Such a nice little movie! Not the best ever, but one of the best recent Malayalam films that is currently readily available streaming. And Tovino looks cute.
In this case, his female co-actor is Urvashi, who I am sure I have seen in things before this but I can’t remember them. She was an award winning actress as a young woman, went on to be a writer, director, and lead even as a middle-aged woman, the age when most actresses are put out to pasture. But in the past few years, I am seeing smaller and smaller parts on her filmography, a character’s mother with no name of her own, in one case just “beautician”. I am so glad she gets to be a real lead in this movie!
Urvashi and Tovino easily dominate the film, but it’s a movie with a solid supporting cast as well. Mamukkoya as the fatherly friend, Hareesh Kanaran as the best friend, Shanthi Krishna shining in a small role. The rest of the film beyond the acting is excellent as well, lovely setting, pleasant songs (especially the opening song, just beautiful), it all comes together to make a smooth and well-constructed film experience.
The only flaw is the plot. There are some gaps that feel like they should be filled in, and some dangling threads that don’t make sense, and even a few straight up problems and conflicts in the plot that just don’t work. The overall sweep of the story works and makes sense, but the little details just aren’t cutting it.
But then, I don’t watch films for plot first and foremost. I watch them for the emotions, and this film perfectly captures the emotions of the characters and the growth of their relationship. Tovino’s sweetly childish version of manhood, and Urvashi’s brusk and confident version of womanhood are a perfect complement.
And did I mention that Tovino looks really good? He hasn’t lost the muscles from Godha, I can tell you that much. He is a sweet manly hunk of muscles and cute smiles and shy hand flutters. If you are a Tovino fan (you know who you are), this movie is like a lovely little gift, just for you.
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Tovino is the son of a wealthy man in a small town in the Malabar hills (old region of Kerala, originally settled by Arab traders hundreds and hundreds of years ago, a little different). His father dies, and Tovino is sad, but is comforted by his friend Hireesh Perumanna and his father’s old best friend Mammukoya. They promise he will never be alone, even though he has no family left, and they will arrange his marriage for him. They take him for a first meeting and he likes the girl, but her father objects because he has no real family and doesn’t even know who his mother is. Tovino finds a letter from his father asking him to sell some property and split the money between his two wives. Tovino decides to go meet the two women and give them the money and also find out which is his mother. The girl he met travels with them for the first part of the journey and their bond is strengthened. All the village knows is that his father was married twice and one day went away and then came back with a baby. Tovino tries to meet the first wife but is chased off by her brother (husband?). He finally manages to meet her and she tells him she is not his mother, they were only married for a couple weeks and then his father was kind enough to divorce her because she did not want the marriage. Tovino goes off to meet the other wife, Urvashi, living alone in a little poor hut and struggling to survive. She decides to lie that she is his mother in order to go home with him and have a better life.
In the second half, Urvashi turns Tovino’s life upside down, nags his friend/servant Hireesh to work harder, scares Mammukoya out of the house, and constantly nags. But she also takes Tovino to meet the girl again and takes to her and encourages the marriage. But Mammukoya has investigated farther and learned that Urvashi never had a child, he reveals this to Tovino who is sad, but does not blame Urvashi, understanding why she did what she did. Instead he just wants to find out who his mother is, if it is not one of his father’s wives. They find an old postcard in the shop from a woman in Lucknow, and Tovino decides to try to find her. Urvashi goes with him saying that she has been to Lucknow before and can help. She hides the postcard to keep them there longer, and forces him to take her around the city and spend time with her. Finally they find the woman, a famous dancer, Tovino goes to meet her and she does not acknowledge him as her son. He is heart broken, but goes back to the car to see Urvashi and declares her his real mother, the one who loves him and takes care of him. They go back to the village, and Urvashi adopts Hireesh as another son and starts planning their marriages.
So, the actual plot of the film, what happens while we are watching, that makes sense. Tovino is the child of a loving indulgent single father who always overshadowed him a little bit and was raised without ever having to struggle or try for anything in his life. He feels lost after losing his only family and wants guidance and support, clings to the idea of a mother. Urvashi is a difficult woman who has lived alone for a long time. She leaps on the Tovino as a way to escape her life of struggle and poverty. But she quickly comes to think of him as her real son, to enjoy cooking for him and feeding him and taking care of him. She keeps trying to extend their time together, not because she wants money or comforts but because she wants to be with him. She finally helps him find his “real” mother because she can see he wants it, even though it hurts her. And Hireesh and Mammukoya are easy to understand, they loved Tovino’s charming and big personality father, and they want to take care of Tovino and help him find his way. And they don’t like this new woman who is chasing them away from being Tovino’s family, claiming a higher right to him.
It’s the past that doesn’t quite make sense. I have to do a lot of work to get the dates right and figure it out. From what Urvashi lets drop, she was 16 when Tovino was born, but she was also with his father for long enough to pick up a little Hindi and have heard stories from him of other places, and he left her to come to Lucknow. And he wanted to marry her because she was young and smart and pretty. Tovino’s father’s first marriage ended because he didn’t want it, he wanted to marry someone else. So, maybe, he was forced into the first marriage with the higher class woman with more family, then fell in love with teenage pretty and spunky Urvashi, married her and they were happy, and then he got word from Lucknow that Tovino was going to be born and left Urvashi and never came back.
But, it doesn’t quite line up. If Tovino’s mother rejected him and his father when his father went to Lucknow to see her, than why didn’t his father return to Urvashi? If he didn’t truly want Urvashi (as he didn’t want his first wife), than why does she have memories of him telling her stories and teaching her Hindi? What is the timeline on this, did he go straight from his first wife to Urvashi to Lucknow? Or was he really in love with the woman in Lucknow the whole time? But then, why have the second marriage after escaping the first? Another answer that might make sense is falling in love with the Lucknow woman after marrying Urvashi. But then, she says that she was 16 when Tovino was born and when he says “child marriage”, she says it wasn’t. Which means she was married the same year Tovino was born, which means his father must have already had the affair with the Lucknow woman before marriage, and then left Urvashi for her and not come back after he was rejected. It’s just STRANGE!!!!
Like I said, the present day works, so I suspect they started with what they wanted in the present and then trusted the past to fill itself in. They wanted Urvashi to have some real connection to Tovino’s father (unlike his other wife). And they wanted her to be still young, so she had to be 16 when Tovino was born. And they wanted Lucknow to be a sad memory for her, as where Tovino’s father went when he left her. And then they ended up throwing all these things together in a way that almost, but not quite, made sense of the past.
But the present is lovely! So I will forgive the past. Tovino is a very different kind of hero, always choosing to follow instead of lead, even in his romance it is the girl who approaches him and mentions that she would like a ride to another town. But he has such a sweet happy nature, that his friends want him to have what he wants, he doesn’t have to insist or force anything, they will help him just because they want to. And his nature allows for Urvashi to be the perfect mother for him without being the usual kind of mother either. She is abrupt and energetic and never has a kind word for anyone. Which is what Tovino needs, he has enough people being kind to him and indulging him, he needs someone to fight for him in the world and brace him up and teach him to fight for himself. And he also needs a parents’ love, unquestioning and constant, someone who puts him above everything else in the world. Urvashi is a delightful combination of a difficult woman who can protect him and a woman with a lot of motherly love inside of her just waiting to come out for this poor boy who really needs a mother.
And Tovino’s quest for his “real” mother and his conflict over that quest feels true as well. The slow unfolding of a life time of hurt, it’s not just since his father’s death that the lack of a mother bothers him, or since the failure of his engagement, but as the quest goes on this long forgotten hurts come bubbling to the surface, a whole lifetime of a father over-indulging him so he will not miss a mother’s presence, and failing. By the end, when he meets the dancer in her mansion in Lucknow, we don’t need a long explanation of his emotions or hers, it is all clear.
He knew all along that his mother gave him up, that his father came back to the village with a baby, this quest was never going to have a happy ending, he was always going to confront a woman who did not want him. And now he has to face the reality that there was no practical reason for her not to keep him, she is wealthy and successful. She even has a second son, confident and handsome, whose wedding she is arranging. Tovino sees him for a moment and we see the contrast, down to Tovino being afraid to drive himself in a car and his half-brother swinging up in a mint condition Royal Enfield. This is what the movie is building towards, not “solving” the mystery of Tovino’s mother, but resolving Tovino’s own emotions, allowing him to let go of that hidden hope that there was a woman out there who loved him and wanted him and had some good reason for letting go of him. He knows his mother now, she is a rich woman in a big house who let him go because he was illegitimate, or because she wanted to keep dancing, or for some other reason. And now that he has come back to her, she is not begging his forgiveness or reaching to embrace him, but still rejecting him.
The film has sympathy for her, we see her cry after he leaves, but even without being a bad woman, she still doesn’t want to be his mother. And that’s all that matters, Tovino has a mother (Urvashi) who wants to be with him so much that she lies and sneaks and hides things. And he has another “mother” who wanted him so little that she sent him away twice, once as a baby and once as an adult. Tovino starts out an orphan in his heart, feeling like he has no one even as his friends tell him they are there for him. But by the end of the film, he has overcome that feeling, learned to believe he is not alone, that his friends and the mother he has chosen and who chose him are as much family as anyone could be, more family than his family by blood even.