Ozhimuri

ozhimuri-movie-poster

In some ways Ozhimuri was a hard film to place. Many of the plot summaries around made it sound like a fairly dry film about legal and social change in Kerala with the cessation of matrilineal inheritance. The posters tend to position it as a cute romance, which is not the focus, or push a love = violence angle which is unpalatable and also not really the point. Ozhimuri is not a heavy message film, nor is it a simple “boy with angry dad meets girl”. It’s a beautifully engaging story of three generations of family, the tensions and unexpected similarities between family members.

Director Madhupal uses a concise montage to set the scenes with images of females, human and divine, sitting at the feet of males, then older images that show the reverse. The titles use scenes at a big religious festival (My goodness! Those children must be terrified!), and meandering through beautiful countryside to embed the story in rural and traditional culture.

Meenakshi (Mallika) files for separation, citing harassment. Despite being described as a “dead dog” at the age of 55, she wants her independence. But she wants some property of means of support, having been made to sign hers over to her husband. Thanu (Lal) doesn’t seem to want his wife but will not relinquish any property. The legal argument then hinges on whether she is entitled to get alimony. His young female lawyer Balamani (Bhavana), who you might expect to support a woman seeking independence, joins the chorus of naysayers telling Sharath (Asif Ali) to persuade his parents to stay together. He tries to persuade Balamani of his father’s cruelty, and as they spend time together their own relationship deepens. Kali Pillai (Shweta Menon), is a strong influence on all aspects of Thanu’s life, and not in the usual doting ma and son way. Described as a queen, with the gait and power of an elephant, she is a strong if remote figure.

Madhupal uses flashbacks to great effect, both filling in the past and showing different perspectives on incidents. Things that seem black and white become ambiguous, and characters also become more complex and realistic. One of the most rewarding things about watching Ozhimuri was the way more is revealed, completely changing my view without ever being untrue to the characters.

Lal plays Thanu and Thanu’s dad Sivan. Thanu is a hard case but as things are revealed the influences driving his behaviour make him if not sympathetic then relatable. Sivan is a rumbly giant of a man, sentimental and simple. Lal plays Sivan with a twinkle in his eye and Thanu with a perpetual sour twist to his mouth. There is more than just anger driving Thanu. He has mother issues, and he hates and fears strong women. What we would call a street angel and house devil, Thanu is a doting father in his own way and has his father’s softness underneath his mother’s harshness. Lal is compelling throughout. I felt sad for jolly Sivan, and for the boy who would grow up without his warm hearted dad. Lal plays Thanu in such a way that he gained my empathy without resorting to trite sentimental tricks.

Meenakshi is the unsung hero of the film for my money. Mallika brings dignity and grace to Meenakshi, showing her as a woman who endures rather than fights, but who is strong and resilient in her non-confrontational way. She genuinely sees the good in people and tries to keep that in mind. She comes to know what she wants out of life and understands finally what her mother-in-law had tried to teach her. And so she acts. Everyone asks Meenakshi why she wants a divorce but nobody seems to want to really listen, they just want to tell her what she should do. She remains calm and obdurate, using her strength for herself for once. It’s hard to see a woman apparently defending her abuser, but as things progress Meenakshi becomes less of a victim and more a complex woman who made some choices then and is making different choices now. Mallika and Lal have a volatile chemistry that take their characters from domesticity to physical violence in a heartbeat, and they never break that connection or seem out of synch.

Shweta Menon is charismatic and arrogant as Kali Pillai. You can see in Thanu that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Even if he didn’t hold a grudge about his father, they would clash and they both had violent streaks. Kali is all about tough love, showing her concern for Meenakshi by constantly picking faults and telling her what to do. She doesn’t like seeing her son overturn the natural order of things and treat his wife like a slave and her pride is wounded by his lack of respect for her. But she never gives up on him really and still tries to protect him in her own way despite their estrangement.

The obvious option would be to have Balamani (Bhavana) represent Meenakshi and go all Girl Power, but instead she is representing Thanu. She is quite socially conservative and believes divorce is bad for families regardless of the situation at home. I liked Bhavana a lot, and she nailed the characterisation of a pretty young professional who is a bit tired of the boys club around her but doesn’t feel the need to rock the boat. Her down to earth conversations with her grandmother are both funny and sad as grandma explains the role of women. Hint – it has a lot to do with breeding. She and Sharath talk about their own families and future plans, and while sometimes it comes across as clunky exposition they help draw out the subtleties of the divorce case.

Asif Ali is extremely likeable as Sharath, the good son who sees his father as Bad and his mother as a victim. As things become less clear cut, he also has to confront his own resemblance to his father and what that might mean. He gets hit with some big truths and I loved that he never made a big deal out of it or insisted anyone choose sides. He absorbed the new knowledge, struggled a bit, then moved forward. He was open to Balamani’s ideas and treated her as a valued friend as well as an eventual lover and future wife. And hurrah for a film where people can have consensual sex and not be hit by a meteor or any other form of judgement.

This is just a gorgeous film to watch. I had some initial concerns because of the topic but I didn’t find the violence was sensationalised or dwelt on beyond what needed to be shown. The performances are all top notch and Madhupal and writer Jeyamohan provide an excellent visual and narrative structure.

For anyone who laments the lack of strong female characters in Indian films, see this. If you’re interested in a sympathetic but not apologetic portrait of family dysfunction, see this. If you like beautifully made films with realistic characters and great production values, see this. 5 stars!

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7 thoughts on “Ozhimuri

  1. Temple, if you want to see strong female characters in films, look no further than Malayalam films of a certain era. 🙂 If I should generalise, I would say that any film scripted by MT had strong heroines – traditional or otherwise. And consensual sex without meteors (or judgement) has been present in many films as well.

    I’m so glad to see you review this one. I watched it a long time ago, and was recently thinking I should revisit it to review it for my blog. Now I don’t have to. 🙂

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    • Anu you should certainly write something about this for your blog! Otherwise all the tedious mansplainers who summarise the plot as “women want to go back to the old days and take men’s property” will be putting people off seeing it 🙂 Also I think your readership would appreciate the film so you should enthusiastically encourage them to see it. I also found the relationships and position of women within the film interesting in light of moral policing in Kerala that keeps making the news. I read your piece on accountability and I am still a little on the fence as to the responsibility of a film maker beyond making an accomplished film so might pick that up with you another time when my thinking is less woolly. But where I was going with that is – how many positive examples of lasting change influenced by a film are there, beyond the “in the moment” sentimentality as people stroll out the doors. Surely if we attribute a bad influence we should also be able to attribute some good…And I can’t think of anything but then film fan and celebrity culture in India seems far more intense than it is here. See! I told you. Woolly thinking.

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      • Temple, I agree with you on the responsibility of the film maker being primarily to make an accomplished film. Yet, in India, films were primarily agents of social change. Early film makers from Dadasaheb Phalke onwards harnessed the power of the medium to bring about social change. Perhaps the time was ripe in our country for such messages. Shantaram, Mehboob Khan, Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy et al followed in the same footsteps. Where films have such a wide reach and such an influence over people, it is to be expected that what is shown on screen is emulated by people who buy into that alternate reality. Research shows that ‘bad’ influences/attributes are more likely to be picked up than ‘good’. Therefore, the old phrase about a man being known by the company he keeps, or lying down with the dogs and getting up with fleas (and its many Indian counterparts).

        In Tamil Nadu, particularly, the industry’s hold is pernicious. Many of the heroes have gone on to become successful politicians by harnessing their popularity. In such a climate, where what the hero does on screen is inviolable, you can imagine the power they wield. With great power comes great responsibility. When what you see on screen is always the hero ‘taming’ the upper-class (always!), fair-skinned (always!), more-educated (mostly!) heroine, and schooling her in the ways of a ‘good woman’ who is an epitome of ‘Tamil culture’, and ‘loving’ regardless of her consent or even interest, what message are you sending out to the larger public who, as I said, cull their knowledge of men and women and relationships from what they see on screen?

        Yes, there are good influences – like Kamal Hassan, who has instructed his legions of fan clubs to engage in social service and not pay homage to him. (And they do.) Like Ajith, I think, (I could be mistaken about this) who harnesses the power of his legions of fans when natural disasters strike, and helps out where he can. Like Rajinikanth who does not smoke or drink, and has requested his fans to not do so either. Perhaps they will listen. Perhaps they won’t. But if even one man stops spending his salary on drink, that is one family saved.

        It’s a complex problem. Films are just one small part of it. But it is this part that can change – and change quickly. Why not try? I know it’s like Sisyphus’s ordeal, but hey, perhaps we will climb a few feet before we slip half way back?

        Besides, the more focus we put on this petition, perhaps *we* can change a few minds? Every little bit helps, right?

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      • I do agree with you – but. Fundamentally I feel that when people start shifting blame onto films or TV or books, they’re really just shifting responsibility away from themselves and that doesn’t sit well with me. I would rather that people make whatever old nonsense they want, but that there is a robust critical discussion (like yours!) of the content, the meaning, and why it is a good or bad example and should anyone behave like that in real life and why or why not. I had one of the best and most challenging conversations ever with a little boy who wanted to understand why Voldemort is considered bad and Harry Potter is good when they both did whatever they wanted to regardless of the rules. Nothing like nutting out the nature of good and evil over a shared pack of Maltesers after a movie! I think analysis is often missing from the mid-level mainstream Indian newspaper film critiques where they rarely question the content just comment on the box office numbers. And I do think it is telling that stupid boys are not getting killed or injured emulating superheroes or other big buzz film action in anywhere near the same numbers they are confidently committing sexual assault. I think a robust legal system that doesn’t slut shame or victim blame would be more helpful on a global level.

        But it tries my patience and I am now attempting to be more consistent in calling out the egregious abuses rather than just rolling my eyes at “it’s typical mass” and letting it ride. I am least comfortable with Tamil films, of all the South Indian industries, because there is a pervasive misogyny in many mass films. There is really dire treatment of women in Telugu and other industries of course, but it often doesn’t seem quite as nasty or punishing. And hopefully by choosing to write about films like Ozhimuri or Pelli Choopulu or Piku or whatever in my own little way I give them more oxygen.

        The hero thing always interests me as Indian film heroes are deified in a way I don’t see anywhere else. I don’t actually set much store by the good deeds of fan groups as I think they’re potentially just A Thing that a fan does to show their commitment and may not reflect any other thought or changed philosophy. But good on Rajini for actually asking his fans to change their behaviour in a healthy way.

        On another note, the ridiculous furore around women (WOMEN!) taking the leads in Ghostbusters, the decision to leave the main female character out of action figures for the Star Wars reboot…casting Scarlett Johansen in Ghost In The Shell…It tells me that the majority old white dudes bankrolling Hollywood are completely out of step with their diverse audiences and they really don’t care. It’s all very disheartening.

        Now – please go write about Ozhimuri 🙂

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      • See, I was like you. I believed that films had no other responsibility but to be anything but films. In my mind, however much I might have placed myself (in my misbegotten youth) in my hero du jour’s arms in the theatre, reality displaced fantasy very quickly when I stepped out. Perhaps it is because I was exposed to so many different kinds of experiences, whether it be films or music or books. Perhaps it is the way I was brought up; I certainly didn’t spend much time, even in my romantic teens, dreaming of a white knight who would rescue me and whisk me off my feet. I could rescue myself, thank you very much. Even when I devoured Mills & Boons, and spent long summer afternoons losing myself in the arms of whichever tall, dark and handsome hero they were describing, I was never in any danger of thinking they were real. That was my fantasy; my real life was pretty humdrum. And I never made the mistake of mistaking one for the other.

        The youth who are influenced by the stalking-as-romance tropes are young, many of them from little towns and non-metro cities. They are ‘told’ – through these films – that the fair-skinned, upper class heroine is aspirational. They are shown that these women might reject you, but if your ‘love’ is ‘pure’, then she will fall in love with you anyway. That she will then turn into the women you know, the ones who are considered ‘good’. So when they meet women in the city, educated, working professionals, they assume what happens in the films is how they will react -that’s all they know, you see, of man-woman interaction.

        I see a lot of men and women here as well, who buy into the rom-com tropes of geeky guy who scores this hot chick, and I can’t tell you of the sexism ingrained in that trope anyway. But this is a topic that has to be discussed over hot chai and samosas, or a good drink and food, so let me know any time you’re up in this neck of the woods. 🙂

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      • “But this is a topic that has to be discussed over hot chai and samosas, or a good drink and food, so let me know any time you’re up in this neck of the woods.🙂” – Agreed and it’s a deal!

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