What a nice movie! Not swoony and romantic, but well-made, and with a heroine I can like and sympathize with.
This is a film that proposes the radical notion that people can fall in love multiple times. Real love, true love. And then it doesn’t work out. And that’s okay. Someone else will come along, and you can fall in love all over again. It suggests that you don’t have to choose between the wild romance of true love, and the safe sane stability of a marriage. And best of all, it suggests that a woman can fall in love many times, just like a man, can enjoy kisses and flirting and fun and have crazy dreams, and then can get as completely over it as a man can. Maybe love isn’t just about magic moments and eyes meeting, maybe it is also about timing.
The film is helped by the cast. It’s almost entirely newcomers, our heroine and her parents being the exceptions. That does something interesting, while everyone else in the film is in the background, saying a line here or there, sitting, walking, filmed more just “being” than acting, the heroine and her family come into strong relief. They are the ones we truly feel like we know, the people who are “real” surrounded by a sea of unreality. It helps with the feeling of seeing things the way June sees them, she only sees her own story as the “real’ one while all her friends are just sort of there.
This film has a first time director/writer to go along with the newcomer cast. Really the most experienced person involved is the star, Rajisha Vijayan. She came up through TV, and then in the past 3 years rapidly climbed the ranks of critically acclaimed actresses in Kerala. Malayalam film has a habit of discovering and casting very young unknown actresses, I am struck that in this film everyone else was young and unknown, but for the lead role they picked someone with actual credentials.
You know what really surprises me? First time music director too! The songs are lovely, light and delightful and perfectly fitting the mood. And they are the only really “movie” touch for most of the film. The actors don’t even wear make-up, the costumes look like off the rack purchases, the sets appear to be real places, if it weren’t for the music and the interesting camera angles and editing, I would think I was watching a documentary.
One thing that strikes me as extra real in this film is the way pop culture references are used. They are all just a few years behind. Everyone is talking about Dil Chahta Hai at the start, but it’s not 2001, it’s a few years after. It’s the little things like that, along with the way the heroine’s hair gets frizzy by the end of her school day, the way the boys’ facial hair comes in all patchy and thin in high school, that make the whole story come together.
This is a story about love, but love as it exists in a world that isn’t perfect. The dreamy fantasy of love, and the messy meeting it has with reality, is a theme that flows through the whole film. While other movies may soften the edges of reality, make everyone a little prettier, a little cleaner, a little “cooler” than they are in reality, this film shows that love can be magic and wonderful even in a real world, and that the real world can wear away at that love not in a big dramatic way but just through the tedious tiresome parts of life which make it unable to survive.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Rajisha is 16 and about to start the final two years of high school, the ones where she will pick a concentration and get serious about her studies before college. On the first day, all the kids are looking each other over. Most of them know each other from earlier classes, but not well. And there are a few new students. Rajisha immediately picks out as “her” crush a new boy, Sarjana Khalid. Their teacher makes them stand up and introduce themselves by showing a talent, Rajisha and Sarjana are both too shy to think of a talent. Their teacher makes them the co-leaders of the class and they start spending time together. Over two years of small incidents, they come closer and closer. He even kisses her cheek backstage at the school talent show. Finally, they are all planning college years. Rajisha declares they should all go to college together, to a local one where her cousin went. Everyone is enthusiastic, even Sarjana whose father wants him to go to college in Bombay. Sarjana suggests that he borrow the family car and they drive over to look at the college next weekend. Rajisha is reluctant, knows her family won’t like it, but is convinced when another girl offers to go. She lies to her parents that it is a school trip, but wants to cancel again at the last minute when she sees the other girl isn’t coming. Sarjana pressures and guilts her and she comes along. Only for her parents to find out and be furious, order her never to see Sarjana again. She goes along with their wishes because she respects them, Sarjana is angry, they don’t talk the rest of school and he goes to college in Bombay while she goes to the local college.
After college, she convinces her parents to let her take a job in Bombay and live with an old friend from high school. In Bombay, she runs into Sarjana again and they start dating. Everything is perfect and wonderful, kisses and dates and silly jokes. But then he takes her to meet his father and talk seriously about marriage, and she doesn’t like the way they talk, the casual dismissal of her own needs. The relationship falls apart because they just don’t work as a couple, they see their lives too differently. She quits her Bombay job and goes home, getting into a fight in a bar on her way. She is arrested and then released and sent home with a young officer who reveals that he has been in love with her since high school. She never even noticed him, but he used to follow her around, straight through college. She mends her broken heart with this new relationship.
And then we jump ahead again to find her living at home and running an event planning company. She is single, and her parents pressure her to at least meet with a boy whose parents have suggested a meeting. The boy is Shane Wayne, and they hit it off immediately, talk and talk and have the same sense of humor and way of looking at the world. They happily get married, and invite all her old high school friends to the wedding. Old stories are told, feuds are solved, and in the end even Sarjana shows up to surprise her and congratulate her.
The film uses a narrative device of a game, or put it another way Rajisha’s character uses a game as a test, to explore the strengths of each relationship. Those three little scenes show, at the simplest level, why love itself isn’t enough to make a relationship last. And probably it’s not a coincidence that the game is built around the idea of a 20th wedding anniversary.
Rajisha first suggests the game to Sarjana when they are dating and in love and thinking about marriage. Not when they are just in high school, because that high school relationship wasn’t a real relationship, it wasn’t time for this game and this test yet. It was just making eyes at each other and building up the possibility of the idea of a real relationship. Now, as adults living independently with no pressure or restrictions, now is when things get serious and different. This alone is something a lot of films fail to convey, that there is a space between childish flirting and actual marriage, a kind of “testing” space where a couple is getting to know each other. And in that space, alone together sitting on the terrace of Rajisha’s apartment, Rajisha suggests they play a game, it is their 20th anniversary and Sarjana is calling her up to decide how they will celebrate. Only, Sarjana doesn’t quite play it right. He keeps suggesting things like a fancy dinner which Rajisha doesn’t really like. And he isn’t even that interested in the game, stops playing as soon as his father calls, leaving Rajisha alone.
This is a preview of their life in 20 years. Not the imaginary details of it, but that Rajisha will want his attention, will want him to “play” with her, and he will do the bare minimum of effort and then abandon her. She will have to do all the work to make this relationship work. And that is why they break up, not because they stop loving each other, but because they keep having the same fights, he wants her to move into his family home, to have the wedding in Bombay, to quit her job, to do everything for his convenience. Not in an evil way, but simply because that is the marriage he wants, 20 years in the future he wants to spend a lot of money on a fancy dinner and have her be happy with that instead of demanding something more. What I find most interesting is that it is Sarjana who is kind enough to save Rajisha from herself. She has convinced herself she can make this relationship work, convinced herself that First Love is True Love. Even after declaring it impossible, ending the engagement meeting because she doesn’t want that life, she still keeps running back to him. Sarjana loves her, and likes her and knows her, well enough to tell her it just won’t work. It’s a very real kind of break-up, not dramatic or tragic, and not clean either. Two people who love each other and fight a lot and finally one of them says “enough”.
This is the relationship the film spends the most time on, because it is Rajisha’s “practice” relationship. All those years of school together made Sarjana a safe boyfriend, made them already know each other well enough to understand what they want from life and to break-up with no hard feelings. He will always be special to her.
And Rajisha was that same thing for someone else. We can see that in the casting. Sarjana did a good job with his role, but there wasn’t much asked of him, because his character existed more as a reflection of Rajisha’s fantasy’s of him than as his own person. But her second boyfriend, Arjun Ashokan, has his own fantasies and his own journey. Which is the problem with their relationship, Arjun has too many fantasies of his own. He spent high school, and then college, dreaming about Rajisha. When they finally get together, and she suggests the “20 years” game, he has a clear vision of what he wants for their 20 year anniversary, but it is all what HE wants. There is nothing for her to do in the imaginary activity (just stand and wait for him to come home), and nothing for her to do in the moment playing the game. He just runs with it. And that is what their relationship is like, and what their marriage would be like. She would just be the follower to his goals and dreams. And that’s not what she wants either. We don’t even see the break-up of that relationship, because this is Rajisha’s story and for her, it was barely even a relationship. It was fulfilling Arjun’s fantasies, and giving her space to find herself after the break up with Sarjana, and that’s all. And we see Arjun at the end, happy and newly married to a wife that seems happy to stand next to him and smile, happy to follow his life.
These two relationships are the kind we see in most movies. Either the heroine is so in love with the hero that her pure love and sacrifice wear him down. Or the reverse, the hero stalks the heroine and writes her letter and eventually she is won over. But this film asks “20 years down the line, what will happen? Or even a few months?” Will the power balance between them ever adjust, or will one of them always be more in love than the other, do more work than the other?
And that is when we are ready for the 3rd relationship, and Rajisha is too. Sarjana was her growing up, her first love that taught her how to love. Arjun was the one who restored her to herself, welcomed her back to her home town and gave her the confidence to start a new life and a new business. And now she is living with her parents again, and following her dreams and knowing herself, and she won’t get drawn in to another unhealthy doomed relationship. In the romances that give is an even hand, boy and girl fall in love together, this is usually where we meet the heroine. She is mature and successful, maybe the dialogue even refers back to earlier romances but we don’t get to see them. This is the rare movie that makes the heroine’s romantic and personal journey the center of the film. Including her failed romances, because they are valuable for how they helped her grow as a person.
I have to confess that I spoiled myself on wikipedia halfway through the movie because I was so stressed about who she would end up with. And then I was heartbroken to learn it was just some cameo person. I was all in on the cute Sarjana romance, the comfort of dating someone you grew up with. By the time it fell apart, I was over it and resigned to her moving on. And then I fell in love all over again with the Arjun romance, the neat parallel of her having this epic love story while someone else was loving her and she didn’t know it, plus the nice thought of the low class boy from back home being the happy ending instead of the rich boy she had to strive for. But again, by the time we jumped ahead to her happy and single, I was okay. But I still thought the “arranged marriage” ending was going to be just too tidy, a little lesson that your parents know best after all.
But, not at all! It was the best kind of arranged marriage. First because her first two romances both suffered the strain of differences in background. Sarjana felt entitled because he was richer and from Bombay and was dating this small town poor girl. And Arjun still saw Rajisha as some kind of fantasy instead of the real person in front of him. Shane Wayne is from her same background, they can meet on a completely even footing.
Second because both of them come from parents who love them truly, not just their vision of them but what they are in reality. Rajisha’s parents know she dated, know twice before, know she has no business sense, that she is stubborn and impulsive and overly confident. Shane’s parents know he is a bit odd and unconventional. They pick Rajisha for him after seeing her puppet show at a wedding, pick her for her personality and not something shallow like looks or a resume.
And so at the first meeting, after talking and talking, Rajisha is ready to risk her “test” and suggests that they pretend it is 20 years later. And, finally, it works the way it is supposed to. And the film gives us a little flashback to her previous relationships to show how they just weren’t quite right. This time, Shane and Rajisha drive each other higher, enjoy the fantasy together and are equally willing to put in the work to make it fun, without shutting each other out. In just a few minutes, the film convinced me that Shane really was Rajisha’s happy ending and best possible life. Plus, he’s hot.
After that, the wedding itself kind of felt like an epilogue, Rajisha’s story was settled, that awkward period between childhood and adulthood complete (marriage, business, family, all in a better place than at the opening). Why do we need this victory lap of seeing her wedding celebration? Because life doesn’t really divide neatly into childhood, youth, adulthood. Each period bleeds through to the other, and the big moments of life are where we see that. Rajisha’s wedding brings together her old friends from high school, her Bombay roommate/high school friend, even Arjun as her first home town boyfriend. And at the very end Sarjana appears, he helped to coordinate a slide show of his photos of their school days. Rajisha and he have both moved on in life, but their love is still there, he still cares enough to surprise her this way.
Our own eras of life bleed through into each other, and in the same way other people’s lives bleed through into ours. Through out Rajisha’s school days we saw other stories in the background, other crushes, other friendships, and so on. And while Rajisha is out of the room putting on her wedding clothes, we get to see all these other stories interact without her life as a filter. Two of her classmates are married and expecting their first child. Her friend from Bombay is nervous about public speaking (although fearless every other way). And most touching, the 3 boys who were such close friends all through school have now split up, thanks to one of them becoming an alcoholic. He is trying to do better now, but they won’t forgive him for his past actions. We never learn what it was he did to them, what happened to them all in the past 10 years that made the friendship fall apart, and that’s the point, There are all these stories going on all the time everywhere, and each of them could be a film. This film is called “June” and it is about her. But each student in her classroom has their own story and could be their own film, and that is life.