Okay, I am slowly getting to understand Kerala history. I just need to watch Pathemaari and Celluloid, and I will know everything! This movie covered me for 1900 through 1946. Also, the British were really horrible, weren’t they?
You know what this movie reminded me of? Urumi! Not just because they are both about fighting against colonialism. But because they have a specific view of colonialism and what it does to the local population. In both of them, it’s not that the Europeans are evil and the South Asians are good. It’s that the worst of the Europeans are attracted to colonialism. And that they ally with the worst of the local populations.
In Urumi, we saw how the strong local kings were killed, while the impulsive, the evil, and weak were encouraged to grow. But this was all while the Europeans were still there, actively working to weaken and eliminate threats. What Iyobinte Pusthakam deals with is the traces left the behind, the permanent damage to a society when it gives itself over to rule by an outsider.
The villain is not the white man. In fact, it isn’t “white” people at all. The heroine is half-white, and is less corrupted than the local entirely desi female lead. The villains are those who colonialism allowed to achieve power, and who are continuing to grasp it even after the British have left. The good are those who have no thirst for power, only for justice, freedom, and equality. And racial/ethnic/socio-economic background has nothing to do with it.
Of course, the good are also those with SUPER FIGHTING POWERS!!!! Which is why this film was super enjoyable by the end! Seeing our noble warriors reveal their awesome gun shooting/fake witchcraft/axe throwing abilities and defeat the enemies! Woo!
(It’s like Last of the Mohicans! A little bit!)
But that first half, man! Although, it was also fascinating. Seeing a clear outline of 20th century colonialism. First, the European arrives and changes the local economy into a cash crop basis. He uses wage slavery to acquire workers, and then he seeks out the one among them who has the most strength and stubbornness, but without intelligence. A young boy who stands there and takes the blows of the overseer without a reaction. The white man gives him strength and puts him above the rest, and rewards him when he turns and uses that strength against his fellow workers. These tactics creates a loyal follower who identifies more with the white man who is using him, than with his fellow workers/south asians who are being abused. And I’m not even reading between the lines here, our helpful voice over explains the whole thing, and we are shown it with shocking clarity in a series of sequences set several years apart.
That makes it sound boring, like they are hitting us over the head with big political theories and stuff. But it isn’t at all! Because, for one thing, the visuals are so striking. The first time Lal (the grown up version of the young boy that the white man picked out) handles a gun and tries to shoot someone, the man jumps off a cliff in fear before he can be hit by a bullet. And there is a gorgeous shot of Iyobinte looking at the gun, and then off the cliff into nothingness, looking more confused by what has happened than shocked. The first time the white man sees the “witch” who has been driven out of her last village, she is standing in an empty field with a white horse, the white almost glowing against the misty background.
Plus, there is the fact that the stuff the film is showing is really bad! But just perfectly balanced between “so bad it crosses over into not feeling real anymore” and “not bad enough to be interesting.” This is all grading on the “actual historical happenings that we all vaguely know about” curve. Yes, we all know that the colonizers exploited native women, and found their own pet native workers to carry out their orders, and clearcut ancient forests and took over plots of sustenance farming land for their cash crops. And we vaguely know that they took European “science” and “organization” to the extreme, treating the local communities like little model villages. But I didn’t know that they flipped coins at local children to pay them for rats killed in the tea fields. Or that they ordered houses burnt with the families inside if disease was suspected.
The other big reason that the first half works at all, as it quickly jumps through 46 years of history, is that the characters are so interesting and distinctive. They are an excellent combination of one easily identifiable high concept trait, and a whole series of interesting motivations and complex histories. For instance, that witch with the horse.
She was thrown out of her last village for “witchcraft”, we are told. And we see her throwing curses and acting oddly. And we see that the white man has become obsessed with her. But, on the other hand, we see her sleeping with the married servant of the household, and my interpretation was that she was so desperate following her banishment from her former home, that even the little comforts and supports she could gain from a white man’s servant, were worth repaying him with sex. We see that the white man is in love with her, but we see that as soon as his protection is removed, she is back to struggling for a living on the outskirts of the community. She may be a “witch”, but if so, she is paying a high price for it, and would be better off without whatever oddity is causing her to be labeled as such. And, more importantly, her actual power does not seem that strong, if it only extended to entrapping one powerful man, but not enough to force anyone else in the community to help her. And did she “entrap” him? We see them together, briefly, and she looks happy and loving, happier than she is at any other time.
(Also, it’s Lena! Last scene playing Dulquer’s mother in Vikramadithyan)
Is this a “witch” or is this a desperate woman who pretends witchcraft in order to use the suspicions of others to protect herself and her child? Was she persecuted so strongly in her last village that it convinced her of her own power or, alternatively, trained her in the value of projecting power? When she was taken from the servant by the white man, was it force, or was it a relief to finally have found someone who would not look at her and see “witch”? She is certainly odd, and cold, but she never harms anyone that we see, and we also see that she formed a sincere friendship with Lal’s wife, and the two women genuinely cared for each other.
All of the characters have similar layers. Well, almost all. I’ll get to that later. Lal, that stolid young man taken and trained by the white man to emulate him, is ruthless in his governance, burning homes to take land, continuing to clearcut jungles and force children into labor, but he has a core of decency. He loved his wife, and he loves his sons. He will abuse the people and the land under his control, but he isn’t willing to sell it off to Jayasurya, who will treat them even worse. And he will never abuse a woman under his protection.
Even Harrison, the white man, has layers. He sincerely loves Lena, the witch, and the child he conceived with her. And he loves Lal too, in his own way, delighting in finding him a wife, and naming his children. But at the same time, when he loses a shipment and his profit is threatened, he will leave this whole world he has created and go back to Europe to protect his investments. That was what was most striking to me about his character. Not all the evil things he sets in motion in the community, but that he has no hesitation in picking up and moving when the going gets rough. Really, that’s the whole flaw of colonialism. That no matter what they may claim, the colonizers don’t really care what might happen in the future, or how bad things may get later. Because in the back of their minds, there is always the thought “well, if it gets really bad, I can just leave and let them sort it out.” And then you get Partition.
Anyway, those are all the subtle forces in the first half. There is Lal (his character was named “Iyob” after Job in the Bible. Harrison picked the name when he baptised him, because he was such a good worker. Man, white people are horrible!) who has been so well-trained by Harrison, even after Harrison is gone, he continues the same practices, in the same clothes, in the same house. There’s Lena, the witch, on the outskirts of the community raising her half-white daughter. There’s Lal’s wife, a good and kind woman who is friends with Lena, even after her exile. And then there’s Lal’s sons.
Here’s where the well-rounded characters just get thrown out the window. Lal’s sons are awful!!! Well, the two oldest are. They are vicious unthinking beasts. The youngest has inherited his mother’s nature, and thinks so much that he cannot bear to stay in his own home. Especially after he sees his two older brothers rape, murder, and hang the young serving girl who was raised along with them. So he runs away and eventually joins the British Navy. Which saves him from being a character who is too good to be well-rounded.
Going back to colonialism, we see how Harrison, the white man, trained and programmed Lal so clearly, that Lal is continuing in his path long after he is gone. But in the next generation, without the direct contact with the original source of power, the subtle messages of power and control and responsibility have been worn away until only the core of brutality remains. The two boys are animals, with no higher thinking at all, but they are also the inevitable end result of a system which rewards brute force and fear.
But then there’s the youngest son, Fahad Faazil (he also produced the movie, so of course he gave himself the best role!). He manages to receive only the benefits of colonization and escapes all the poison. No, I won’t even say colonization, more globalization. He sees no power relationships between countries. Instead, he receives learning and wisdom from whatever source he can find it. He takes training and discipline from the British Navy, and also takes home with him a sense of the wider world and how things can be different, better. Without the initial contact with Harrison, he would not have had the opportunities for education, experience, everything. And now he uses those tools to take out the remnants of the system that he benefited from.
Which is where we get to the AWESOME HALF. After a whole hour plus of watching things get worse and worse and worse, suddenly it all comes together and works out great! Oh, and SPOILERS (I don’t count the previous part as spoilers, because that’s really just a history of rural life in a colonized country)
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Fahad is about to leave town, to set up a place in the city before coming back to rescue Isha Sharvani (Martha, the half-white daughter of Harrison. Played by that girl from Kisna! And, more importantly, the hide-n-seek cookie commercials with Hrithik!). But, suddenly he is ambushed and attacked by his brothers, barely escaping with his life. Although, it takes like 12 of them to hurt him, because as we have already seen, he is an awesome fighter!
(Now I really want cookies)
Fahad is awesome in general in this role. Like Annayum Rasoolum, it is a perfect balance of stiffness and charm. With his old friend who has taken to hiding in the forest, and with Isha, he is relaxed and open, while still stiff and careful, as would befit a character just released from the Navy after 7 years in WWII. And one who saw his brothers kill a girl before that.
What really impressed me was how he holds himself. There is a certain lightness to it that feels like a trained fighter. Something I didn’t even realize he was doing until the first time he has to openly confront his brother, and it takes him about 3 seconds to disarm him, and disassemble his gun. It looks really cool! All along, the audience and his family have been seeing a slightly built, slow moving, quiet guy. And then in one scene the audience and his family realizes that what they have been seeing is training and control, which can easily best the wild emotions and lunges of his much larger brothers.
Oh, right, but he is still almost killed because they all attack him at once. But he escapes, and is rescued by his friend who uses forest medicine to revive him (if the movies are anything to go by, forest/gypsy medicine is the way to go! They can make cripples walk, mutes speak, save you from fatal snake bites, all sorts of good things!). And then IT IS ON!!! The forest people are organized into a guerrilla army, they rescue Isha Sharvani and bring her back to their forest encampment to join them. They fight back against Lal and his men, and Jayasurya and his men who are trying to move into their territory. There are many awesome action sequences.
And meanwhile, back at the house, all is disintegrating in a definite “Last days of Rome” or “Gotterdammerung” kind of way. The sons are set against their father by Jayasurya, who uses their greed. And then against each other by Padmapriya, the abused wife of the younger son. And then Jayasurya is set against the remaining son by Padmapriya.
(Padmapriya is also great, she moves in this amazingly sensuous and dissolute way. I’m guessing it is her Bharat Natyam background which lets her do this great body acting)
Lal escapes to the forest, where he finds sanctuary with Fahad Faasil, which is also when we have one of the two clear Mahabharata references I caught (the other was when the older brother bursts in on the younger while he is in his bedroom with his wife, very Arjun interrupting Yudhishtira and Draupadi). This one is even more obvious. As the death toll is rising, Lal begs Fahad to spare his brother. He can capture him and defeat him but please, as a father and their mutual parent, don’t kill him. It’s very Kunti and Karna. Which I guess makes the evil brother Arjun? That’s so strange! Although he was also Arjun in the other scenario. Huh.
But, in a bigger sense, the Mahabharata references are because this is a time of great change and confusion, with all of society breaking down around them. It’s not just this village that is being rocked by the forces of chaos, this is 1946, all of India is about to fall apart. This is just the opening act.
Which brings me to the framing device. This whole story is being written in 1974, in the middle of the Emergency, by an old man (possibly the young communist organizer who helps Fahad in the past) waiting to be arrested by the state. He is writing a call to arms to his fellow men, to think about what was done in the past and how it helped them, and to act the same now. It isn’t a story about colonialism and the end of WWII and tea plantations. It is a story about corrupt power and how to fight it. Whether it is Harrison (the white man), or Lal running his tea plantation, or Lal’s sons beating and abusing the villagers, or Indira Gandhi arresting her political opponents. They can all be defeated if people just stand up and fight.
It’s inspiring! Made me want to go back to 1974 and campaign against the Congress Party!