Shoot, I think I just reposted this a little bit ago. Oh well, it is still good and worthy of getting the review posted again.
I dragged myself out to the movie theater again, after seeing Manmarziyaan on Friday, because I just had to see this movie. Partly because Prithviraj, partly because I was curious about the topic (desis in Detroit), but mostly because I had stumbled across the title song several months back and fell in love with it. It is SO GOOD, I just had to see the movie that surrounded it.
The movie doesn’t quite live up to the song. But it comes close! It really does try to dig in and understand the way aging American industrial cities are struggling and surviving. It misses some vital points, but it really isn’t terribly far off. I should have known a Malayalam film would understand worker issues. Marxism really does travel well!
There are a few things that the film gets wrong which itched away at me and distracted me. I love it when Indian movies are set in places I am familiar with, but then I pay the price by noticing the missed steps. The thing with Detroit (and Chicago to a lessor degree) is that the problem isn’t Detroit itself, it’s the areas around it. Thanks to a combination of factors (cheap cars and cheap gas, the killing of public transit, and the GI Bill funding home purchases) in the 1950s there was a mass exodus from midwestern cities of anyone middle class or above. Leaving the inner cities to only the lower income workers. Which also meant the tax base for the funding of the cities was eroded. The schools, public transit, general infrastructure kept declining and declining. While the suburbs that fed on the city flourished and became wealthier and wealthier. Of course, there was also a strong racial component. The phenomenon known as “white flight” encouraged those who could afford it to move out of the inner cities and into enclaves where the public schools, public libraries, and other public services paid by their high tax dollars were state of the art, and also sparklingly white.
The simple solution, to take suburban money and pour it back into the city, has failed over and over again in state after state. Including mine, which features the 17th best public high school in America (104 million dollars just spent on a new renovation), and the elementary school I attended where we had classes in the boiler room. But the suburban people are really not thrilled when it is suggested that their money be taken out of the 100 million dollar renovation for the school their kids will go to, and given to the school miles and miles away where some child they’ve never met is learning to read upside down because there aren’t enough textbooks to go around (also me. Good times!).
(The new pool. It’s like something out of Student of the Year, isn’t it? All paid with tax dollars, while just a few miles away in a different city, elementary schools are struggling to buy textbooks. The property tax system of funding is terribly broken)
The schools are the most shocking glaring example, but it’s more than that. The suburban money doesn’t go to the roads, the libraries, the police department, the public transit, any of the overworked and over used public needs of the city that supports their communities, gives them the economic base that keeps them going. That’s the missing ingredient in this film, and it’s kind of a big one. Yes, Detroit’s issues are broadly class and race based. Yes there are a random collection of people who are all affected in different ways. But those people are not going to be living close together. The class division is a geographical one as well. And it is a division that crosses racial lines, within the desi community, in a way that this film doesn’t fully investigate. Detroit is surrounded by up and coming communities where successful desi engineers, doctors, and academics live comfortable lives. There is no sense of how that community interacts (or fails to interact) with the working class desi community in the inner city. In my limited experience, that is one of the most interesting things about immigrant communities in America, the way primary allegiance to the greater class community versus the greater ethnic community shifts back and forth depending on the situation.
(Richa Gangopadhyay, born about an hour and a half outside of Detroit, son of a tech company executive and a museum manager, winner of the Miss India Michigan pageant and star of Mirchi)
That’s the overarching thing that bothers me a little bit, the sense that they are missing the way this city truly functions (or fails to). But there’s lots of little stuff too. For instance, the younger characters are described as going to college or high school scene to scene. They are young enough that they can’t drive, so in America that would be high school. And the kind of scenes we see in the school are high school as well, cafeteria conversations and hanging out on the basketball court and so on. But in India, that might be college. And so the dialogue slips occasionally. There’s a lot of little things like that, stuff that doesn’t quite match.
And the big thing, English dialogue! Ugh! I figured out why it bothers me, I think. Or rather, I know why it bothers me (because it is bad) but I figured out the manner in which it is bad. It’s the vocabulary, that’s what bothers me. It’s technically correct, but it is always the most basic and boring and unpoetic version of the statement. There aren’t even contractions used. And of course the delivery is particularly bad in a film like this where some of the characters are intended to be American by birth, meaning they have to deliver it in an American accent which is flattens out any intonation or fluidity because all the focus has to be on the pronunciation. It’s much easier in films set in India, the English can be the casual Indian English with natural accents and non-English words thrown in to add the shadings and vocabulary. The western set films where they attempt to do full English are just BLECH.
(See? Great trialer, and then the English dialogue lands like a wet sock)
Other stuff I didn’t like, the stories weren’t quite as locked together and poignant as they needed to be. Some of it worked, notably the Prithviraj-Isha Talwar track, but some of it was just a little confused and unclear. There wasn’t the inevitable Greek tragedy feeling that there needed to be, the way every single piece should be fitting together with every other one. And there wasn’t the sense that we were seeing just a few random people out of millions in the area, it felt like maybe we were seeing every single Malayalam in the greater Detroit area, all of whom coincidentally interacted with each other.
But then there’s that song. Which is just so very very good. And it gets at the heart of what is good in this movie. It sincerely tries to explore the reality of all these people in pain who can’t quite touch each other even as they live their lives just a few miles away from each other. Prithviraj running, Isha Talwar dancing, and so on and so on. And the way the reality of their life mixes classical Indian music, English rap, and American style rap sung in Malayalam.
That’s what makes me glad I saw this movie. It’s Nirmal Sahadev’s first movie as a director, but he assisted on Ivide, another movie that told a story of life in America. He experienced America himself, studied in Atlanta and New York. And he wrote the script for Hey Jude, another movie that managed to build a connection between characters that should not have made sense. I was hoping for that kind of a film again, and I got it. A story no one else is telling in America or India, the story of the immigrants who are struggling to build a life in a place that doesn’t really want them.
(Lovely song, until the English dialogue at the end, blech)
Well, that and Prithviraj. Prithviraj can play a lot of things, but there is something peculiarly beautiful when he plays a wounded warrior. The muscle who isn’t supposed to have a brain or a heart, the one no one notices who is secretly as much of a victim as those he attacks. Who doesn’t think he is worthy of love or hope or a better future but will selflessly sacrifice himself for those things for others. This is a perfect role for him, and he elevates the entire film with his performance and even his mere presence.
And for all the little things this film misses, it does understand the essential realities of life in dying American cities. The cheap houses in falling apart neighborhoods, the odd mixture of classes and friendships that happen between high school students, the random interactions between strangers in stores or on trains. And it treats the people crushed between economic necessity and impossible legalities with real respect and justice. As an added bonus, there is no glaring racism (as I have almost gotten used to from Indian films). Even the necessary “random Americans threaten our pure desi woman” scene is careful to make the gang of would be rapists mixed between Black and white.
It’s a good movie, is what I am saying. Especially when you understand it is made by people from outside this culture, and this language, and they are sincerely trying to build a story within a particular unique setting with a full understanding of the whys and wherefores of how these people got to this position.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Whole plot in two paragraphs:
According to this movie, Tamil and Malayalam gangs are on the rise in Detroit thanks to the civic instability and the easy access through Canada for illegal immigrants. Rahman is a Sri Lankan refugee turned violent crime lord. He loaned money to Nandhu to buy a garage, and to pay off the debt Nandhu and his nephew Prithviraj have been working for him, dealing drugs and smuggling, for years. Prithviraj wants out, now that the debt is paid. Rahman lets him out but plans to find a lever to force him back in because he will need him in an upcoming war with the Polish gang. Meanwhile Prithviraj’s teenage nephew Mathew Arun has a crush on Celine Joseph, a troubled rich Malayali girl he knows through his private school. Celine is the daughter of Isha Talwar, a Kathak dance teacher married to a wealthy successful businessman Shivajith Padmanabhan who ignores both his wife and daughter. She is also an old friend of Giju John, the Malayali-Tamilian detective in charge of tracking down the gangs. Prithviraj had a brief encounter with Isha and fell in love at first sight but does not feel he is worthy. Meanwhile, Celine is building a crush on Prithviraj. She approaches him one night after a fight with her parents, unaware that Prithviraj is trying to get Mathew out of town that same night since Rahman is threatening him to gain leverage on Prithviraj. Prithviraj, in a hurry, dismisses her and rejects her, and then agrees to sell her drugs when she accuses him of merely being a drug dealer in order to get rid of her. Celine overdoses and dies on the drugs Prithviraj gave her, filling him with guilt. INTERVAL
In the second half, Prithviraj is firmly back under the thumb of Rahman, trying to keep Mathew safe and out of things. He still feels bad about Celine and starts haunting the road outside her house, watching over Isha. Prithviraj follows Isha as she takes the bus away from home and helps her when she is approached by a group of harassers, beating them up and saving her. He takes her to Giju John’s house, but the next morning his wife wants her gone. Prithviraj takes her back to his house and they quickly fall in love. Prithviraj has the job of delivering a van to a hotel, but discovers there is a bomb in the back. He refuses to help in mass murder and drives the van out of town. While Rahman is looking for it, Isha discovers Prithviraj’s responsibility in Celine’s death and leaves him. Nandhu and his family hide out in his garage and wait to leave town. Prithviraj returns to discover that Nandhu was killed while his family watched and Isha is gone. Broken, he goes to confront Rahman personally and fights him, then draws in the Polish gang members as well. Until they are all locked in together and he sets off the bomb, neatly removing all the crime kingpins from his city. He stumbles into the police station and turns himself in, while Isha leaves town with his car and half the money he stole from Rahman, the other half given to Nandhu’s widow and children with instructions to return to India.
The problem with this movie, is it doesn’t quite know what it wants to say. Prithviraj knows what he wants to say, his character makes complete sense and everything works when he is onscreen. He is a man born of violence (watched his father kill his mother when he was a small child) who lives by violence, and also hates it. He tries to get out, and it just gets worse. The only way to save those he loves is to give into it, no more pretending to be anything else, kill Rahman and all the others who oppress the city and oppress him. That’s easy.
And by extension, Isha Talwar also mostly makes sense. Some of her backstory does not. She is established as a teenage mother who met her very wealthy husband in college. He married her because she wouldn’t have an abortion, and then proceeded to ignore her and their child. So far so good. But then, she is a TERRIBLE mother! Incapable of setting rules or boundaries, hesitant around her daughter, she cares a lot but doesn’t seem able to act. She also appears hesitant around her husband, reaching out to him over and over again only to be rejected, hurt that he is having an affair with his secatary even though it is clear this has been their life all along. Oh, and she teaches Kathak dance to abused women to help them build confidence, a charity. And yet she herself has no confidence.
So, all of this almost works, but then not quite. I think what bothers me the most is that she seems to have no instinct for self-preservation. That’s something an abused woman would hone quickly, know what questions to ask and what not to ask, how to teach her children to stay quiet and be safe, and I would also expect that the teenage mother bond combined with the joint victims of abuse bond would drive her and her daughter closer, not farther apart.
It’s so close to working though. Her shy careful demeanor in public, her isolation, her daughter’s anger, her feeling of guilt since this is a choice she made back then, to force him into marriage and have his child, all of that makes sense. It just needs to be changed the smallest amount to work better, have her daughter be angry with her for being weak, or desperate for fatherly approval, have her explicitly decide not to punish her daughter because she feels she has no right after having ruined her life with her choices, have her react to her husband’s obvious public cheating with hurt pride, carefully hidden, rather than shock and anger.
(Can we also take a moment for Prithviraj choosing to work with an older actress playing an older character while all the other Malayalam actors are working with tiny little freshfaced models)
But once her daughter is dead, Isha’s story makes complete sense. She finds strength in hopelessness, finally able to leave her husband because there is nothing left to fear (poverty, isolation, all of that is nothing in the face of her grief). She clings to Prithviraj because he is kind to her, and gentle, and safe. And she can sense that he understands her pain, he is a little broken inside as well, very different from her angry uncaring husband. Even the quick romance makes total sense, she wouldn’t question how fast things happen, that this stranger just showed up to save her and then offered to take her home and let her live with him, because she wouldn’t be thinking logically about anything at this point. I am happy with Isha, being the broken living victim of violence, the one with the scars inside, who fits with Prithviraj as the inner scarred perpetrator of violence.
But as you expand out from these two stories, things make less and less sense. Mathew Arun, he is supposed to be the good boy innocent seduced to the dark side by machismo. He sees that Celine has a crush on Prithviraj and decides he should be like him, and therefore asks a friend to connect him to the drug world. It’s all very sudden, the switch from a good boy struggling to stay good, to suddenly wanting to be bad. Again, it’s close to right, we see how he is already in this world, can’t escape it even as he tries, his friends in school are on drugs or drug dealers because it is the world he lives in. But there is no hint of interest in it or taste for it until just now. Most of all, the reason teens become drug dealers isn’t for “excitement”, but for money. I would find his motivation much more reasonable if he was made aware of his family’s money struggles, if he thought of himself as some kind of savior who was strong and brave and could help them, that would be as young and dumb and tragic as his doing it for love. And much more logical.
Nandhu, it’s mentioned late in the film that he borrowed money from Rahman to buy his garage and has been working off the debt since then. That’s a pretty lame backstory, Prithviraj’s uncle borrowed money and Prithviraj has to work it off. Especially since there is a reference in the very first scene to Nandhu’s arm being injured in service of Rahman, which is never fully explored. His motivation, it just doesn’t really make sense. Yes, he was a weak man who needed money, but I need more than that. Have something like he killed a man by accident back in India and can’t go home again. Or that Rahman helped them get into the country illegally and is holding the immigration authorities over there head. Something more than a simple “I borrowed money and had my nephew drive around a little to pay it back”.
The biggest missed opportunity, Rahman as the big gangster. He is given a clear backstory, escaped Sri Lanka as a teen with his little brother and nothing else, made it to Toronto and started a criminal empire, was thrown out of Canada and landed in Detroit and started over again. There should be a lot of misery here, a lot of understanding of how tragedy creates villains, some sense of sadness behind him. But, nope! He’s just evil. They give him that backstory, and then it doesn’t pay off in the rest of the film.
Everything except Prithviraj is like that, close to the mark but just barely off of it. Even the directing is like that, I can see the director had actual training (part of his time in America was at the New York Film Academy), he is using the handheld digital camera natural light and natural locations style that is deceptively hard to pull off. There are some moments of real beauty, he captures that feeling of driving around the empty streets in a powerful car which is so uniquely American, and so uniquely Detroit (a friend of a friend from Detroit recently came to Chicago, she had to go to a show downtown and had the option of parking for free and riding the train down, or taking her car and parking for $30-$50. Didn’t even think twice, she was not going to be without her car).
But again, it isn’t quite what it could be. Maybe it’s just a first movie problem. Give him a chance to grow, to go a little deeper into his characters, a little deeper into his visual planning, a little deeper into crafting the plot, and Nirmal Sahadev could really be something. But he’s not there yet. Except in brief flashes. But those flashes are awfully good.