I finally watched it! Ages after it came out. For those of you who like Communists/Communism, this is a great movie for gently explaining the importance of collective action. For those of you who like “cuddly” type men (you know who you are!), this is a great movie for giving you nice sofa like Nivin striding around with his big arms and trunk.
I have to admit, this movie didn’t totally grab me. Partly (mostly) because I just wasn’t in the right mood. I was watching it at the end of a long day, while trying to write posts for the next day, and eat dinner, and play with the dog, and everything else. So I wasn’t totally focused. Also, I have to admit, the looooong section cynically setting up the present day kind of lost me. But by about halfway through, when the plot actually started (classic Malayalam!) I was all into it. And it wasn’t Nivin that drew me in, or the songs, or the pretty period costumes, or any of that: it was the Communist philosophy at the heart of it.
This is a very very well-made propaganda movie. So well made that it doesn’t feel like propaganda, it just feels like a movie they wanted to make that happened to change your mind about certain things. But there was a purpose to it, and the ending is what tips the hand a bit. It doesn’t end on a personal story, it ends on a powerful group action moment.
The very structure of the film supports the point of the film, while Nivin is the lead, all the other characters move in and out of the story as it goes on, none of them given more importance than any others. And even Nivin himself, through a clever trick of plotting, is allowed to be both the leader and the follower simultaneously.
Often when I am watching a “hero” movie, I have to turn my brain and my morals off a little bit. Accept that he is ignoring the women, that he is focused on winning a small goal instead of greater social justice, and so on and so forth. In this film, I had none of those problems. Everything he said and did completely fit with my own personal morals.
That means not only was this a moral movie, it was a universal movie. Something Mersal, I can agree in the abstract with a lot of what the hero says and does, but the specifics of it have no connection to me. Healthcare policy in the US and India is completely different, government funding is different, I can’t feel whole-heartedly for a hero dealing with these issues. But this film strips away all the specifics and gets down to the basic concerns of life and death, makes me think about what I would do in those situations because those are situations that could happen to me.
The structure is quite nice, not revolutionary (ha! I made a joke!), but nice. In the present day, our hero learns a lesson by hearing stories of the past. A solid familiar structure. A little different than usual in that the present day and past are equally balanced, it’s not just a quick check in with the present at the start, the end, and the interval. What makes it really different is that although the screen time given to the past and present is equal, the dramatic weight between the two is not. On the one hand, we know how the past “ends” because we know the people telling the story are still alive today, which makes it less stressful. On the other hand, the stakes are so much lower in the present, the people so much less noble and tormented. What makes the film have a driving force is cutting between the two, back and forth, until we reach the end when the noble tragedies of the past story reach into the present, and when the uncertainty of the present attacks the safety of the past.
Oh, and did I mention Nivin is nice and chubby and bearded and wears a lungi THE WHOLE TIME??? If you happen to enjoy men who look kind of fluffy and wear traditional clothing.
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In the present, Nivin Pauly is a lazy member of the local Communist party. He is avoiding responsibilities and planning shortcuts to get to the top of the political heap. His newest plan is to hire some goons to beat up the rising star of the party and convince him to give up communism, leaving space at the top for Nivin. In the middle of this, he gets a call telling him to go to the hospital and donate blood because a comrade who has the same rare blood type needs blood.
This section goes on maybe too long. The purpose is to establish Nivin as kind of weak and shallow and funny, and the modern day Communist party as more about weak and shallow young men like him, maneuvering for political power and obsessing over petty things, than going out into the world and caring about people. The other purpose is to trick the audience a little. We relate to Nivin and his world, this is “our” world, the great deeds and heroes are in the past, we can relax and be lazy because we are no better or worse than he is. We can even enjoy and cynically laugh at what he is doing, because that is how the world is.
After much back and forth, avoiding giving blood, meeting a nurse he has a crush on, and so on, we finally get to the flashback when an old man shows up to thank him for donating blood and tells him about the man he is donating for, who started out in the same position as him, a young member of the local party. But unlike present day Nivin, this past Nivin is strong and sure of himself and his beliefs. When he is asked to go up into the mountains and help workers with an evil plantation owner, he leaves immediately. He fights and stands up for the workers and wins them their rights. He does not look up at where he can go, he looks down at the people he can lift up.
But, see, even that isn’t right. It’s not about looking down and helping, it’s about realizing we are all the same, there is no up and there is no down. And so Past Nivin’s story continues. We jump forward to after he has had that revelation, when he defends a little girl’s right to go to school because they are equal. And then we jump back again to see his romance. His wife, Aishwarya Rajesh, was a village woman who joined his Communist group and was active in their traveling shows and speeches. Her parents want her to quit, he comes to talk to them and they explain that no one wants to marry her because of her involvement with the group. Nivin tells them not to worry, and if no one else wants to marry her, he will marry her himself. She is thrilled and excited, her parents approve. But Nivin doesn’t even remember he said it. He is still seeing himself as “saving” people, as somehow just a little better than this village girl who wants to marry him. When he is reminded, he agrees, but is reluctant about it. It doesn’t change until the day of the wedding, when he is caught up in party work and is hours late. Only for his bride to smile and accept his actions, understanding that the party and the greater good are more important. He didn’t expect it of her, and he goes into the marriage happy. He surprises himself by falling in love, finally finding his other half, his equal to share his life.
These stories are told jumping back and forth with the present, his elderly wife arriving, his daughter, his old comrades. We still don’t know why he is in the hospital now. More importantly, in the present, Nivin is becoming more and more involved in this story and coming to care more and more about this old man and the people around him. It’s not just about the story of the past Nivin and his heroism, it’s about learning to care for everyone in that story, and everyone in the present telling the stories. And only then do we the audience and present day Nivin learn about the problems that exist in the present, as important as those of the past. Nivin’s daughter has grown up to be a social worker, she is bailing a bunch of prostitutes out of jail when she recognizes her childhood friend from school. She takes her friend home and her parents are shocked, go to talk to her father, and learn that the factory in the village is shut down, there is no money or work, and people are starving. Nivin, as an old man, steps up again.
There is no thought of “saving” people, he returns and talks to the workers as his equals and friends. And he talks to the landowner as an equal too, not threatening him or alienating him, but figuring out how to solve the situation. They reach a deal, and Nivin and his friends start up a business again and save the village. Only for a young man to move in and try to take away their land. It was while confronting him that Nivin was injured. But he was already sick. That’s the real lesson, not the village and the big moments and the brave confrontations, it was Nivin’s very small and personal moment of giving and equality that best exemplifies what equality means. His old friend, a lowly worker, has a granddaughter with a developmental disability. And Nivin donated his kidney to her. Because everyone deserves to live.
After all of this, present day Nivin chooses to believe in the same values, to believe in them so much that he does not wish to stay and be a “hero” in this moment. Instead of he leaves, walks away from the crowd at the hospital celebrating past Nivin’s waking up, and go home to his mother. There’s a nice moment when he explains to his nurse crush that he does not want to see past Nivin, because he imagined him as looking like himself and he wants to keep that feeling of connection. But for me, the real ending is the tag when we see Nivin and other young communists confront the man who attacked Old Nivin. Because we see in the front row not Nivin, but the young promising rising star who Nivin was plotting against in the opening. Nivin no longer cares about being the most important and powerful leader, he just cares about what the people need and what is best for them as a collective.