Sunday, March 18, 2012

Pranayam Review

I'm sure everyone around here knows this by now: I've been starved for movies with grown-ups. Puppy love is all good and fine, but enough is enough already. So when I put Pranayam in the DVD player the other day I was ready for a good story with adults.

My excitement was toned down however when, before the movie even started playing, a collection of quotes about love got flashed on the screen, culminating with this one:

Oh man, I thought, what a tease! This will end up being yet another movie where the adult versions of the characters are on screen for something like 10 minutes and the rest of the story is a flashback of their puppy-love days. Cue eyeroll and brace self for the worst. (Not that I didn't thoroughly enjoy Love Aaj Kal, but if you think of the epilogue to Rishi's story you'll know what I mean.)

Luckily, I was dreadfully wrong! Pranayam ends up being a story about grown-ups and yet, while being that, it still allows plenty of room for the cuteness of puppy love, for the thrill of watching young hearts take on the world, and even for a bit of the classic love triangle. And it does all that without ever putting the older versions of the characters in danger for screen time.

Not that you would want to underuse such talents as Anupam Kher, Mohanlal and Jaya Prada, but Indian movies have proved in the past that even greater talent can be sacrificed in favour of their younger looking versions. So on that topic I can only say: respect to Blessy for giving us a story about old people in an era when everyone else around him refuses to age.

Namak: Mercifully! Because in the younger version Anupam Kher looks like a 12 year old with a mooche!

Dolce: Aww, come on, he's all right. And all his filmi dialogues about rain are so cute.
Namak: Cute is hardly the word I would use. Cheesy maybe?
Dolce: Whatever. They get the job done, don't they? The girl falls for it.
Namak: Just another case of girl falling for the first boy whose eyes she looks into. Textbook filmi love-story. Yawn.
Dolce: We're over that, remember? We've accepted love at first sight as a legitimate plot device. Besides, luckily for us, this one turns out to not be the one true love as it is in most movies.
Namak: True. Brownie points for that. I'm always happy to see the idea that true love doesn't happen only once acknowledged by Indian film makers.

The story, in short, is about Menon (Anupam Kher) who comes to the city to live with his son's family after suffering a heart-attack. Highly independent and unaccustomed to being looked after, he takes to roaming about the city as if he were a young man. But danger is always closer to home than we think, so one day in the elevator he runs into Grace (Jaya Prada), who, as we will soon find out, was his wife 40 years ago. Also she is the mother of his son and had abandoned them when their son was very young. Or had she? The script keeps it a mystery, but what we do know is that Grace is now married to Mathews and quite happily married by the looks of it, even if Mathews (Mohanlal) is now half paralyzed and requires constant attention. Coincidentally, they all live in the same building.

The script manages a good deal of flashbacks quite elegantly, and events from the past surface one at a time, without losing sight of the relationship that is formed in the present between the three protagonists. Not surprisingly, we don't get the full story until close to the end of the film, and it isn't the most original story either, but by then we are so much more involved with where the characters are right now, that the past remains exactly what it should be: the past.

I'm all about the relationships in movies, and Pranayam definitely does not disappoint in that respect. Whether it's the relationships between the older generation and their grandchildren, or the husbands and wives, or the father-son dynamics, all the connections between characters come across as genuine and natural. And of course, the interactions between the three main characters are particularly well drawn.

You understand right away why Grace is married to Mathews because he strikes you as such a wise, mature man. On the other hand you also understand why she had fallen for Menon in their youth and why, apart from the son, there is still a bond there. Menon is full of life and optimism, he's an explorer even when tired or ill, it's a joy to be around him. Needless to say, it's also easy to understand why both men love/loved Grace, whose name describes her perfectly. A strong, good-hearted woman who had to make some tough choices in life but retained her warmth and her spirit. And, might I add with an incipient fangirl sigh: her beauty!

Dolce: Interestingly I didn't feel that the movie manipulated me in any way on the topic of the mother living away from her son for 40 years, and I'm not sure if that was just excellent storytelling, or if it was something they glossed over on purpose. 
Namak: Hard to say, I'd say the latter, but certainly unexpected from an Indian movie. Most of them would be throwing drama at the issue after the first scene.
Dolce: And yet Pranayam kept it smoothly in the background without ever asking you to take sides.
Namak: I wouldn't go that far, there are definitely sides being "proposed" to you, ready for the taking.
Dolce: Yes, but you always know there's more to it than meets the eye, so it doesn't feel like they give you a definitive ruling: she was wrong or she was right.
Namak: Or he was wrong / he was right...
Dolce: Precisely! "Everyone makes mistakes" seems to be their philosophy, but in the end, as Mathews would say "The past is just a bucket full of ashes."

Another aspect of the movie that impressed me on the sociological level was how well the script employs the "village's rumour mill". It doesn't take being Indian to know just how much appearances and "saving face" matter in the Indian society, and yet movies have recently moved away from focusing on this aspect, no doubt in an effort to showcase the younger generation's new-found independence. Which is fine too. Pranayam, however, boldly embraces it and makes it a part of the plot.

When the trio of grandparents starts forming a friendship, both families (Menon's son and daughter-in-law, as well as Mathews' daughter and son-in-law) get increasingly concerned with the rumours that are flying around about them in the neighbourhood. What a nice and refreshing role reversal from your typical scene with the parents scolding their teenage daughters for giving the family a bad name. Here it's the daughter who raises the problem with her mother.

Don't get me wrong, far be it from me to ever be on the side of the rumour mill, and anyone who has been around this space for a while knows my general response is "to hell with it!", but I truly appreciated how this story didn't pretend to exist in a vacuum and not only did we get the angle of the immediate family dealing with their parents' problems (or their grandparents'), but we also got the social commentary associated with it. Of course, what the main characters do and how they deal with it is another matter altogether, but that is a satisfaction I will leave to you to discover.

Namak: And this is not the only place where Pranayam uses a filmi trope. If you think about it the grandparents go through practically every act of rebellion we see nowadays in rom-coms about growing up: they sneak out for secret meetings, they take off on a roadtrip without telling anyone, they go drinking, they sing a song in a packed restaurant, they go boating, etc. 
Dolce: That's may be so, but because here we see these scenes from such a different angle, they seem fresh and endearing. It's only cliche if a certain category of characters does it. You change the premise and all of a sudden all the cliches get a makeover too!

Maybe it's true that there are only a few good stories in the world. But every once in a while one storyteller twists one up enough that it seems, if not new, at least intriguing all over again.

Last but not least, a quick word on the visuals in Pranayam. Two things stand out: the sea and the rain.

The story uses both symbols heavily but the excellent cinematography makes it look as if it's a different sea and a different rain every time. And perhaps that is the message of the movie too, that despite thinking we know something (or in this case someone) and have experienced it a thousand times, there are always new sides of them to discover. Or to remember.

"With each new wave the sea looks different", Mathews notes.

Pranayam (2011)
Director: Blessy
Starring: Jaya Prada, Anupam Kher, Mohanlal
Music: M. Jayachandran
Cinematography: Satheesh Kurup
Language: Malayalam


Jenny said...

Hello! You have an award awaiting on my blog :-)

Dolce and Namak said...

Aww! Thank you! :)

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