We had Gautham Menon’s big romantic hit, and Lilo Jose Pellissery’s first film, and My Name is Khan, and all of those were good. But this is the best film of the year, no question.
What a brilliant movie. Raw and flawed, long and confused, but all the better for it. Because that is what life is like, it isn’t a series of perfect clear moments, it flows backward and forward and never quite comes together, but you do the best you can. This structure is especially important in terms of the “message”. It doesn’t break down the story into easy bite size pieces, it gives it to you real and complex. And then you can go home and look at your own real and complex situation and see the similarities. And see the potential solutions, not the fairy tale perfect magical film solutions, but the real life ones you can do.
This movie has an odd structure. Our main character and protagonist spends most of the film struggling to catch up to the reality of his situation. Meanwhile the adults around him, starting with his school principal, have a deeper understanding of what is happening. This is appropriate, our lead is so very very young and inexperienced with the world, he just accepts things as they are because it is what he has always known. It takes a long time for him to wake up and see them as they really are. The camera acts as his eyes, catching the little details that, eventually, he will put together and understand the reality. The audience gets these same details and it is up to us to put together the reality of the situation ahead of or behind our main character. In my case, I put it together in advance and was nervous waiting for him to catch up. But at the same time, I appreciated the realism that he would see these things at his own pace.
Rajat Barmecha plays the central character and he does a good job. But on the other hand, it’s kind of easy to play this character. He has no layers to him. A boy this young, only 17, would not have the motivations within motivations within motivations that someone older might. Rajat just has to react to the moment he is living without keeping a lot of other things in his mind. Because of that, is is the older actors that stick with me more.
Ram Kapoor is amazing. I’ve only seen him in light roles before this, like his father in Student of the Year. He’s fun and amusing and can easily handle conveying the sort of emotions required of that kind of role. But in this movie, his character is (to me) the most complex and hardest to understand. I’m even not sure I understand him fully by the end of the film. But I think Ram Kapoor does, if that makes sense. His performance isn’t coming from just following the script and making it up as he goes along, he sat down and figured out what this person would say and do moment by moment.
Ronit Roy has the far easier role, in that the script provides for him much more clarity as to where he is coming from and why. But it is the harder role because it is so very dark. As an actor, going that dark pays a toll. There is an urge to make it easier for yourself and the audience, to turn into cartoonish villainy so that you can more clearly define the character as a fake person. Or else to add in too many moments of humanity and lightness, to come up with a way for the audience to be able to forgive your character. Ronit does neither, he commits to being a man who thinks his actions are justified and reasonable in his own mind and a man whose actions have no excuse in reality.
And that brings me back to Vikram Motwande. He did not make a film that is easy for the audience either. He shows bad bad people and bad bad things, but not fake things. This is the evil that lives next door, that lives in our own homes. But then, this is also the hope that lives day by day in small lives that do not make it onto film screens.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
This is a deceptively simple plot. An 18 year old boy Rajat is thrown out of boarding school and returns home to the small town where his father runs the family factory. He learns that while he was away at school, his father remarried and had another child, an 8 year old little boy, and his wife left him. Rajat tries to make his father happy, works in the family factory and goes to engineering classes, but hides his own dreams of being a writer. And then his little brother ends up in the hospital after “falling down the stairs”. Rajat cares for him, and tries to protect him. Rajat is beaten himself when his father learns he failed out of the engineering program. His father plans to remarry, a widow with a daughter. Rajat decides to leave home but, at the last minute, returns and takes his little brother with him. They have nothing but the clothes on their backs, but they are happy and free and Rajat knows he would rather clean toilets and live free than stay in the house with his father, or risk leaving his little brother there either.
Early in the film, Rajat angrily tells his father “I am your son, not a fixed deposit”. But in Indian society, a son IS a fixed deposit. You want a son and not a daughter because your son will earn money, will take care of you, will be a profit machine for the family. He is an asset, not a person.
Usually a son is both an asset, and someone you love. Because babies are cute and helpless and you can’t help loving them. Yes, there is a social expectation that they will take care of you in old age and always respect and love you, but underneath that is some level of love for each other. Where this movie is different is showing a father who sees his son only as an asset, only as a fixed deposit, has no love for him at all, is incapable of love.
This is what Rajat struggles with through out the movie. His father does not love him. That is a hard truth to accept, and it is a hard truth for other people to tell him. Everyone knows it, but no one is admitting it out loud. At the start of the film, Rajat is expelled from his boarding school and his principal awkwardly apologizes to him, says “I’m sorry”. Rajat is expelled along with his 3 friends, but only Rajat gets the apology. His 3 friends are worried about him too, they are all expelled and all returning home in disgrace, but they are more concerned about him than themselves. Rajat returns home and his father barely greets him, and he learns that he has a younger brother he was never even told about. And then they go to dinner at the house of his warm loving uncle Ram Kapoor and Rajat bursts out with his “fixed deposit” line and Ram tells him “no, he loves you, you just don’t understand”.
I find Ram Kapoor’s character in this movie fascinating. He is wealthier than Ronit, he has his own house and a nice loving wife. But he is still scared of Ronit. He does everything to try to make him happy, including keeping Rajat in line by lying to him. Late in the film he begs Ronit to let him adopt his younger son and raise him. So perhaps it was that this little boy was being held hostage and Ram was doing everything he could to keep Ronit happy and avoid inciting him to harm.
But is that right? Is that just? For Ram to sacrifice the older child to save the younger? To think it is better to keep Ronit happy rather than report him to the police? To avoid confronting him directly and forceably taking his son away from him?
On the other hand, Ram was the first victim of Ronit’s abuse. We get hints of that, that Ronit’s father abused him, and he turned around and terrorized his younger brother. That Ram is both afraid of him and feels obligated to him for protecting him when they were young, for taking the brunt of the abuse. This is not just a movie about the relationship of father and son in Indian society, it is also a movie about older and younger brothers in Indian society. Ronit is a failure by any measure. He is running the family factory and barely keeping it going, he lives in a tiny walk up apartment, and he has a failed marriage. Ram is successful on his own outside of the factory, has a lovely large house and a wife who loves him. But he still reveres Ronit as somehow better than he is.
Just like in most families a son is more than simply an “asset”, so is it that in most families the reverence of a more successful younger brother for his older brother is more than just tradition. The older brother sacrifices his own success so that the younger can have an easier better life. That is “right”, that is what your duty is. And it is also something that can happen naturally, the family as a whole has more money by the time the younger child comes of age, he has more opportunities available to him, the older child does not begrudge him because he can still remember him as a small child he had to protect. And the younger child will always look up to the older because he still remembers him as a kind and wise figure from his childhood. But in this case, we cannot believe that Ronit was ever a kind and wise figure. Certainly his behavior towards Ram in the present has no love in it, is dismissive and insulting.
What takes most of the movie to be revealed is that Rajat and his brother are repeating the pattern of Ram and Ronit, or could repeat the pattern, unless Rajat can break free. In the previous generation, the younger brother is sensitive and charming and popular. The older is angry, has lost the ability to give love because he never felt love from his father. In this generation, Rajat’s time at boarding school saved him. He has grown up into a sensitive intelligent confident young man. The friendships he formed in school (there is a reason we need to see the long opening section establishing his close friendships and how much they love each other) taught him how to love, how to be a full person. It is his little brother who was left to bare the brunt of his father’s abuse. The little boy slowly reveals that he doesn’t really have any friends, he is constantly getting into fights in school, he is losing the ability to relate to others except through violence. Rajat decides to take him away not to save him from beatings, but to save him from growing up to be the person who gives out the beatings.
The relationship between the brothers survives because it doesn’t follow the pattern it is supposed to follow. When Rajat first arrives home and tries to figure out how to be a big brother, he tries to follow the easy expected route. He bullies his brother slightly, takes the better shelf in the cupboard, doesn’t let him play with his old toys, like that. He ignores this little roommate he has gained, instead spends his free time hanging out with a new group of friends at college. But when he learns his little brother is being abused, abused to the point of hospitalization, he throws out the rules and just follows his heart. He takes care of his brother in the hospital by reading him stories, talking to him, loving him. There is no demanding of respect, no feeling of duty, it is just these two people finding their way to each other.
This is the kind of bond that previously we have only seen between Rajat and his age mates. Friendships in Indian films between college mates and school mates are always far far closer than anything I have experienced myself, or know of anyone else who has experienced it. There are many reasons for it, starting with something as simple as the fact that schools go from kindergarten to high school with the same group of students in India instead of breaking you apart every 4 years into different schools as is the case in America. But I think part of it is that the age mate relationships are the ones that can flower freely, without strict expectations of duty towards each other. At boarding school, Rajat and his friends knew each other, really knew each other, and loved each other for who they were. After they are expelled, the other three return to Bombay while Rajat is left exiled in his small home town. And they ask Rajat to come to them, promise they can find him a job and a place to stay. And we believe it, their friendship is such that they would welcome him and help him, care for him with greater love (if less security) than his family.
Once Rajat settles in to his new life, he finds a new group of friends. They don’t love him like his boarding school friends, but they can be honest with him and he with them in a way he cannot with his family. They are the ones who tell him he is being abused, who challenge him to do something about it instead of just accepting. While everyone else tiptoes around and says that his father is different, is just trying to express love, it is his age mates that tell him the truth.
One comment I saw online about this movie, maybe beneath a youtube video, called for legal changes in India to protect children from abuse. But this is not a legal issue. The film itself calls out it is already against the law. All Ram Kapoor has to do is walk into a police station and file a report. All the police officer who receives it has to do is make the arrest. And Rajat and his brother would be saved. But that is not going to happen. Because Ram is too afraid, afraid of his brother, afraid of society, just afraid, to ever fight for his nephews. And the police are afraid of prosecuting these claims, and the media is afraid of reporting them, and all the neighbors and people in society are afraid of acknowledging it is happening. Rajat is trapped in a cage by his father, but it is a cage reinforced by the society that surrounds them. He has to break free, on his own, not just from his father but from everyone else around them who is telling him to endure, to obey, to pretend that what he knows to be wrong, is right.
Rajat has to learn to see his brother as a person, as a friend, not just an obligation and a family member. And he has to learn to see himself as a person as well, as more than just his father’s son who must be obedient and respectful, who is doomed to live out his life in this small town with no hope and no future. That’s the real story of the film. Rajat fighting his way to adulthood, fighting his way to personhood, and finally finding the freedom to choose his own life. To do what the rest of his family has never been able to do, break free and choose love over all.
Like I said, it is a flawed film. A first film from a director finding his voice. But there are still so many moments of bravery and truth within it, I can forgive everything. And it ends perfectly, on the triumphal note of Rajat and his brother walking away as a song sings of freedom and we here the last words Rajat wrote to his father, not words of anger or recrimination, but of love. Text of his last note to his father:
I am taking Arjun with me. If I leave him here with you, he will become another version of you. One of you is enough, we do not need another. Why this is happening, you will never understand. Because it is a word you have never understood, never received, and never given. Love.
Do not try to look for us Sir. If you come within 100 kilometers of us, the police will learn you beat Arjun. You know in legal language it is called a “criminal offense”. Arjun is so much more than just your slave. He needs a family, not a cage. He needs a future which I will give him, whatever it takes.
On your marriage, your wife, and your new daughter, I congratulate you.
Your son, Rohan