Wednesday Malayalam: Android Kunjappan, a Malayalam Take on a the Robot Revolution

Remember how I said I was feeling rumpled today? That’s partly because I finished this movie right before work and it’s one of those stupid frustrating Malayalam open endings. I’m sorry, I was raised in America where an ending is happy or sad, and there are NO QUESTIONS. I don’t have the emotional/mental strength to handle all of these “it’s more beautiful and real for being incomplete” endings.

I was just having a conversation with my Mom about why I don’t like the phrase of “such and such country is 50 years behind” or “such and such country is 50 years ahead” or whatever. This is an idea I got from my modern African history teacher in college. He talked about how Africa is usually treated as “behind” other countries. But, that’s not true. Every place is moving forward in time at the same speed. If you use this kind of thinking, it leads to flawed thinking, and excuses injustices. People in Africa don’t need economic fairness, because they are “behind”, getting fair salaries and money for their trade items and so on isn’t necessary because they wouldn’t even know what to do with money, they are living in the Past. And on the other hand, people in East Asia are so far in the future that we should listen to everything they say and try to be just like them. That’s what this film is about, sort of. It expects you to have that initial shock of the “future” colliding with the “past”. And then to get past that and see everything as happening at the same time, just in different places.

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This is a movie where the theme and the idea at the center of it are the stars more than any actors. The two leads are Suraj Venjaramoodu and Soubin Shahir, who are wonderful, but not really the big star sparkle that sells a movie. It’s the idea that sells this film, and Suraj and Soubin successfully disappear into their characters in support of the idea.

I should say, it’s also the idea that makes it at all interesting. Yet another lovely quirky Kerala village, yet another grumpy old Malayalam man character. Yet another foreign city with a lot of gorgeous coats (why do Malayalam films always have the best coats?). It’s the plot that ties it all together which provides the interest.

I’m not gonna spoil the plot, but I will list off the themes. There’s the past-future thing I already mentioned, which is the one that is most challenging to the viewer. But there’s the theme they have to struggle to hide a bit and attack in a new way, the theme of how we treat our household help. They come at it a brand new way so we won’t see it coming, but that’s what it is. Surprisingly, the movie I found myself thinking of the most while watching this film wasn’t another movie about robots, or about father’s and sons, but Manjadikuru, Anjali Menon’s first movie about children visiting their grandfather’s mansion and befriending his child servant.

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Kind of a hard entry point for this film, we open with a man angrily yelling at his robot until the robot stabs him. And then we go to a lovely Malayalam village. So, that’s weird! Anyway, in the lovely village Suraj is a grumpy traditional older man and Soubin is his son who is trying to leave so he can take a job as an electrical engineer. Suraj insists on living by himself and doing everything the old way (no grinder machines, only hand ground grains). Soubin struggles and finally finds an older female household worker who his father is willing to tolerate. And then we jump forward to see Soubin working at a high tech robot company in Russia and communicating with his father through skype calls organized by the household helper. Soubin starts a relationship with Kendy Zirdo, a half-Japanese and half-Malayali young woman who works at the same company. And then his father has another health scare and the worker quits. Soubin is considering quitting his job again and going home, when Kendy gives him the idea to try sending his father one of their helper robots instead. Suraj is resistant, but Soubin tells him to think of the robot as a child he has to teach. Suraj starts to bond with the robot, and Soubin enjoys being able to watch him any time through the robot’s screen. Suraj also starts using the robot to send Facebook messages to Parvathi T., a recently arrived widow who he used to know in school. Everything is good until Soubin is reminded that he only got the robot on a 4 month trial basis, and now the company wants to take it back because all the other robots sent out on trial have failed. Soubin and Kendy travel to Kerala to take the robot away, Suraj and the robot run away together trying to reach Parvathi T. (who still doesn’t know he is the one sending the messages), the robot tries to convince Suraj to let him go and in the middle of their conversation the local drunk who hates the robot comes up and hits him on the head and “kills” him. It ends with Soubin comforts Suraj and takes him home. THE END.

The robot idea is interesting, because these helper robots are a real thing and are used largely for elder care. But they are replacing humans, and what does that say? That people are no longer willing to deal with a human connection even to the people who take the most intimate care of them?

Another college class idea, this time from my class on Asian-American sociology. The teacher had spent his life time studying Asia and his take on the growing number of robots and other mechanical solutions in Japan was that it was a way to avoid hiring women, or lower class people. Better to use a robot than break social structure to fulfill employment needs. And that is here. Soubin has a very hard time finding an employee to care for Suraj because Suraj is caste obsessed, a robot (not even human) is more acceptable to him than a lower caste worker. The film doesn’t say it explicitly but it is there.

Not sure what to think about Kendy as the heroine. On the one hand, it feels like her Japanese appearance is an exotic fantasy. On the other hand, there is a legitimate connection to a society where these helper robots are already a thing that has a narrative purpose, her being the person to suggest the idea to Soubin.

The film makes a faint towards suggesting the robot as a replacement for Soubin. But the reality is that the robot is a replacement for the women Soubin keeps trying to hire. Suraj won’t accept the women, isn’t willing to interact with them, doesn’t want them to talk or sing or bother him at all. But with the robot, he opens up and builds a connection. Soubin can’t spend his life caring for his father, that is not a viable solution. It has to be a team effort. And Suraj is not willing to treat an employee as a human, to give them a chance. It is the robot that he actually cares for.

If this was the same film, but instead of a robot it was a child worker, it would play out the same way. A child who Suraj is able to train and control and build in his own image unlike a grown woman, a child who is there for Suraj when his own family is not. And end with the question of if Suraj will chose his “real” son who has been gone so long or his “new” son who is with him every day.

That is why we open with the robot killing their employer. Which, by the way, I don’t think is actually a thing? Helper robots, yes. Killer robots, I don’t think so. But violence between abusive employers and their workers/slaves is DEFINITELY a thing. We open with an angry old man who constantly yells at his robot until the robot learns to hate him. And then we see Suraj who treats his robot with love and builds a safe happy relationship. We learn the other 3 trial robots failed and the implication is because they did not build this kind of bond with their owners.

I think this is the bigger message. Forget the robots, that’s hardly a big every day ethical quandary. Think about it as human connections. Suraj refuses to treat people as human, to open up. The robot sneaks past his defenses. Technology is part of it, the robot opening him up to the world of Facebook and so on, but mostly it is just about building a bond like he has never dared risk before in his life. We need to treat the people who work for us and live with us with respect, to care about them and care for them, it is the only way to survive.

The very end of the film is Suraj riding home pillion behind Soubin, sees his white helmet, and calls him “Kunjappan” like he called the robot and imagines he is the robot. What does this mean? Is it just an old man’s confusion? Is it a sad ending because Suraj is dreaming of his lost robot friend? Or is it a cynical ending, saying that Suraj cannot appreciate his son who is right there with him because he is still dreaming of the robot that he found more acceptable than any human?

6 thoughts on “Wednesday Malayalam: Android Kunjappan, a Malayalam Take on a the Robot Revolution

  1. This was a very interesting perspective on the movie.. when I watched it I took main theme as relation between son and old father and the conflict that develops when they both want different things. In most of the movies either the kids or the parents are vilified. Here they managed to avoid that. They both are faulty individuals but neither are villains.

    I felt that kunjappan was becoming a surrogate son not the maid. Hence Surajs efforts to save him from damnation. And Soubin feeling increasingly alienated.

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    • Maybe I am reading the film wrong, because I had heard the debate before about robots being an excuse to avoid hiring humans. The father-son dynamic is definitely present.

      On Thu, Jan 23, 2020 at 7:43 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. The first scene really threw me off, I was half expecting the robot to kill someone during the climax. But the debate is worthwhile, I think we as a society prefer human-less ways get things done – lesser in person meet up, lesser phone calls;

    Loved your reading of the movie – I didn’t realize that’s why the other robots failed, because not enough effort was spent in training them (a lot like bringing up a child)

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    • There’s also the open ended romance with the same theme, he is messaging her on Facebook but they are standing right next to each other and don’t talk. And her last message to him is “you won’t be able to find me”, which says that technology keeps us from every truly “finding” each other, not bring us close.

      On Thu, Jan 23, 2020 at 5:14 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Wow! This is a lovely explanation.
        I was also left wondering what the makers meant after that open ending… This definitely throws some light!
        Btw, I would second GN’s opinion on reading your perspective about Ketiyolannu ente Malakha. You might like it, or hate it, but would be well worth discussing about!
        B Rangan thought it was a cross between Ayushman Khuranna films & Arjun Reddy (and actually gave a positive review). Some reviewers felt it was progressive, others felt this movie should not have existed and all… So would be lovely to read your opinion

        Like

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