus on the girl instead of the boy. Made it feel strangely familiar, and yet unfamiliar at the same time.
And so I can come back to this movie two years later, having seen many many other Malayalam films since then, and it just feels more familiar and happy and soothing than it did the first time. There are no new flaws to notice, no bits that were done better in some other film, it is exactly as I first thought it was, but even better.
The plot, in five sentences, is: Teenage girl has a massive crush on older local boy, stalks him, gets to know his family, and finally admits her feelings. Local boy rejects her (nicely) and encourages her to finish school and focus on her future. 5 years later, they meet again when his mother is at her hospital. Finally, she comes back home after med school, still in love with him, and gets to know him again by volunteering with the community group he organized. And at the end, he proposes to her and it turns out he has been in love with her all along! Is that 5 sentences? Yes! It is! I am so proud of myself!
This is a bit of a tricky plot to sell to people, because if you are coming at it from the heroine side of thing, suddenly it becomes an older man hanging around a teenage girl. A 16 year old girl and a 20-something man is just plain wrong. But the film builds very careful the background to make it less wrong. We learn that Nivin’s parents had a similar romance, his mother loved school and did well in it, but quite before graduation to marry the older Communist boy that she fell in love with. And after all, this is a village and these are farmers. Marriage at 16 isn’t uncommon, and a 6 year age gap (16 to 22) isn’t that strange either.
Nivin doesn’t want a 16 year old, not because he thinks it is disgusting or wrong for them to be a couple, but because he saw how his mother regretted marrying before having a chance to finish her schooling. Nivin sees her, learns to love her, but knows that it wouldn’t be right to reveal his feelings, not until she has a chance to see the world beyond the village and know how she really feels and what she really wants. And he doesn’t want her to do that while keeping some fantasy of him alive. So when she comes to confess her love, he very very gently lets her down, doesn’t say “you are too young” or anything stupid like that, just encourages her to focus on her studies and growing into being the best person she can be, to think about herself first. In the end, the message is not that an older man brainwashed a young woman into loving him, but rather that he gently gave her up, trod down his own feelings again and again in order for her to be free to feel and do whatever she wanted.
There were so many things to love! For one, I liked the way they handled the fact that the heroine was an only child, and a daughter. It actually reminded me of Queen, in the way her parents clearly adored her and thought whatever she wanted was a-okay. Right from the beginning, they talk about how a daughter will be stressful and break your heart, but not about how she isn’t as good as a boy. Really, just that you will love her more and therefore be more upset when she is hurt.
I loved how long we spent getting to know her and her family and her life before the plot happened. She was just so loveable! And clearly everyone loved her, there was a definite feeling of the whole town, even when they were mad at her, being in her corner.
And I loved their first meeting! How high school it was, her and her friends standing there awkwardly in shorts and t-shirts, and then him striding in being all grown up and amazing. And then the rest of it, her going on that obvious quest to learn more about him in the bluntest way possible, which just made her look more high school and everything she found out made him look way too out of her reach.
And the love song! They didn’t translate the dialogue over the lyrics, but I think it was that she went to his mother for help with her homework, and in general started being a better and better student and daughter and everything in order to be worthy of him. It was so great, because she was still going about everything in her impulsive confident way, but she was also changing into a better person in a bunch of different ways because of her love affair. I guess what I loved was that we saw her becoming better, so it wasn’t a toxic crush, but a healthy one. And at the same time it wasn’t changing her into a different person, the way they usually make women change entirely after they fall in love in movies, it was just making her a better version of what she already was.
Let’s see, what else? Her trying to tell him how she felt and getting embarrassed and him giving her the hat. Which is the first time I should have suspected he felt the same! I mean, who gives a random high school girl their hat just because you can’t stand to see them getting wet? Obviously he was already in love with her!
Oh, and it’s in this bit that they start using the period soundtrack! At least, that I could recognize. Obviously, they were using a lot of really specific Malayalam songs all along and I had no idea what they were. But when she mentions Hrithik, and then the tune of the night club number from Kaho Na Pyar Hai starts up!
And then he rejects her, which felt so Pride and Prejudice! An initial proposal, which is rejected. Except rejected in a nice way, unlike P and P. And when she comes home, my favorite music thing in the movie! “Tanhaiyee” from Dil Chahta Hai is playing on the TV!
And I loved that we didn’t just leave and only come back to her when the love story started up again! It really is a coming of age movie, her movie, just like she says in the beginning, not just a love story. We are with her through exams, and then her life in the city, making new friends, all of that. And I also enjoy that even with the rejection of her true love hanging over her, she is both able to move on with her life and be happy, but also not willing to give up on the love story. In another movie, they would have had her only be happy when she was able to completely forget about him. Or they would have had her be always slightly depressed because she doesn’t have her true love. Instead of being basically fine and able to handle everything, because the love is just one small part of her life.
I loved him suddenly showing up and her immediately thinking “Yes! His mother is sick! This is my in!” It was just so whole-heartedly self-interested! And her grumpiness when she thinks he is interested in someone else. No self-sacrificing “whatever makes him happy!” for her!
And then the return to the village and her working her way back into his life with the community marriages, again so self-interested! And then at the end, the whole thing with her cousin coming back and paying off! Again, the world just felt so lived in, with the people involved in the final bit being people we had already met before and everything coming together.
And then, the ending! Learning he loved her all along! Which actually makes sense with everything we saw before. Because, of course he would have noticed the girl he rescued at the water park, even if he pretended to ignore her later! Plus, we already found out that her cousin was his girlfriend, of course he would be aware of her! And then her ham-handed investigation, he must have known all along she had a crush on him. And apparently got a kick out of it since he let it go on so long! And it changes his whole rejection speech and everything afterwards from trying to let her down easy, to trying to convince her to go to school and grow up while he waited and hoped that she would come back to him. Heck, even his whole going to China thing could have been just putting off his marriage until she came home! It was even more decent than it appeared at first, since he could have said so easily “look, I’m in love with you too, but I think you should go to school and grow up first, but wait for me and I will wait for you.” But instead he didn’t even give her a hint of it, so she would be free to grow up and marry someone else if she wanted.
Overall, though, what struck me was how she was taking the traditional male role in an Indian love story. We usually watch the guy as he falls in love at first sight and stalks her and sings love songs and then slowly wins her over, while the girl is the perfect enigma. Like, in all three of them in Dil Chahta Hai or Varun in Dilwale or a million other movies where our hero falls in love at first sight! At first, actually, I thought that was a flaw. Not the gender reversal, but that our hero is such an enigma. We learn how awesome he is and stuff, but they have almost no interactions and the audience only sees him through her eyes. But then I thought about it in terms of all those other movies where the hero sees the heroine practicing dance or singing or whatever from a distance and builds this whole fantasy around her and decides he is in love with her and then the happy ending is when she finally runs into his arms, even if they’ve barely spoken before.
But my favorite part is that there is a clear metaphor running through the film which they don’t bother to underline. Her favorite aunt, who she always goes to for advice, is a wine-maker. She is introduced with an explanation about how her wine isn’t normal wine, it takes several years to mature. And then we see throughout the film all of these stories that take years to be completed, and are the better for it.
Everything from Giri’s mother’s dreams of being a writer, to Pooja’s father’s efforts at chemistry, to wine-aunty’s own relationship with her husband who never comes home. And 4 entire romances. Our central one, plus Pooja’s cousin-brother who we find out at the end has been courting a girl in secret for years, plus Pooja’s best friend from med school, plus Pooja’s best friend and ex from high school. The lesson of waiting patiently for the completion is even in the title! “Oshana” is Palm Sunday, the beginning of the end of Lent.
Okay, I just had to re-watch the ending again because it makes me SO HAPPY. And I saw something I didn’t catch before, the guy her father fights with is her uncle from Dubai. Who was there at her birth being all headshaking over her being a girl. And through out her Dad has been calling him and saying he should come back to Kerala. And now he is here just in time to see her as an adult and to be all judgey about how she was raised. So it is this nice little bookend, making it clear that it is her life story, going from her as a baby to her as an adult, and the guy who missed her whole growing up and all doesn’t see how she could be with this Hindu farmer. But her father, who was there all along (just like the audience) reacts with a “yeah, of course this is what she would do!” response. Because she isn’t just some blank slate girl baby, she is Pooja, an individual.