Manju Warrier is back and how! Rosshan Andrrews’ How Old Are You brings back Manju to the silver screen after a decade and half and one of Malayalam cinema’s most-loved actresses makes a spirited return as a middle-aged woman restoring her identity and finding new direction in life. This easily is one of the more anticipated movies this year and to that extent, there is a sense of mild nostalgia, coupled with a sense of satisfaction that her re-launch vehicle is the perfect one for the occasion.
(Mild Spoilers Ahead)
How Old Are You (HOAY), follows the ‘boring’ middle-class life of Nirupama Rajeev (Manju Warrier), a 36-year old UD clerk in the revenue department. Her life comprises a run-of-the-mill government job which she has been doing for the past 15 years, her family and colleagues, after she settles down and adjusts herself to the reality of a post-marital life. Her husband Rajeev (Kunchacko Boban) who works with All India Radio, and her high school daughter Lakshmi (Amritha Anil), have big dreams in life and want to migrate to Ireland to carve a new life for them.
Like most women who have sacrificed a lot of their dreams for their family, Nirupama has also undergone a transformation. From Susan (Kaniha), Nirupama’s one-time friend and now a high flying private employee, we know that she was a fiery young woman during her college days, who invited the wrath of the college authorities and even police during her protests but never backed down. Her old teacher recollects that she had expected her to scale new heights and her college autograph book which she often reads out to her daughter is testimony to the accolades and expectations of her friends.
Again, like most women, while she may have sacrificed her dreams, it isn’t something that her husband or daughter really appreciate. It is treated as a matter-of-fact thing that all women have to do and so she finds herself reduced to an embarrassment for them, who can be dispensed with– Rajeev feels that his wife is too intellectually-challenged to contribute or appreciate his work while Lakshmi doesn’t think too highly of her mother’s caliber either.
It doesn’t help that when situations arise where she can contribute, she panics and allows herself to be made an object of ridicule. She collapses when she plays badminton at her daughter’s school due to high BP or faints when she goes to meet the President of India (Quiz Master Siddhartha Basu in a cameo), who sends her an invitation to have breakfast with, after he is impressed with one of questions asked by her daughter in school.
Bobby-Sanjay’s script hits a lot of right notes in observing and highlighting Nirupama’s dilemmas, even though they rush it up a bit in completing the orchestra. Nirupama’s boredom is not conveyed in her words – she troops in late to office or is untouched when she sends away a pensioner without getting his work resolved. A stand-out scene is where Nirupama visits an old woman (Sethulakshmi) whom she meets every day in bus. They don’t even know each other’s names but one day Nirupama turns up at her house when she knows she is sick. When the old woman talks of her loneliness, she probably imagines sees herself in that situation years later. Another that comes to the mind is the sharp exchange between the couple when Rajeev returns to take her to Ireland because they are unable to manage without her– she tells him to expect from her only what was given to her and she cannot be a free backup for a maid.
What works for HOAY primarily is the fact that as an audience, we can easily relate to the happenings on the screen. Nirupama’s travails in life are not just hers but also that of many women who have given up a lot of their dreams, to build a safe nest for their family. It is a grossly under-appreciated role that she plays in our lives but which we take for granted. She may not be the principal bread-winner but hers is a silent invisible presence that ensures that we can go about in our lives, without being too concerned of what happens at home. As Nirupama says, the price of vegetables may be an irrelevant topic of discussion but it is important to her; if one day, there is extra spice in her husband’s food, the same innocuous food would become a matter of concern.
While the first half underscores her issues in life, there is an entertaining but ambling flow in these trivialities. The entire Meet-the-President routine is genuinely funny, especially her mother-in-law’s innocent queries on the nature of the meeting, her attempts to cash-in on her new-found celebrity status to make others’ jealous, her dazed sojourn into the Presidential suite and finally her collapse after the President greets her. Amidst all these funny moments, there is also the heartburn of realizing how little respect she commands in the eyes of her husbdand and teenage daughter.
The second half, however, goes a bit more pedantic and eventually HOAY becomes a nice feel-good film, with a liberal dosage of cinematic moments that are not very convincing. The transformation into a more confident women is fine but the events around her gallop more briskly than you’d accept and while this ensures that the scripts keeps a fast pace, it does leave one asking for more credibility in the rapid turn of events. While she makes a spirited speech for organic vegetables in an Architects’ conference and the Minister is more than impressed to offer her the stewardship to run such a campaign across the state, there isn’t anything shown to convey her ability to manage any of this. Also, it isn’t as if Kerala hasn’t really heard of either organic vegetables or terrace farming, so the reaction of the people around her goes rather overboard.
Manju Warrier easily seeps into the character of Nirupama who has lost her individuality and self-confidence as she struggles to juggle between a teenage daughter and a husband who takes her for granted. Her makeup however is a bit more conspicuous and never for a moment, do you actually see a freckled or worn-out Nirupama – it would appear that Manju was peeping out of the screen sometimes, instead of Nirupama.
Manju retains a lot of her impish charm that won over many hearts in Kerala and she is the heart and soul of the movie. She remains Malayalam cinema’s favourite actress and the audience is sure to warm up to her performance as she tugs at our heart strings. Her moments of despair, her meekness and self-doubt are all experienced by us too but it begs a question as to whether parts of this film actually mirror her real life! When Susan asks her where her confident old self has gone, it does appear that this is a question that is being asked to the real and not reel Manju Warrier.
It is a pleasant surprise to see Kunchacko Boban appearing as a proper MCP husband who is over-shadowed entirely by the charming Manju. There might be a few who might think that Rosshan should have cast someone who looks a bit more elder to her but that looks like a conditioned response by the audience (would appear that the dialogue where an elder woman in the bus asks her if Rajeev is her brother was inserted in anticipation of such an observation). Eventually, there is a bit of a cop out because while he uses her at every juncture (when his car meets with an accident or when he emotionally blackmails her to come to Ireland), there is no scene indicating his final acceptance or understanding of her position in the family. I would have been happy to see the writers give enough space where she is able to communicate her dreams to both her husband and her daughter and they are able to see it.
Thematically, HOAY bears a strong resemblance to Sridevi’s English Vinglish, in terms of a woman’s struggle to assert her identity, amidst a family that under-values her. But that’s where the similarity ends and this is by no means an ‘inspired’ work – each woman brings to the fore her own efforts to recognize and make her own way through her inner conflicts. You could call it a women-centric film but then the thought pre-supposes that gender rights and equality are topics relevant only to one gender. Yes, the thrust is on women but the rights of both partners matter and her final decision to stay back and work is a courageous decision that is conveyed with brevity. Personally, I think this is a movie you must go along with your wife and not just alone; there are a few moments that every family will relate to.
As a woman, she has never questioned the status-quo and her position in the family but when faced with a real opportunity to come out of her cocoon and excel, she fumbles initially but recovers thanks to the support from multiple quarters and emerges a stronger woman. The question How Old Are You is no longer relevant now…