Another Tamil film! One I completely liked, unlike 96 which has me a little more back and forth.
I watched this movie months and months ago when it first arrived on American Netflix, but that was before I was blogging seriously so I didn’t pay very close attention. I wanted to watch it again, now that the remake will be releasing soon (January 13th), and think about how this film could possibly be remade.
On the surface, there aren’t many changes necessary to take it from Tamil to Hindi. New cast (although Leela Samson is staying as Bhavani Aunty), same location (Bombay) and same basic story (young couple falls in love and bonds with their elderly landlords). But on the first watch, I felt like there might be something special about having our main characters all be Tamilians in Bombay, and on a second watch, I can see that it is really really special! And honestly, removing just that one part, kind of changes a lot of things.
That’s the biggest thing I am worried about, but there are some other things that make me nervous as well when I think about this film transitioning from Tamil to Hindi. The cast, for one thing. Dulquer and Nithya Menon both come from the general Malayalam/Tamil acting community. Dulquer, of course, is Mammootty’s son, so he’s got that genetic in born talent going for him, plus a childhood spent growing up on filmsets.
But even without that, because they come from the Tamil/Malayalam industry, they both came to this role with a lot of experience, and no pressure. Both of them put out multiple films a year, had even co-starred before. But films with small releases and little fanfare. If a movie flops, so what, you’ve got another one coming out soon, just relax and enjoy the experience and learn from it.
(I think Nithya was his first co-star? Or second, whichever film Ustadh Hotel was)
It’s kind of similar to the process that built up the Khans in the 90s in the Hindi cinema except, my impression is, a little less frantic. Back in the day, the up and coming Hindi actors were cranking out a new movie every few months, if one flopped, so what, there’s another one coming soon. And just a few years into your career, you would have already played every role, opposite every actor, for every director. But you would still be a fresh face to the audience, an exciting unknown quantity, because most of those movies would have flopped.
I don’t know how the Tamil and Malayalam industry does it, but the actors seem to be making the same number of films as Bombay in the 90s, only without that crazy 20 hour day schedule and poor quality in most of the output. Superior organization combined with technical advances to make filming easier?
The end result, in terms of this movie, is that you have leads who still feel fresh and young and exciting, but bring with them the experience from dozens of previous films. A combination we aren’t going to get with the remake. Unfortunately, Aditya Roy Kapoor and Shraddha rocketed to stardom together in Aashiqui 2, they are hardly an unknown quantity any more. And they come with baggage, we’ve been following their hits and flops and failures and judging them for them. Even worse, with all of that baggage, they don’t bring that much actual experience. They’ve been in fewer movies in their whole career than Dulquer and Nithya were in just one year. And the movies they’ve been in, especially Shraddha, haven’t exactly been good training grounds. Shraddha’s done fine with a whole series of “girlfriend” parts, but the actual acting moments, where she had to be funny or sad or angry or anything else, those were few and far between. Aditya’s done a little better, his role in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani was interesting and had a lot of complicated pieces to play. But he still isn’t in the same place that Dulquer was, post Ustad Hotel and Bangalore Days and, I am sure, plenty of other movies that I haven’t seen yet where he had to play complicated characters and difficult scenes.
(Aashiqui 2 had plenty of emotion things for them to play, but not all movies are like that)
The other big difference between any remake and this film is the loss of Mani Ratnam. There are just so many shots in this that scream “Mani Ratnam!!!” and no one else will be able to do it in quite the same way. For one thing, his color filter obsession is maybe as strong here as I have ever seen it. When they are happy, everything is yellowy. When it’s scary or sad, suddenly it’s all shadow-y and blue. When they are in love, pink! Everywhere pink!
(Like this, but better!)
And the characters just glow in the lens of his camera. Neither of them are supposed to be particularly beautiful people. Attractive, certainly, but regular. And the way Ratnam films Nithya in particular, you can see her as Dulquer sees her, lovely because she has a light that shines from within, because of how she purses her mouth or moves her hands, because of who she is, not how she looks. It’s a tricky balance, to make the actress look just stunning, but in a way that makes her still average. Ratnam did something similar with Manisha in the first half of Bombay, letting us see both why Arvind Swamy can’t forget her, and why no one else really seems to notice her.
It’s there a little with Dulquer too, but it’s less about his face, and more about how his body movies through space. He’s always leaning or looking or moving his hands or smiling. There’s this huge freedom and happiness about him. And, again, it feels like we are seeing him through Nithya’s eyes more than anything else. To anyone else, he’s just a nice young man, like plenty of other nice young men. But to her he is adventure and freedom and happiness and everything good.
And then there’s the Ratnam amazing sense of space. This film is all about space, and intimacy, and boundaries. There’s the space of the apartment, their little put together family of Dulquer and Nithya and Prakash Raj (who is brilliant, by the way) and Bhavani Aunty. And then the smaller space of the room, Nithya and Dulquer’s own little world of happiness. And outside, the actual world. The whole city of Bombay, with it’s offices and malls and beaches and aerobics classes and everything else. Ratnam barely re-uses a setting outside of the apartment. Most films will have home-office-coffee shop or something similar. We just keep rotating through those locations, feeling more and more comfortable in each of them. But this movie, there is the apartment, the sanctuary. And the whole rest of the world is unfamiliar and constantly changing.
Which brings me back to where I started, how can you make this movie without featuring two Tamilians in Bombay? And to talk about how and why this is important, that also means SPOILERS SPOILER SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILER SPOILERS SPOILERS
Dulquer and Nithya meet right away. There is no “hero backstory/heroine backstory” set up before they are brought together. And it is also right when Dulquer arrives in Bombay, establishing that this city is going to be something special in their love story. He steps off the train at CST and glances through the cars to the other track to see a woman hesitating, about to step off the platform. He gestures at her frantically not to do it, looks around trying to figure out how to get over there, looks back, and then a train slices between them, and when it has passed, he can’t see her any more.
We follow Dulquer after this, he is met by his friend who welcomes him to the city and they have some pretty natural conversation which also serves as exposition. Dulquer is a video game designer, and a real up and comer. He’s been brought in by a Bombay company to design a game. And he’s going to stay with “Uncle” who rented a room to the friend, and before that to Dulquer’s older brother. Oh, and someone’s getting married soon, I think a friend of the friend, there’s much teasing over that.
At the apartment, we meet Prakash Raj, and this meeting is mostly important for what isn’t said. Prakash shows him the room and introduces him to Leela Samson, his wife. But he never says “oh by the way, my wife has alzheimers, I took early retirement to care for her, our children are either non-existent or little stinkers so there is no one around to help out, and you will be expected to pitch in like a decent person every once in a while.” Partly he doesn’t say that because this is a Ratnam movie, and for the most part Ratnam likes for information to slowly trickle out in the background, filling in the full picture as we go along. But partly also because not saying that is part of this whole rental agreement.
It comes up in a later scene, where Dulquer watches Prakash clean up the kitchen after making dinner, and they talk about Leela’s condition. Dulquer’s brother told him, he knew the household situation before he arrived. And presumably Prakash knew that Dulquer’s brother would tell him. Which tells us that Prakash isn’t going to just rent this room to anyone, he wants someone who is already within the inner circle, someone who knows the whole story and will kind of self-screen. Prakash doesn’t have to come right out and say “I only want tenants who can handle living with us”, but if he knows the tenant already knows, and wants the room anyway, then he doesn’t have to.
Dulquer goes to his office, his game is a big hit (basically, he wants to make Grand Theft Auto but set in Bombay, with a focus on contrasting South Bombay high society with the slums of Dharavi), and then he goes to his friend’s wedding, and there is Nithya! Sitting across the aisle from him with a few other people in between.
He signals to her, and I think one of his first questions is if she is Tamil. And then she signals back her phone number and he calls her. During the wedding!!!! And she actually picks up!!! And they have a jokey conversation about how they would never get married, because first it’s this thing, then that thing, and on and on.
Such a cute meet cute! And also so telling. Their very first interaction is at a wedding, about how they never want to be married. But at the same time, they already like each other and feel so connected that they are willing to talk on the phone during a wedding! There’s the conflict for the rest of the film in a nutshell. What do you do if you think you don’t want to be married, but at the same time you feel this huge pull towards another person?
But there’s another layer to it as well. They are talking on the phone during a wedding, with half a dozen people sitting between them, but they are in their own little world and their own private talk, because they are speaking Tamil!!! And Prakash Raj wants someone to stay in his apartment who knows about his wife, and is Tamilian. And that whole world outside, the one from the video game, the bigger city where Nithya tries to jump off a train platform, and their friends get married, and Dulquer’s job is exciting, all of that is separate from them, kept away from their inner most feelings through language.
The film goes on, Dulquer arranges to meet Nithya the next day, she forgets and rushes out of her office to meet him after he calls, and finds him sitting outside waiting for her. They go to the mall, where Nithya sees someone she knows, which inspires her to explain finally why she was about to step off that train platform. Her family has money, there was a boy who said he loved her, but she wanted to know if he loved her or her money. And when she fought with him and threatened to jump, he didn’t care. But Dulquer, a stranger who didn’t even know her, he cared. And now that boy is here, at the mall, and she doesn’t want to talk to him.
I love this conversation, because it is so excited and yet so matter of fact. How can I explain this? I guess it’s what they were trying to do with Anushka and Ranveer in Dil Dhadakna Do, except in that movie they had the characters say it explicitly. They only had a few minutes, and they were in a hurry to know everything about each other. Dulquer and Nithya are just so excited to be together, and in a hurry to get to know each other, even if they don’t consciously realize it. And so she spills out her inner most secrets with a big smile on her face, as they race through the stores. And he listens to this frankly somewhat disturbing story with a similar smile. And finally, he covers for her while she runs into the changing room to put on a new outfit to hide from the boyfriend, and then they are dashing out of the store and riding through the streets of the city on his motorcycle, as the best song of the movie plays in the background.
This song is so spectacular, and such a centerpiece of the film, it kind of surprised me that it was thrown out so early at such a seemingly inconsequential moment. But it worked for me better on the second watch, after I knew how this romance was going to play out. Because this was a consequential moment, one of those moments you only really appreciate looking back on it.
Nithya has this core of unhappiness to her, things she is trying to work out from her childhood. And Dulquer has this core of golden-boy-ness. His older brother sacrificed everything for him, this great job opportunity has fallen into his lap, it all just works out. So this moment, just riding a two-wheeler down Marine Drive, it’s a celebration of Nithya feeling happy and free for once in her life. And Dulquer having actually worked for something, waiting for her when she doesn’t show up right away, tracking her down at her office, finally getting her to let him in. There’s this little moment when they are leaving her office, he gestures for her to get behind him on the motorcycle, meaning she would need to put her arms around him. She hesitates for a moment, then gingerly gives in. Now, just a few minutes later, after one intense rapid conversation, she has her arms wrapped around him and is beaming at the world as they ride by.
After this, everything happens very fast. Nithya has to leave town suddenly to meet with a leading architect who is working with her firm. Dulquer decides, also last minute, to leave work and rush after her. They have a sort of magical time, touring an old masjid and a building the architect designed while he talks about light and angles. And we keep seeing Dulquer through Nithya’s eyes. She is having this deep spiritual experience, listening to her mentor talk about beauty, and she keeps seeing Dulquer in the distance. Like he is somehow the beauty and promise and joy in her life.
And after that, she opens up to him and lets him see the darkness in her life, taking him with her to visit the Gandhi museum, I think the room where he died, and talking about how her father used to visit this place. About her parents fighting her whole childhood and finally making her choose between them. And her father dying, sad and alone.
And that night they have their first night together. The first time I watched this movie, I thought they might have actually had sex. But on a second watch, they definitely don’t and yet somehow it is more intimate than sex. The miss the train that the rest of the group left on, and the next train isn’t until the next morning, so Dulquer suggests they rent a room for the night. There’s no shyness or discomfort about it, if anything they are just happy to have more time together. But there’s also no suggestion of sharing a bed.
Instead they share their music. Rahman wrote this amazing duet, probably just something he was playing around with with one of his singers, an autotune and remix of a classical song with an electronic beat. But it turns into this amazing love duet, not just a man and a woman trading off “I love yooooooooouuuu!”, but instead a real sense of two different people and two different energies harmonizing together and creating something new. And the whole room is filled with pink light as they sing and dance together, a pink light that will come up again and again in their moments of love.
The next morning, and this is why I thought they might have had sex, they can hardly bare to say good-bye at her hostel, to stop touching each other. And she arrives, all aglow with this new intimacy and happiness, to find her mother there, crushing her down into misery and self-doubt, making her feel bad for not taking over the family business, for pursuing her dream of moving to Paris, for all of her life choices.
It’s the perfect place to put this scene, making us see how meaningful Dulquer is for Nithya, the contrast between how free and happy she is when she arrives with how beaten down and miserable she is when her mother is there, putting on a fake smile that contrasts brutally with the happy smile she had with Dulquer. And it explains why she is so quick to run off with Dulquer next time he asks, both of them skipping out on work to sneak out for ice cream, and then back to her hostel room for sex for the first time. Not to escape her mother, or to fight back against her, but because her natural state is such misery and tension, Dulquer is extra good for her if he can actually bring her out of that.
Jumping ahead a bit, it’s also important to see Nithya with her mother to be able to appreciate how Nithya is with Leela Samson. After they have sex, right away Dulquer suggests they move in together. This movie was promoted a little bit as “oooo, live in relationship!” But that’s not really what it’s about at all. The live in relationship isn’t a huge conflict, either making the decision or after it happens. The conflict is internal, the reasons that these two people want a live in relationship instead of marriage, and the reasons everyone else goes along with it.
For instance, Leela Samson! Dulquer and Nithya talk to Prakash and Leela and are upfront about what they want. Prakash is understandably not too happy at the idea, in a calm and reasonable way. But while he is explaining his thinking to Dulquer (very classy move, for him to pull Dulquer aside and keep the discussion between the men, so it isn’t seen as insulting to Nithya), Nithya goes over to Leela and starts to sing with her. She is so open and happy with this older woman, singing a Tamil folk song (I assume), with a big smile on her face. After seeing her interactions with her mother, it feels like this is filling some hole in her life, to have a simple and loving interaction with an older woman of her same culture, instead of the constant judgement and battle with her mother. And when Prakash looks at Nishya with Leela, he sees that, and he sees the same happiness in Leela, and that’s why he gives in and lets Nithya move in.
And that’s where the conflict starts. Conflict that arises because there is no conflict. Nithya and Dulquer move in together because it is supposed to be temporary. She is leaving for Paris once her scholarship comes through. He is ambitious and wants big things in his career, which means an inevitable move to America or England, one of the headquarters for game designing. They are both in Bombay for now, a place that isn’t really “home” (that Tamil in a strange land thing again!), but isn’t their final destination either, just a way station (thus the meeting on a train platform).
But then, it is all just so easy! They form a little family without even meaning it, Nithya and Dulquer providing the youthful support for Leela and Prakash, Prakash and Leela providing them with an elder’s wisdom. And Nithya and Dulquer turning into a real couple, not just a hanging out couple, but one that wants to spend all their time together, to really share each other’s lives.
Later in the film, Dulquer disappears for a couple days. Nithya is panicking, but also panicking because she is panicking. Why is she so worried? Why is she so angry? What does he owe her? Isn’t that supposed to be the point of live-in relationships, that you don’t “owe” each other anything? You aren’t allowed to demand anything?
This was the moment that felt the most radical to me. Finally, a mature acknowledgement that “live-in” relationships aren’t about sex and freedom, because people don’t work like that. In America, we’ve had a little bit longer with “live-in” in the mainstream. And it went through the same cycle, icky yech early stuff, that was all creepy old men’s version of it, young people falling into bed, young men getting everything they want with no strings attached, young women who are happy to have sex any time and are never tired or grumpy or sad or anything but willing. No one is ever tired or grumpy or sad or anything but willing because that’s reserved for marriages.
But you can’t just reserve emotions for after marriage! Sure, if you have chaperoned dates that end early and are planned days in advance, then you can always be beautiful and cheerful and happy. And if that is the only way you are allowed to interact before marriage, it can feel like marriage brings with it all the messiness of the emotions. But that’s not marriage, that’s just life, that’s just being with each other all the time and talking honestly and about real things. Which is exactly what happens with “live-in” relationships! You spend time together, you care about each other, you get used to each other, and you start to show your real selves, with all that messy emotion and disagreements and everything else it entails. That’s the reality of it all, and it’s something basically everyone who’s been in a “live-in” relationship knows, or anyone who’s ever known anyone who has, but it can take a while for the rest of society to catch on.
(I’m not talking about roommates with benefits, or casual sex, you understand, just the dating couples who decide to get a place together. It’s not about “getting the milk for free”, it’s about taking the relationship up to a new level)
And that’s what comes burbling up to the surface, finally, at the end. First when the deadline becomes real, when Dulquer learns he will be leaving to work for the American branch of the company within weeks. They try to push it off a little longer, declaring they will spend their last week together only having fun and being happy, not thinking of the future. They spend the week seeing the whole city, going to nightclubs, taking boat trips, having fun. But it’s all just running from themselves.
It just makes things worse, they have their first real fight when Dulquer gives Nithya a necklace. It’s a fascinating gift, and one of those scenes that I am pretty sure Aditya and Shraddha won’t be able to play, because you have to really understand what the characters are thinking versus what they are saying. Nithya gets it, the first gift he has given her, an expensive necklace, and feels like it is payment, like it is a parting gift to his courtesan, reducing their whole relationship to her giving him sex and him giving her an expensive present. But it’s not just any jewelry, it’s a necklace. Dulquer is giving her expensive jewelry her probably can’t afford, sure, that’s significant, that he is trying to give her something from his labor to show how important he is to her. But he picked a necklace to give her, a sign of marriage. Whether he meant it consciously or not, he is testing the waters. And she doesn’t see it.
They finally come together when they are forced out of the big open spaces of fantasy in the city, into the small spaces of real life. They come back one day, to the sunny warmth of the apartment, to discover that Prakash and Leela are both gone, Leela has wandered off and Prakash has gone looking for her, and neither of them have their phones. Nithya and Dulquer go off in his car, surrounded by pouring rain, trapped together in the smallest space they’ve ever shared. And it’s this small space that forces out the truth. They fight, they snap at each other, they worry about Leela and Prakash, two other people they aren’t supposed care about, that are just supposed to be temporary in their lives. And finally Dulquer bursts out that he could love her and care for her as much as Prakash cares for Leela, if she will let him.
And finally, we end with happiness, making us see space in a new way, just as their relationship suddenly shifts to something bigger. They were happy in the apartment, with Prakash and Leela, and they thought it was because it was just them, in their own little world. But it doesn’t have to be, they could be happy anywhere, so long as they have each other. And that’s why it ends with a wedding, in that same apartment, in the same warm yellow tones, but this time filled with friends and family, Dulquer’s disapproving brother and Nithya’s difficult mother, all invited in to share their joy. And sharing it doesn’t hurt anything, doesn’t break them apart, it just makes it bigger.
Anyway, that’s why I don’t think it will work in a hindi remake, because the world of Hindi films is already “big”, Bombay is home, not just a temporary playground, and your life there is filled with family and responsibilities, not just the 3 people you are closest to.