May 17, 2014
Manju Warrier, Kunchacko Boban, Amritha Anil, Muthumani, Kanika, Lalu Alex, Siddhartha Basu in a guest appearance as the President of India
Who decides the expiry date of a woman’s dreams? With this basic question, Nirupama Rajeev unwittingly sets in motion a mini revolution, not just in her own life but also across her home state Kerala. Not in reality, but in this story. How Old Are You marks the return to the big screen of the much-loved Malayalam film star Manju Warrier after a hiatus of a decade and a half. For that reason alone, it is a milestone for film buffs. For women across the country, it’s a different sort of milestone, asking uncomfortable questions about gender equality in situations that don’t involve extreme crimes or extreme poverty, and doing so in an entertaining yet realistic fashion.
How Old Are You revolves around Nirupama (Manju) who allowed her career ambitions to take a backseat in favour of marriage and motherhood. She was an outstanding student but now works in a run-of-the-mill sarkari clerical job, focusing all her energies on home management and the upbringing of her daughter. Having just turned 36, she is dreading the approaching 40.
We all know women like Nirupama, bright, energetic, brimming with potential yet having let go of the outside world for so long that they’ve lost their confidence. Hers has been further eroded by her husband Rajeev who scorns her work at home and the office, disparages her for her limited interests and for not being smart enough. Nirupama’s daughter too does not value her.
Like Sridevi’s character Shashi Godbole in 2012’s Bollywood film English Vinglish, though in a vastly different context and circumstances, Nirupama too rediscovers herself and recovers her self-respect during the course of this film. She goes many steps further than Shashi though, finding unprecedented career opportunities once she has shrugged off her insecurities.
Manju is so natural as Nirupama that it’s hard to believe she’s been away from the arclights for this long. Her large expressive eyes convey joy, hurt, diffidence and determination seemingly effortlessly. Her good looks and trim physique are enhanced by costumier Sameera Saneesh’s stunning albeit simple saris and Renjith Ambady’s minimalist makeup. Kudos too to DoP R. Diwakaran for the way he captures her lovely face without being overwhelmed by her beauty.
It takes courage for a male star to take on the role of Rajeev because the character is so hard to like. Kunchacko Boban takes the risk and lives up to the task. It’s interesting to see him subtly conveying his journey during the film, from condescension towards his wife to the gradual realisation that this newly confident woman doesn’t need him as much as he needs her.
Other members of this talented cast who deserve a mention are Muthumani as Nirupama’s colleague (what a striking screen presence!) and Amritha Anil as the daughter. The only one who doesn’t fit the picture is Kanika, playing Nirupama’s former classmate Susan, now a corporate hotshot who reminds her of the great expectations everyone had of her back in college. Kanika has a studied style of dialogue delivery. Worse, Sameera Saneesh fits her out in skirt suits that don’t suit her personality, possibly under the mistaken impression that the skirt is the outfit of choice for successful women in corporate India. It’s not.
Let’s be very clear – director Rosshan Andrrews and writers Bobby & Sanjay don’t at any point equate being a housewife with being unsuccessful. This is a film about not subordinating your desires before anyone or anything, and refusing to live with regret if your choices lie beyond the four walls of a house or a boring 9-to-5 job that your family may find convenient but that fails to exploit your talent. In fact How Old Are You bravely takes a stance that even many feminists may find discomfiting. Society tends to glorify women who choose home over offices. Feminists who are tired of such women being taken for granted by their families, over-compensate by placing them on an even higher pedestal. Don’t give me excuses, Susan tells Nirupama, other women have got married and had children without giving up their professional dreams. Ergo, if your dreams are not limited to home-making alone, then don’t make your home your excuse.
In fact, the only point where the film seems to defy believability is in Nirupama’s decisions regarding her husband towards the end. This is a woman who has begun to see him with such clarity as a man who has shamelessly treated her as a doormat, that she asks him at one point whether he’d have kept her with him if servants weren’t too expensive. Ultimately though, the film plays it safe with their relationship in ways I will not describe, possibly because the rest of it is so bold that it didn’t want to shake up the audience too much. Well, if that’s what it wanted to do, then that bit needed to be written more effectively. In that regard, I feel that Shashi’s final equation with her husband in English Vinglish was better handled.
I watched How Old Are You in a hall in Delhi, surrounded by an audience that seemed to be enjoying it, though I did catch the voices of a few gentlemen sounding decidedly uncomfortable with this woman Nirupama so openly defying her husband. It’s such a pain to have your boat rocked, no? Well, How Old Are You is no doubt the story of a woman rocking the boat, but open-minded menfolk could find their own lives reflected in the way Nirupama had let go of herself. This is a well-acted, well-produced film conveying a crucial message without being preachy. It’s a refreshing change for another reason too: like India’s largest film industries Bollywood, Kollywood and Tollywood, Malayalam cinema too is guilty of relegating women to a secondary role and writing off actresses at a far younger age than their male colleagues. In that context, it’s a joy to see the comeback of an actress in her mid-30s, that too in a film where the protagonist is a 36-year-old woman. Bravo Manju Warrier, Rosshan Andrrews and the rest of the team. Bravo!
Rating (out of five stars): ***1/2
CBFC Rating (India):
Poster courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/HowOldAreYou/photos_stream