An odd movie. Good on Mammootty for agreeing to be in it and doing such a good job. Good on the filmmakers for not pulling any punches with the reality of what they were showing while still being hopeful.
No dance numbers, no big song sequences, no big romance, this is not what you think of when you think of “Indian film”. On the other hand, it is what I think of when I think of Malayalam or Tamil film. Lots of lingering shots of nature, a really hard story somehow treated in a poetic fashion, and endless compassion for the forgotten of society. A film in the tradition of K. Balachander and 16 Vayathinile. So, sad! But sometimes life is sad, and there is value in films acknowledging that.
It’s a well made movie. The director’s fourth film, and it shows. He knows how to use a camera like it is invisible, to move from close ups to long shots as needed. And to pull out the performance he wants from his lead actors, Mammootty is alternately depressed, content, happy, resigned, concerned, and on and on.
It’s really Mammootty’s movie. It’s the story of one person and his life, the other characters just float in and out of it. That’s the point, Mammootty’s tragedy is how alone he feels, how much responsibility he tries to shoulder all on his own.
And this is the point of the film. Mammootty is the primary caregiver for a disabled child. Early on his voice over explains that people come into her life and are charming and kind and pity her, but then they leave. That’s the reality of a caregiver. No matter who it is, a baby or an elderly parent or a disabled child, there are the people who come in and out and are excited to be useful and prove their generosity. But then they are worn out by the never ending drain of it all and go away and the caregiver is left alone. A disabled child is the most agonizing, because you know that the person you are caring for will outlive you, and there is no one else who will care for them as you do. Mammootty is terribly alone, and terrifyingly alone. All the other characters who fade in and out around him just serve to make him more scared as he realizes how much he is doomed to loneliness.
Of course, there is still a happy ending! Because that is also part of this reality. Even if you think your life is hopeless and lonely, there is someone else out there who is as lonely as you and is happy to share your loneliness with you. You just have to look in the right place, not at those who you envy whose lives are so much better than yours, who seem to be a quick fix to solve all your problems, but at those who have the strength to help you make your own life better.
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Mammootty is the father of a “spastic” daughter. I looked up spastic, and it’s not a diagnosis but rather a description of a symptom. It means that the nerves in your muscles are continually tightening and failing, making it hard to move your body in the way it is meant to move. It can come about as a symptom of cerebral palsy, and also as other less understood neural issues. It is not always related to a mental condition, but sometimes it is. Also, it is treatable! Sort of. There are drugs that can retard the progress of the condition, and surgery that can actually cure it. So this is one of those things that it feels like you don’t see as much in the west because there is actual treatment available. But in India, where things like regular drug treatments and surgery are beyond the reach of most people, “spastic” children are still a concern. Oh, and of course there is also the shame and ignorance which keeps people from pursuing treatment at a young age before the condition has progressed. This film accurately shows the situation, without all of that background, but when I read the background the film made even more sense. We see the way Mammootty and his family planned to keep their daughter locked up without support or medical treatment that could have slowed the progress of her condition, it was “kinder”. The way they just accepted that this is how she was. We see how hard he has to struggle merely to keep her alive and safe, let alone seeking out some kind of rare and expensive medical treatment. We also see that there is a support system in place, a support system you would not find in a western country because the patient base would be smaller.
What I love about this movie is that it takes a universal problem (the loneliness and struggle of the caregiver) and deals with it in an extremely specific way. Mammootty has a spastic child in India, which means she receives no medical treatment and is part of a community of children who also have no treatment. And it means that people will be suspicious and unkind to her. The concept of reincarnation is not kind to disabled people. No one in this film directly says “she must be evil or else would not have been punished this way by God”, but that is the underpinning concern of Hindu society. The disabled are innately “bad” in some way, otherwise they would not be disabled. So it is a shameful thing for her to be in the family, or even in a neighborhood. And then there is the way fathers are expected, or rather not expected, to take care of their family. Mammootty has spent most of his daughter’s life working overseas and sending money home. Once he becomes the primary caregiver, he has to find his way because there are no models for father’s as primary caregivers. And he has to struggle with un-understanding society around him who also can’t process this. There’s the basic infrastructure issues as well. Mammootty needs to rent a place that has a bathroom his daughter can use and rooms she can move between. That would be hard in the West, but in India it is almost impossible.
Here’s one thing that is true in everywhere in the world and one of the hardest things for male caregivers to handle. The woman is supposed to be “better” at these things. When she isn’t actually better at it, the man has to struggle to convince the world that he is the one who should be given that responsibility. The movie opens with Mammootty arriving home from working in Dubai to learn that his wife has left and abandoned their daughter. His mother is a horrible woman who wants the embarrassing daughter out of her home and has never helped in her care, instead insisting she be locked away. His sister-in-law is afraid that her daughter will “catch” spasticity from Mammootty’s daughter and doesn’t let them play together. At first I read this opening as Mammootty’s fault, he selfishly fled to Dubai leaving his wife to deal with his terrible family and their daughter all by herself until she couldn’t take it any more and and fled. But as the film went on, and we see more of Mammootty’s kindness and wish to connect with his daughter, I saw it in a different way. Because Mammootty was a man, everyone assumed he should work and his daughter would be better cared for by her mother. This cursed his daughter, she was left with a woman who did not have the strength or the sacrificial nature to put her needs first. She spent 12 years just surviving, getting the bare minimum of care. Mammootty easily found schools, societies, information for caring for her. No one in the first 12 years of her life bothered with any of that. But because she was with the proper female caregivers, everyone assumed she was better off.
Mammootty returns home, and leaves home with his daughter. He still has no real connection with her, but he cares enough about her to see that she can’t survive in this household where she is treated as a shame and a secret. He starts looking for a place and is offered a remote cottage by a well-meaning westerner who wants to give the house to a deserving person (like the single father of a disabled girl). Already her life is better, just because she has someone who has the capacity to put her needs first. But Mammootty does not believe in himself, he wants to find a woman to help him care for his daughter. He hires a maid who leaves because she won’t work for a man alone. And then a beautiful woman appears and begs to work for him because she has nowhere else to go. It appears to solve all their problems, she is charming to his daughter and slowly she and Mammootty come to care for each other. Mammootty jumps in and proposes, visions of a perfect family and a perfect life now that he has this perfect woman. But she isn’t perfect. She was only perfect in Mammootty’s vision of her. In fact, she was only pretending, trying to get into their house so that the land mafia could steal it.
In a worse movie, this woman would be “evil”. But this movie doesn’t do that. She has a husband, she has a baby, she is conflicted but desperate to help her family. It isn’t about her being evil, it is about Mammootty not trusting himself, leaping at an illusion of an easy answer. This woman will appear and fix everything and his life will be closer to what it “should” be, a mother for his daughter, a beautiful wife for himself. Mammootty had to learn the hard lesson that there are no easy answers, he can’t look to the perfect fantasy to solve everything.
Honestly, the movie could have skipped that whole opening half and still been fine. Gone straight from Mammootty arriving from Dubai and being told to leave his family home to him struggling to find a place for them to stay together in Chennai. The first half isn’t useless, we get to see Mammootty slowly building a connection with his daughter, we get pretty scenes of them together, and we get that lesson of no easy answers. But the movie starts for real in Chennai, when we dig more and more into the issues facing spastic children and the impossibility of simple answers, especially for their lonely caregivers.
Mammootty has to work long hours to afford to live. He has no choice but to lock his daughter up in the rooms alone. He finally finds a knowledgable helpful person at the local spastic society, but that gives him answers with no easy solutions. Yes, there are schools she can attend where she can socialize with other spastic children and learn life skills. Yes, there are specialists who can give her counseling and understand her issues. But none of that solves the issue of “where do we live that has a bathroom she can use?” Or “what will she do all alone all day while I work to pay the bills at this school?” Or even “how can I get her to and from school every day while I am working?” Without the infrastructure support, he has no choice but to put her in a residential home and start living in his car to afford the fees.
Now, this is something that is NOT usually the case in India. After all that badmouthing I did earlier, here’s a good thing. Because the family structure is so strong, usually a caregiver is not as completely isolated as this. At the last there would be a relative or a neighbor or SOMEONE to stay with the child afterschool. We see that in this movie, a few times a stranger noticed the struggle Mammootty had and reached out to help. In other cultures, they might not have done that, might not have found it their place to interfer. This movie tells a story of a man who happens to have an unsympathetic family, who lived overseas for so long that he has no friends, who was thrown out of his home and so has no neighbors. Not an uncommon story, not unbelievable, but the film does acknowledge that it is somewhat unusual, the world is not so uncaring as to abandon these children to their own devices all the time, there are families that pull together to provide the basic care needed to keep going.
And that brings me to the fascinating twist of the happy ending. Mammootty is struggling and looking everywhere but to the obvious solution. While driving a car for hire long hours in the night, he meets and befriends a streetwalker Hijra. He is kind to her and respectful, because he is a generally kind and respectful person. She is kind to him as well, and takes him home to meet her family. She helps him find an apartment in her neighborhood. And she comes by his house and is nice to his daughter. This is the woman who, for many reasons, can solve his problems. Mostly because she is a kind loving person who can share his burden. But also because she is a woman who knows what it is to be rejected and forced to find a new family. This movie is wonderfully accurate about Hijras, SO MUCH better than Super Deluxe! This woman has a family, her mother and an older and younger sister. They speak the Hijra language together, they love each other, and they are a family. This is what Super Deluxe didn’t get, Hijras aren’t just “women who used to be men”, they are what they are today, their lives go forward not backward. And that is who Mammootty needs in his life, and in the life of his daughter, not a “perfect” woman but one who is perfect for them. One who understands differences and unusual families and love that has no questions or judgement. And one that understands despair. At the very end of the film, after Mammootty has decided he can’t go on caring for his daughter alone and there is no one else to care for her, he tries to kill them both. And it is the Hijra who stops him. We don’t need to know that she has felt that same despair, we don’t need an explanation that she also tried to die and was saved by her loving family, we know that simply because she is a Hijra and that is their story. People thrown out of their families, thrown out of society, left to die except for the fellow outcasts who rise up to help them.
That’s what this film is about. The people the world rejects, the people who have no one to call their own, and how wonderful it is when they find each other.
Oh, and it’s also about sexual development in disabled children. That was FASCINATING. But ultimately, not a major theme beyond just “another issue as his daughter ages and he realizes he won’t always be around”. She struggles with feminine care, putting on her own sanitary pads. And she also masturbates, a lot. At the residential home, they beat her to stop her because it is embarrassing to them. Mammootty worries about her never finding sexual fulfillment and fumbles around trying to find a male prostitute who would be willing to help (at which point he talks to a helpful woman who explains that there are women willing to do this for the sick and elderly, but not men). It is this increasing pressure, her sexual maturity that increases by the day, which makes Mammootty decide it is better for them both to die now than try to continue. In the end, this whole concern isn’t really resolved-resolved. The solution isn’t some tidy “find her a groom!” kind of thing. The solution is just for Mammootty to find a loving person to share the burden and help his daughter with all the many problems of her life. They will never be truly solved, but that doesn’t mean you just give up.