2009 Week: The Most Important Malayalam Film of the Year, Ritu

What an interesting movie!  I read that it is supposed to be the start of the new age films, but it actually reminded me a lot more of Aalkkoottathil Thaniye.  And other films I’ve seen from that classic 90s/late 80s era.

The 2009 gloss is all in the filming style, the handheld camera and quick cuts.  And in the details of the character’s lives, working in IT in rapidly expanding cities, dealing with sexual freedom and global awareness.  All of that is exciting and new and I can see why it made this film so groundbreaking (so I’ve been told.  Again, I am going mostly blind in Malayalam film stuff!).  But the heart of the film, the wistfulness and nostalgia and questions of identity and loyalty and time passing, all of that, to me, feels more about looking back to the 90s/80s classics than about looking forward to a new era of film.

Where it reminded me of Aalkkoottathil Thaniye in particular was the idea of the successful person returning to their home and interacting with their old friends and family who “knew them when”.  Only, in the late 80s, the divide was between city/village.  And now it is between American/Indian city.  But the sensation is still the same, trying to make sense of what has changed and what has stayed the same, falling into old patterns that don’t quite fit any more, connecting, and failing to connect, with old friends.

It’s that last, the old friends bit, where I started to really sympathize with Asif Ali and Rima Kallingal more than our “hero” Nishan.  See, I’m that person who never left.  Well, sort of.  Never left with an asterisk next to it.  I was born in Chicago, and then lived somewhere else for 17 years (not my fault!  My parents moved me before I could talk, so I couldn’t raise an objection!), but then I came back to Chicago for college and I’ve been here every since, 13 years now.  But all my college friends went somewhere else after graduation, and I’ve had various other friends over the years who left.  And then they come back for a visit, or move back home, and are all “hey, we should get back together!  It will be just like old times!”

But, see, it’s not like old times!  Yes, the city is the same.  And yes, I look the same (my look has basically not changed since I got glasses at age 14).  And maybe there are no big obvious changes in my life (marriage, kids, becoming fabulously wealthy).  But that doesn’t mean I am the exact same person I was 5 years ago!

It’s just an unsettling experience, the closest I can come to is if a stranger started talking to you on the bus as though they know you.  You don’t want to be rude and point out that they don’t know you at all, but as the conversation goes on, it gets more and more uncomfortable, and you start to kind of feel like you are lying to them by letting it go on like this.  But is it better to just tough it out and lie a little so they don’t get embarrassed because they have clearly mistaken you for someone else?  Or is it better to just tell them the truth and deal with the consequences?

That’s what this film is dealing with, that unsettling feeling, but from the side of the bus-stranger person instead of the person being misidentified.  Rima and Asif have moved on in their lives, how could they not?  It’s been 3 years since Nishan left for America!  And if Nishan would take the time to get to know them as new people, instead of just assuming they were frozen as the people he used to know, then they might be friends.  But instead Nishan is just assuming they are the same people he left behind, thinking he can leap in right where they left off.  And it is left to Rima and Asif to choose whether to let him keep living in that fantasy as long as possible, or to give him a wake up call as to who they are now.

The film seems to be making Rima and Asif into bad people for “lying” to Nishan, but I kind of sympathize with them.  What were they supposed to do instead?  Sit him down and tell him everything that happened in the past 3 years and why they don’t have anything in common any more?

Although, by the very end of the movie, I’m not even sure what to think really.  Because I’m not sure if I am supposed to think that Nishan “won”.  It feels more like all 3 of them won.  Or all three of them lost.  I don’t know, I think I have to look at the film as a whole to figure it out.  So, SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER

We start not with our “hero” in America, but with Rima and Asif in Bangalore.  Specifically, we start with Asif in a gay club with various friends cuddling him.  Was this shocking in 2009 in Malayalam films?  I know it would be super shocking in Hindi cinema even in 2016, but then Hindi cinema is so far behind the progressiveness of Malayalam film, I could believe that Malayalam films are a good 10 years ahead of them.

(I had to acknowledge Bangalore Days somewhere in here, and how it is clearly the partner piece to this film, but the happier one, where modernity and cities just serve to provide more freedom and choices)

Asif is talking to his friends about how he has to go home, an old friend is returning and wants to start a business with him.  His friends try to convince him to give up and stay in Bangalore with them, but Asif is firm.  Although also a little regretful.  It’s odd, it seems like for some reason this is something he thinks he has to do, but also like he doesn’t really want to do it.

Rima seems kind of similar in her scene.  She is introduced talking on a cell phone in an office while all her co-workers listen in and try to guess which of her many many men friends she is chatting with.  It’s another “whoa! This wouldn’t fly in Hindi films in 2016!” intro.  Her co-workers (all female) are a little admiring and a little jealous.  There’s no societal punishment for her “promiscuity”, it isn’t just accepted, it is lauded.  But, despite this community which seems to encourage her behavior and support it, Rima is leaving to go back home, just like Asif.

Unless I missed it, “home” is never defined here.  It could be any recently developed Malayalam city.  I think at some point it is referred to as “Internet City”, I’m not sure if that is just the nickname for a place I don’t know about, or if it is a clever nod on the part of the script, that really all these places are the same and can be referred to interchangeably as just “internet city”.

And then there’s Nishan.  Who we only see after he has arrive back home, riding in the back of a car telling the driver about his wonderful friends that he can’t wait to see again. The driver mentions that things may have changed, and its a lot to expect, for them to throw up their whole life, and for him to come back just for them.  But Nishan is confident that it will all work out.

And we have his first flashback.  This is also where I start thinking so strongly of  Aalkkoottathil Thaniye.   Like the earlier film, this one starts at the end.  I mean, Kammattipaddam, for instance, clearly goes from childhood through teen years through young adulthood all the way to the present.  But this movie and Aalkkoottathil Thaniye both show lifelong relationships, but cut straight to the very end of them, the last few significant moments before the relationship was broken, and is now being patched back together.  Which kind of feels more accurate to how memory and relationships work.  In the back of your mind, sure, you have a whole lifetime of memories.  But what is at the forefront, what your immediate expectations come from, is just that which happened most recently.

So Nishan’s flashbacks start with the last time he saw his friends.  Telling them he was going to America to live with his sister and brother-in-law as their babysitter.  Rima was going to computer school, wanting to stay close to her mother after her father abandoned them.  And Asif was just desperate to get out and go anywhere, away from his family.  Rima and Asif gave Nishan a box of condoms (I think.) as a going away present joke.

We keep seeing flashbacks through out the film to this period in their lives, when they were last together, as 20 year old’s trying to figure out the next step of their lives.  Not to earlier, when they were children or going to school.  Because this is what is vivid to Nishan, what he thinks he can walk right back into.

But Rima and Asif have moved past the level of innocence they had back then.  I love the flashbacks for how raunchy they are (and again, very impressed with 2009 Malayalam film!) while still so innocent.  Rima is dared to buy condoms from a pharmacy.  She does,  and even goes farther, and requests the “ribbed” kind.  And they all laugh about it.  But at the same time, it is clearly a joke, because the would never be using condoms for real.  That’s what makes it funny.  In the same way, they spot someone looking at their parked car and start bouncing on the seats to simulate a couple having sex all “Chupke Chupke” style.  And it’s only funny because they obviously wouldn’t actually be doing that.  The farthest they go are a few moments when Rima and Nishan almost kiss.  But, on the other hand, it’s realistic in that these 20 year olds would know about sex and condoms and all of that.  They just aren’t quite ready to do it themselves.  Although, they are ready for some minor shoplifting and alcohol drinking.

Now, I’m going to take a second and see if I can build a case for Nishan as the villain of this movie.  For one thing, we never really see his background.  He arrives in Kerala, all ready to pick up where they left off.  But what has he been doing for 3 years in California?  He blames Rima for being sexually loose when he thought they were engaged, but what was she supposed to do for 3 years?  And besides that, how much contact did they have, how firm were these engagement plans?  He seems to be just taking them as a given, but why?  Moreover, once he realizes how different she is from the girl he once knew, he tells her he loves her still and sleeps with her, and then stops talking to her.  Or maybe that was all her dream scene?  It was so sudden, and never really comes up again, that I couldn’t figure it out.  Either way, he goes from “engaged!” to not really talking to her without a stop in between.

And then there’s Asif.  Asif is gay, which I just figured Nishan knew, because I could certainly see it, even in the flashbacks.  Not that he was super flamboyant, just there was something about how he was interacting with Rima.  Which, good on Asif Ali!  He didn’t impress me at all in the first movie I saw with him, Salt ‘n Pepper, but he was really really good in this!  Managing to convey all that through very subtle acting choices.

Asif is also desperate to get out of his house, his father is beating him, at one point in the flashbacks he even tries to kill himself and Rima and Nishan pull him out of the lake.  And now Nishan returns, thinking they can pick up where they left off, not even aware that Asif is gay.  And he is stunned and blames Asif when he learns of Asif’s plans to steal the programming from the company they are working for and sell it under Nishan’s name.  But, does this make Asif really evil?  Yes, he is stealing corporate plans, but the film makes sure to show us that the corporation itself doesn’t have its hands clean, the husband and wife who run it are secretly bickering behind closed doors, and the whole industry is built on the backs of the poor.  Asif is just looking after himself, the way he has always had to, and Nishan sells him out and sets him up, knowing his whole past and everything which may have lead to this, instead of seeing it as a cry for help.

This is also where I started to think about  Aalkkoottathil Thaniyewhere the “hero” claims to be better than others, judging their corruption and sickness, but in the end, is shown to be just as bad as the rest in his own way.  Nishan starts out just wanting to help his friends (or, the people he imagines his friends to be).  But as he comes to learn more about how they have changed, and how his whole world has changed, he becomes bitter and twisted, and ends by turning their own actions back on them.  Breaking Rima’s heart when she begs for his forgiveness.  Setting Asif up to be caught and his career destroyed.  And then leaving town immediately, not even caring enough to see his actions play out.

That would be the “villain” version of Nishan’s story.  The “hero” version, that is where he is the noble soul who returns home to rescue his friends.  He sacrifices himself for them over and over again, just like his communist father and brother sacrificed themselves for their causes.  Even in the past he sacrificed, it is established that Rima and Asif were both always kind of needy, Rima with her broken home and Asif with his abusive father, while Nishan was there to protect and enable them.

(Just like Aamir in 3 Idiots!  Except taller)

Nishan’s father dies, and he starts to realize the emptiness of his sacrifice, that his friends don’t even want what he can offer them any more.  And he starts to see the bigger picture, the lower caste people who have been pushed aside to make way for this new computer world (literally pushed aside, there is a worker he keeps meeting who lost his home to imminent domain and in return is offered a variety of menial jobs in the new skyscrapers).  Eventually, this all works within him and causes him to write a book, which is accepted, proving the nobility of his goals, and he is able to leave town, after punishing all those who need to be brought low for their own good, from his boss to his friends.

And in the end, if we look at the “hero” version, he was right.  The shock he provided has set Rima and Asif on better paths.  We see them 4 years later, happier and more comfortable in their own skins than when we first met them.  Rima living at home again and volunteering twice a week with kids, Asif not drunk or distracted, fully present and calm talking about his various travel and work commitments.  And they open up the first edition of his first novel, to find it dedicated to them, as is everything in his life.

I suppose that works, but I just can’t shake the “villain” version!  Maybe the truth is between the two, that Nishan saw himself as a hero, as “pure”, but over time, as he got caught up in this new modern city and life, he became as corrupted as the others.  And his last acts were so despicable, because they were the last things he was doing before freeing himself of this world.  In the “present”, 4 years later, Nishan has come to appreciate not just the ugly last few months of his relationships with Rima and Asif, but the whole span of their lives together, and to see the overall value.


1 thought on “2009 Week: The Most Important Malayalam Film of the Year, Ritu

  1. I remember when I watched my second malayalam movie ever – Munnariyippu. The first scenes surprised me a lot, and I thought: wow it’s so different from hindi movies. And it was nothing special or shocking, just a short haired girl going to work in her car. A policeman stops her and she calls somebody. It was so refreshing, just a woman who was minding her own business, no love interest, no somebody’s daughter or sister.


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