NRI Week: Jacobinte Swargarajyam, the Dubai Immigrant Experience

I have no idea why I love this movie so much. But I do! And when I started thinking about NRI Week, I knew I had to include it.

If I am reading wikipedia correctly, Renji Panicker is a successful and respect scriptwriter.  And then in 2014, he took the part of Nazriya’s father in Ohm Shanti Oshaana and entered a new career phase as a father/character actor.  I’m glad I looked him up, because watching this film, I was thinking he must be another Mohanlal or Mamootty or something like that, someone with a lot of charisma and a long history with the audience and so on.  But, nope!  He just walked onscreens and immediately exuded confidence!  Interesting that Vineeth Sreenivasan chose to cast him, considering he himself is an actor who can easily transition from behind to in front of the camera and back again (including a pivotal cameo role in this film).

Which is important for this movie, because the whole thing relies on making Renji the center of the family, and then removing him.  On making us really feel that loss, and how it alters everything else.  But also keeping it a healthy level of focus.  This isn’t a story of a family coming into its own once they are free of the over-abundance of personality at the center.  This is a story of a family that was functioning well with their central figure running things, that was allowed to flourish and be happy in their own ways already, and the loss of that central figure forced them to grow in ways they otherwise would have been perfectly happy never to experience.

You know what this movie reminded me of?  Terminator 3.  I know this is a controversial opinion, but 3 is actually my favorite of the Terminators.  Because it isn’t afraid to bite the bullet and deal with the central conflict of the films.  Which is, no one wants to watch a “normal” John Conner!  We need the really bad thing to happen so John Conner can turn awesome already.

The same thing is happening with Nivin Pauly, and to a lesser degree with Lakshmy Ramakrishnan and Sreenath Bhasi, in this.  Yes, if Renji had remained as the soft supportive center of the family, Nivin could have had an easier life, he could have taken his time growing up and finding himself, but would he have grown as much as he did, would he have turned into the real “hero” he became?

Which isn’t to say that it was easy to watch!  The film successfully conveyed the real possibility that Nivin would fail to rise to the challenge, that everything would fall apart with Renji gone.  And it made it very clear that for some families, both on and off screen, it does fail like that, and it’s nobody’s fault.  It’s only a truly remarkable amount of effort, luck, and natural ability which can let a family stay together and survive when all their security is gone.

That surreal feeling of everything going wrong is successfully conveyed to the audience partly through how the heroes trade off.  We spend so much time in the first hour with Ranji.  He is the clear hero of the film, and the protagonist of the film as well.  That is, not just the character who can solve all the problems and take care of everyone, but also the character that we the audience will follow the most, the center of the story.  And then he is just gone!  Poof!  Never to be seen again until the very very end!

That kind of feels like a SPOILER, but it isn’t really.  As I have said many many times before, the standard Malayalam film structure seems to be to spend an inordinate amount of time establishing the setting and characters, before anything “ploty” even happens.  The same is true in this film.  Only, during all that setting up time, we are pretty trapped in Ranji’s perspective, and Ranji comes through pretty clearly as the main force for good in the film.  And then, boom!  Plot starts, and he goes away, all of a sudden!

What I found really fascinating, is how his influence goes away as well.  And I think this is really one of the main points of the film.  When Ranji is gone, he is really really gone.  It’s not like “he lives on in our hearts” or anything.  Nivin and the rest of the family have to make their own way, figure out their own paths.  The real tragedy isn’t that Ranji is gone for so long, it is that when he returns, there won’t be a place for him any more.  And there’s nothing anyone can do about that.

There is a telling moment early in the film when Ranji tells Nivin he should start wearing suits if he wants to be taken seriously.  Nivin responds that the new thing is to wear “casual” clothes (the sort of “button shirt no tie” look).  I was waiting through out most of the film for the moment when this would come back around, when we would see Nivin put on a suit at a dramatic moment.  But, he never does.  Nivin can’t use his father’s lessons, or his father’s methods.  There are a variety of other small moments like this, where you think there will be some big lesson about how Nivin is “going wrong”, but in fact he is just going “different”.  Without Ranji there, everything is going to change.

Okay, I have gotten perilously close to SPOILERS, now I think I have to really really SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER

Ranji is a very successful Malayalam businessman in Dubai.  He’s not “the richest man in town” in the usual kind of Indian film exaggeration (see my recent review for Srimanthadu).  His wealth feels reasonable and grounded.  They have a large apartment, a driver, and offices.  But the kids still have to do chores, he still looks for a good deal on jewelry for his wife, money still has meaning for them.  And most of all, he really does live his credo that his greatest wealth is his family.  The money comes second to that.

It’s also a large family, at least larger than I am used to in Indian films.  Although also smaller, now that I think about it.  Ranji has 4 kids, his oldest son Nivin who is just beginning to think about career, shadowing his Dad and working in his office while he figures out his own dreams.  And his next son, Sreenath Bhasi, who is the artist of the family, working on his music and going his own way.  His only daughter, Aima Sebastian, who is about to go back to India for medical school.  And the baby of the family, Stacen (pretty good for a child actor!) still in elementary school and constantly teased and pampered by his older siblings.  That’s a large number of kids, but there is no family support in the upper level of the generations.  Renji and his wife, Lakshmy Ramakrishnan, clearly have a wonderful supportive marriage.  But there are no uncles, aunts, grandparents, anything like that around, it is just the two of them taking care of all their many many children.

Well, the two of them and the larger Malayalam/South Asian community in Dubai.  I’ve seen so many Dubai set films now, but this one feels like it goes a slightly different way, because it shows a family who’s whole life is there.  There’s no going back to India, and there’s no one left back home to worry about.  Everyone in your life is here, with you, in Dubai.  And that means the interaction with the larger community is a little different.  The film opens on Onam.  And instead of talking about how it would be celebrated back home, or sending gifts back home, or even planning their family celebration, they are planning their celebration with the larger Malayalam community group.  This is what holidays mean to them now, celebrating them here, in Dubai, with their community here.

And we see how, within this larger community just like within his smaller community in his household, Renji is the center.  When they lose the hall, Renji is the one who figures out how to celebrate outdoors.  He is the guest of honor at store openings, and the generous benefactor to doormen, drivers, and everyone else.  The community is thriving and surviving thanks to his generosity.  And that is what he is trying to pass on to Nivin, this way of doing business based on trust and friendship and kindness, and of running a family with lots of warmth and love and supervision.

And, from what we see, this is a great system!  Renji easily closes deals and raises funds when needed, keeping the economy going and helping to bring in newcomers and make everyone profit.  The kids are all thriving, Nivin has a girlfriend and is slowly figuring out what he wants to do with his life, Sreenath is a bit odd with his musical interests but he is still respectful to his elders and kind to his siblings, Aima is clearly the light of the household (we first meet the family watching her go around collecting dirty clothes from each of their rooms, their last happy time together is before she leaves for medical college), and even the baby of the family is a charmer with lots of friends and confidence in school.

And then it all falls apart.  Not through anything Renji did wrong, that is made clear.  It isn’t that his policies and systems fail, it’s that there is a general set-back and the only way to rebuild is to start fresh.  Renji’s friend, who he trusts entirely, is so desperate for money following the economic downturn, that he sets Renji up, gets Renji to bring in investors, and then absconds with all their cash.  So, yes, Renji made a mistake in trusting this person.  But if the economy hadn’t nosedived, if things were still as they were just a few days earlier, this person might have been trustworthy.

There is a slight implication that Renji’s biggest mistake was in fighting too hard for too many people.  He saw the economy go down, he saw men around him crash, and he looked at this investment opportunity as a way to help them all rise up again together.  He lost track that his first priority had to be protecting his family and himself, only after that could he dream bigger.

Even when he is fixing the problem, he still hasn’t learned, he is still dreaming big.  He thinks he just needs to make one big deal and he can pay back everyone.  He confidently flies off to Liberia, planning to return the conquering hero, having fixed it all before anyone else even felt the problem.  He has his car, his apartment, he even still buys the expensive ring for his wife for their anniversary.  He says that his biggest wealth is his family, and he believes it, but he hasn’t learned to ruthlessly cut out everyone outside of his family and only deal with the most pressing problems.

But Renji, at the last minute, must have a small sense that something could go wrong, because he turns back and grabs Nivin’s hands, and makes him promise to take care of his mother.  And then their hands part, and it’s a clear line, Renji is handing over the lead in the film, the “hero” of the family role, to Nivin.

And what makes Nivin a hero isn’t the same as what made Renji a hero.  Not that he becomes rich or takes over the city, or even becomes a leader in the Malayalam community.  He keeps his family together.  That’s it, that’s his only motivation, to just keep these 6 people alive and well.

And that’s where this becomes a very interesting immigrant story.  Renji was completely committed to Dubai and the Dubai Malayalam community, like I said.  Heck, the opening of the film is him taking Nivin to the sand dunes outside the city, and talking about what a wonderful place it is.  But, at the same time, Renji was committed to being a Malayalam in Dubai.  Not just a Dubaiker.  And he loved Dubai for what it had done for him, and other Malayalis, not just because it was his home.

Nivin is in a much worse and a much better position.  On the one hand, life is so hard for him, and he has his whole family on his back, he can’t afford to reach out a hand and help anyone else.  On the other hand, Dubai is his home.  He is able to make connections to people his father can’t reach, outside the Malayali community.  We hear about him starting businesses with the help of local Arabs, making deals with African businessman, he is willing to deal with anybody and do anything that will help his family, and he can use his born-and-raised Dubai experiences to help with that.

It’s an immigrant story, but it’s also a family story.  Or, rather, it can be a family story because it is an immigrant story.  I kept comparing it with Thanmathra, another film where the head of the household was removed and the family had to adjust around him.  But in that film, the family was at home in Kerala.  When things went wrong, they could return to the village they came from, they had extended family around to support them, they had the social structure (job security and pension) to help.  But this family, in Dubai, only has each other.  And when things go wrong, society as a whole is indifferent.

And with no one around who cares for them, no one to help them, the family is forced to lean ever more on each other, to grow into a different configuration to help itself survive.  Nivin is the one who changes the most through this experience, but the others do as well.  I kept waiting for these changes to “mean” something.  But they just mean change, really.  That’s the only lesson, that Renji is gone and his family is changing without him and the family they had before is going away forever.  Even when they are reunited at the end, it’s not a purely happy reunion, because there is that sudden awareness of what was lost, lost through a million tiny choices every day as they moved ever further away from the family they used to be.

And not all of these choices and changes are even bad things!  For instance, Nivin learns that his youngest brother is a math genius.  It’s almost a throw away scene, his mother is called to the school, she is too ashamed to go, thinking her son has caused a problem because he isn’t getting enough attention at home, so she sends Nivin to meet the teacher instead, and the teacher tells Nivin that his brother should be sent to the national competition.  I kept thinking this was setting something up, that the brother would win prize money which would solve all their problems or would find an error in the business accounts or something.  But then I figured out it isn’t a set up for something, it’s the pay off for what has been set up all along.  Lakshmy turning to Nivin to be the “parent”, Nivin being comfortable going to the school in that role, and learning something about his brother, good or bad, before anyone else in the household, because he is now the head of the household.  It’s a moment that should have belonged to his father, and it is a moment that Renji will never get back and Nivin will never lose.

Or, let’s look at how alcohol changes meaning in the household, for instance.  When Renji is in charge and at home, he finds out his son Sreenath has been seen drinking one beer, and he explodes at him.  Sreenath is respectful, but points out that it was one beer, one time, and maybe Renji is taking his own frustrations out on the family.  Nivin backs up his father, against Sreenath, and sends him out of the room.

But later, Nivin has hit his lowest point, and runs into an old school friend who invites him to join his party.  Nivin has a drink, goes for a ride in their limo, and suddenly sees the city spread out before him, just as his father had promised he would someday, as a land of possibilities.  Weeks later, after the family has adjusted to its new existence, with Nivin as the head of the household and the chief earner, Lakshmy finds a bottle of alcohol hidden in the cupboard.  She immediately accuses Sreenath, and yells at him not just for drinking, but for wasting the money Nivin struggles to earn.  Suddenly drinking is not forbidden just because Renji declares it to be bad, but because it is a waste of Nivin’s efforts.  That alone is fascinating, but then it takes another twist.

After Lakshmy leaves the room, Sreenath calmly asks Nivin “when did you start drinking?”  Nivin brushes off the question, and instead just thanks him and asks why he covered.  And Sreenath says it is because the whole family, especially Lakshmy, is counting on Nivin and they can’t see his weakness.

I was waiting for this to be another bomb that goes off, that Nivin would be an alcoholic, would get drunk at a crucial moment, would only be able to function with false courage, something!  But, no.  It’s just another way in which their family is changing.  It goes from Nivin fighting with Sreenath at the behest of Renji over drinking, while Lakshmy tries to play peacemaker, to the two brothers bonding over a shared secret kept from Lakshmy.  And his initial drink wasn’t just an eye-opening moment of possibility, it was the first time he took a step outside the bounds his father had laid down for the family, making his own way in the world.

(So, not like this)

Beyond these obvious examples, there are just the little background things we see that show how their life has changed.  The way the family crowds into a series of tiny apartments, moving every time they can’t afford rent, surrounded by boxes and baggage.  The way they never seem to be at home during the day anymore, instead moving through a daytime landscape of deals and business meetings, and a night time landscape huddled around their small living rooms or rooftops, picking up meals as they can, no longer in that formal organized household they had at the beginning, with breakfast and dinner together, curfews for the kids, nightly chats in bedrooms and kitchens.  They’ve lost all the structure in their life, but they have gained a new kind of closeness.

In the first part of the film, we saw how Renji had a firm line between work and family.  Nivin was allowed to come with him to observe, but the rest of the family only saw him as their beloved father, joking about meals and school work and so on.  This line starts to blur for the first time when he leaves and Lakshmy tells him not to worry about her, she is a daughter of merchants, she knows how to handle business.  She is firmly stepping out of the bounds of the household and into his business world.  I wonder, in the beginning, we saw that Lakshmy was an indifferent cook, and she so quickly takes control of all the finances, is it possible that she has been missing the early years when, we can intuit, Renji didn’t have the luxury of insulating her so much from the business, when she had more to do?  I think, either way, it is clear that Renji’s success has allowed him to segregate his family from his business for the past dozen years at least, for much of the lifetime of his children home was just home, a safe place where there were no worries or fears.

But now, home and business are all the same thing.  Nivin works out of his car and his mother is his business partner.  When he starts a new tourism business, he ropes in both his brothers to help with the license, the logo, and the tour guides.  When Nivin has to take care of his little brother, he drags him along to business meetings.  “Family time” now means talking about the next money making opportunity, not playing games or going to beaches.

And yet, it is still family time.  There is a truly lovely scene way at the end of the film (scored to Sreenath singing and strumming an acoustic version of “Ajeeba Dosita Hai Ya”, always a magical song) when all 3 brothers have pulled together to create a magical vacation experience for the first customers of their new tourism business.  They took this little family of strangers through the same activities we saw them enjoying, way at the beginning, as a family.  And now they are sitting on the beaches at night and the young husband and father they are hosting tells Nivin this time has been like heaven, and then casually asks if he believes in heaven?  And Nivin says yes, he does, it is two streets over, on the particular floor of a particular building.  And the father smiles and says “where your family is, yes?” and he looks at his wife and children across the fire and says “it is like that for all of us.”

Nivin may be only 20-something, he may never have been married or had children, but he is the head of a household, just as surely as this young man celebrating his 4th anniversary with two small children is the head of a household.  Nivin has been thrust into the role and he has done the best he can with it.  But the point is, no matter how he did it, he did it.  He’s there, he is taking care of them and leading them in the only way he knows how, even if that means drinking with Sreenath and helping him beat up neighbor toughs, or taking his youngest brother along with him to business meetings, or letting his mother constantly fight off landlords and debtors.

And it’s heaven.  Even in this horrible situation, with all the stress and strain and loss, having a family, and keeping the family together, is the only worthwhile thing in the world, the only thing that can turn this world into heaven.  And, although he may not be there with them, it is a heaven that Renji created and founded.  He is the one who taught the family to stick together, to love each other, to trust each other.  And it is only because they had that foundation that they are able to survive once he is gone.  So, maybe Nivin never wears a suit, or takes meetings first thing in the morning, or wastes time with Malayalam Community Association events, but beyond all these superficial things, he is still his father’s son, and they are still a family, in the end.

Which is what we see at the end of the film.  After months (or years?  It’s unclear) of effort, Nivin has managed to clear enough debt that they can get his father out of Liberia to Kerala for a visit, and the family can, however briefly, be reunited.  At first there is hesitation, uncertainty, awareness of how different they are all.  But in the end, they come together for a family photo, and it is like all the pieces are finally fitting back together again, a little rough around the edges, but still connected.

(and then there is an end tag saying that this is all based on a true story, Veenath Sreenivasan’s friend Greg who kept his family together for 5 years while raising the money to get his father out of debt and home from Liberia.  Which somehow makes me cry and cry, that this noble quiet struggle was recognized and given a film.  The kind of heroic story that is too common in real life and never acknowledged on film.)


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