I really liked Shane Nigam in Kumbalangi Nights. The other actors were good, but as good as I expected them to be, Shane impressed me because I have seen him grow film to film. So I thought I should repost reviews of those old films so we can think back together on how he has improved by leaps and bounds as an actor.
A few weeks back, when I was at the Women’s March protest, a homeless/drifter type seeming guy came up to me and my friend and stopped us and asked why all these women were protesting. The conversation sort of went around and around and I don’t think he ever understood what we were saying but, you know, it was our civic duty to try to explain things. One point he really got stuck on was why we were concerned about parental consent laws for abortion. His argument was that if his daughter was having surgery, and she was under 16 years old, he would be concerned and want to know.
The problem is, I realized on the train on the way home when it was too late to try this argument, the abortion isn’t happening to “his daughter”, it’s happening to someone who is a person in her own right. Don’t think about the law as it would affect you, the father, think about yourself when you were 15. Were there things you didn’t want your parents to know? Were there things it would have been unsafe for you to tell them?
That’s the central conflict of this film, ultimately, that everyone is very easily able to put themselves in the parents’ place, but never thinks about it from the kids’ side. And more importantly, never considers that maybe the parents won’t act in the same way they would in that situation. There is an innate trust there, these people are older and respected and respectable, surely they will make a reasoned and reasonable choice.
There’s also a trained wariness of stepping in where you have no place. It is a parents’ choice what to do with their children, how to raise them, how to punish them, all of that. To interfere is to break some kind of societal bond we all share.
There’s also the way it is cast, with older characters who we the audience naturally trust. The “young lovers”, the ones we are supposed to identify with, they are two unknowns. Well, “unknowns”. Shruthy Menon, it looks like she’s been around for a while as sort of a model, VJ, walk on role as the “hot girl” kind of actress (correct me if I’ve got that wrong). Shane Nigam had been in various things in roles such as “Anna’s Brother”, but no real leading part. In contrast, the people surrounding them, their families and police, were played by reliable character actors, ones that the audience knew and trusted.
(Shruthy Menon. Pretty!)
And all of this adds up to the way this film plays out. I have to wonder, is the title sarcastic? Saying that these things happen, and everyone says “Oh, it’s fate!”, instead of asking how they could have changed it?
And I can’t really say more than that without getting into SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
We start towards the end. A woman is sobbing in the back of a police jeep. The police woman tells her to just tell the truth when she gets where they are going. In the front seat, the two officers are stressed, talking about possible sanctions and punishments against them. And they notice that someone has been following them.
And then we flashback several hours. A boy is waiting with his friend and a rickshaw. A woman shows up, and they go off together in the rickshaw. They debate whether they are doing the right thing, the woman asks about a wound on his lip, he says that he was locked in a room for 3 days by his parents, they can’t do this, he is 23, he is an adult. She asks again if they are doing the right thing, he says yes, and that his friend the rickshaw driver knows someone they can talk to at the station.
It’s all a trick, see, the way this is constructed. We have that moment at the very opening that looks like the girl is in danger, maybe the police are wrongfully arresting her, maybe she is about to be rescued by someone behind them on a bike. Or maybe the bike people are the dangerous ones, maybe there is going to be a big shootout.
(Shootout! Like in this glitzy action-y movie)
When we see the couple at the opening, it almost looks like maybe something “exciting” is happening, maybe his family is in the mafia, maybe hers is, maybe there is something big and filmi happening with them. And when they arrive at the police station and are told to wait, we start seeing everything that is happening around them at the station. And maybe that is the dangerous exciting part.
The police are trying to arrange for an informer to take the blame for police misconduct. They are stressed because one of their own is up for punishment for his actions. And a new officer has just arrived at the station. And there is a driver who took off with his boss’s car, they have arranged for him to get off so long as he can pay a token amount in a fine, but he has to wait around while the money comes through.
And in the middle of all this, the victim in the driver dispute recognizes our young man and identifies his family and community to the police. The young man is nervous about this. Even though his father and brother are big deals in the Muslim community.
Finally, the young couple is called in after waiting on a bench outside getting progressively more nervous. They explain that they are in love and want to be together and need police help because they are from different castes (she is lower caste) and communities (she is Hindu and he is Muslim). The police officer doesn’t want to deal with this, he tries to convince them to go back home and forget each other. And, when that doesn’t work, suggests that they should have just eloped, gotten married, stayed at a friends house for a few days, and then come to the police with a fait accompli.
The couple is scared and confused by this reaction, they can’t seem to convey to the police why this won’t work for them, or to insist on their right to protection under the law. For now, the police put them in a room together. And then before Vinay Forrt (the top cop) can make up his mind about what to do with them, the man who recognized our hero wanders back into the room and asks what is happening, and Vinay gives him the full story. He immediately starts putting pressure on for Vinay to call the families and give them the right to make the decisions.
This is where all the things that are happening start to come together. Vinay needs community support because of the trouble his cops are getting into right now. He doesn’t really care about this little boy and girl romance, just sees it as a side issue that can help with his main concerns. The Muslim community leader doesn’t seem to care terribly much either, it’s more a general concern about the honor of the community, not something specific that he feels deeply. If the cop had really listened to the couple when they were talking, if he hadn’t been distracted, maybe he would have held firm here, or not told the whole story. Or if the Muslim community leader had really listened and understood what the situation was like, maybe he wouldn’t have given his opinion, or would have given a different opinion. But none of them were really paying attention, or thinking about this situation from the perspective of the kids. Just seeing it as an opportunity to get to their own ends.
(I think that’s why we open with this song, which doesn’t just show them growing up, but shows how the whole society around them functions)
The only one who seems to care about the kids is the newly arrived constable. Only, does he really care, or is he just at loose ends since he has no assignments yet and is not involved in the cover up that the rest of the station is working on? Or, does he care because he isn’t overworked and therefore was able to spend time with them and get to know them?
In Action Hero Biju, we saw how one of the greatest skills that the head of station needs is the ability to rapidly gather information on a situation and make an appropriate judgement about it. That is what is missing here. Maybe Vinay Forrt could have done that on a better day. But today, he is overwhelmed, he has too many other things on his mind. And he is the gatekeeper for the whole criminal justice system, without his support, the couple has no access to any assistance.
During this waiting time, we finally get a little backstory for them, a small flashback. Their romance wasn’t epic or spectacular. There was no big fight scene or moment when he rescued her from danger. He hit her mother with his motorbike and then took her to the hospital. They met at the hospital, he gave her a ride home and her brother disapproved. Later, she needed help traveling around visiting local religious groups for a project, and he gave her rides. His family found out, he was pushed to declare that they were in love, he was locked up, and now here they are.
It’s a really pretty dreamy song, and a really pretty little love story. But mostly I like it because it’s not the love story people imagine when they hear about forbidden love. It’s not about a magical first meeting or big declarations against society. It’s just like any other kind of love. They meet, they like each other, they get to know each other, and they end up in love. Because that’s what happens when men and women spend time together. Doesn’t matter if they are different religions or classes, the same thing always happens. It’s human and natural and good.
Because it is human and natural and good, society wants to control it. Because that is the purpose of society, to control the uncontrollable. Which is sometimes good, for instance obeying traffic laws is a good idea. But there needs to be a sense of a higher good. That is what the law and government is supposed to do. To enforce an objective rule, taking into consideration what they know about the situation.
Which brings me back to my starting point and the parental consent law for abortions. Most of the time children are controlled by a tiny little society run by their parents. And that’s good and right, children need a lot of control and the government would get plain tuckered out if they tried to do it all. But there are certain life and death situations where an individual can no longer be trusted to make an appropriate decision. And that is when the government must interfere and make the decisions for them.
This is the ultimate failure. These two people came to the police for help. And the police threw them back to their families instead of taking on the place that they needed to fill for society to function.
The police called both families. Her family, the lower class one, is the one that everyone assumed was dangerous. Her brother and father came in drunk and angry (although her mother was supportive and kind). His family was proper and respectable, brought his sister along even, the police trusted them. And the final decision was, she clearly needed to go into protective custody at the abused woman’s shelter. But he could go home until things settled down. The police thought this, and the couple, after being worn down, thought this as well. At least, Shane Nigam thought it was a good idea. Shruthy Menon looked a little uncertain. And she was right to be uncertain, the cops didn’t want to bother with her once Shane was safely back with his upperclass family. Shruthy had to insist on being taken to the abused woman’s shelter.
And that was the opening, them taking her there, complaining about the other issues they are more worried about, and someone following them. But in the end, they get there safely. And it’s all kind of dull and safe. She signs in, she gets dinner, she gets a bed. And the next day, her liberal single aunt shows up and signs her out, says she is taking her home with her, no one will dare bother her.
We spent the whole middle of the movie distracted from our main plot by everything going on in the station. And finally at the end when it narrows down again to just our main couple, we are focused on her. Just like the cops and everyone else is. She is the one with the drunk family, the dangerous neighborhood, all of that. And she is the woman. We assume she is in more danger.
But that is just our assumptions getting in the way of clear facts. Almost the first thing we learned about this couple is that he was beaten up and locked up by his family. She was able to get to their meeting place with no issues. That’s what we should have focused on and remembered beyond everything else.
While there is a structure in place to protect her, there is nothing in place to protect him. He is a man, after all. And from a wealthy family. He is supposed to be able to take care of himself. And so, he is convinced to walk himself back into danger.
That is the “Kismath”. Our hero was always going to die, to be killed by his father and brother. He just got an extra 8 hours of life and a last chance to meet the woman he loved before it happened. All the pressure of religion and gender roles and social power was there to support his father and let this murder happen. And now the police and everyone else can write it off as his “Kismath” for having fallen in love with the wrong person. Nothing they could have done, no guilt they need to feel, everything was just fate.
The only person who is aware that fate is just another word for the social hierarchy and how it works is Shruthy. She is doubtful of this plan to separate and trust others, because no one else has ever helped her. And she is the one who survives in the end, because she has learned not to trust or hope. And we end with her, in Bombay, living her life alone. This was her Kismath, to get out of that town and build a life in a place where she can be in control and no longer need to worry about fate at all.
(This has nothing to do with this film, I’ve just had this song going through my head the whole time I wrote because this film is also called “Kismet”)