Directed by: Ranjith
Starring: Prithviraj, Navya Nair, Arvind, Kaviyoor Ponnamma,
Revathi, Innocent, JagathySreekumar, Siddique
Does faith really move mountains? Does true love triumph in the end? The cynic in me would like to say 'No' - I lost my faith many, many years ago, and love is a bastardised emotion in today's world. However, somewhere deep inside me, the romantic is still alive. While I still do not believe in the notion of a God, much less one who helps his / her / its devotees, I would like to believe in the power of love to overcome obstacles. Watching Nandanam strips you of some of the layers of cynicism that armour you.
It's a simple tale, that of a young servant girl, Balamani (Navya Nair) who falls in love with the scion of the household. And of her belief in Guruvayoorappan, Krishna, the Lord of Guruvayoor. It's the tale of Manu (Prithviraj) who is educated, city-bred, who runs into Balamani during his sojourn at his grandmother's house. It's the tale of an innocent summer madness that deepens into love and has to go through trial by fire before it can be consummated. It's the story of an ancient house and its traditions, prejudices and ingrained biases, and caste and class barriers. It's a tale about people, neither completely good nor completely bad, just flawed, and human. It's about courage of conviction, and being able to rise above pettiness. It's about recognising the good in someone, and knowing that one's doing what's right. Finally, at it's heart, it's the story of faith. Insert Allah or Jesus in place of Krishna and the story will still work. All it needs is faith.
Unniamma (Kaviyoor Ponnamma) has had an accident and is in need of help. Keshavan Nair ( Innocent) brings a young girl, Balamani, to the house so she can be the old woman's aide. He had already brought three other women as helpers, none of whom have been any good; all of them, however, stay on, eating Unniamma out of house and home, without doing so much as make their own food. Balamani has been brought here with the promise that since Unniamma lives in the temple town of Guruvayoor, she will be able to visit the temple and see the Lord daily. The young girl, a devout follower of Sri Krishna, is thrilled. However, the truth is that three weeks later, she has still been unable to see her Lord in all his glory. It is not her employer but her three co-servants who keep her busy.
Though she is really hurt at not being able to go to the temple even on an auspicious day, Balamani really has no time to sit and sulk. Neither is she the sort to do so. She is a cheerful, hardworking, practical girl, and after complaining to her photograph of Krishna about his naughtiness at not allowing her to see him, she goes about her duties happily. He is her friend and confidante; the only one to whom she can open her heart and mind to, without fear of rejection.
She is however, not loath to tell the three older women off for ordering her about. When Keshavan Nair comes to visit, she berates him as well for lying to her about the situation at the house. But there is a deep bond of affection between the two. He treats her as another daughter; in fact, her sister, suffering from a congenital heart disease stays with him and his wife. Her employer treats her with kindness and affection, she has a good friend in the neighbour, Janu (Kala Ranjini). Life is not bad.
Balamani has recurrent dreams - of a handsome young man who comes into her life and marries her. She even questions her beloved Krishna about it. Why is he showing her such dreams? Imagine her surprise when she opens the outer gates of the house one night and finds the young man of her dreams standing in front of her!
He is Manu, the young grandson of the house. He's come to spend some time with his beloved grandmother, before leaving for greener pastures abroad. As is her wont, Balamani goes off to talk to her Krishna.
Manu knows about Balamani because his mother's told him about her. As he has nothing else to do, and she's a pretty young thing, he flirts with her, much to Balamani's discomfiture. She is not a retiring shy violet however, and so gives back as good as she gets. Since he is a decent bloke and means her no harm, they get along very well. She even feels comfortable telling him about seeing him in her dream though not the context.
She is quick to guard her heart; she knows, better than anyone else, how unlikely a match it would be. She not only talks herself out of imagining anything more than friendliness, she also beseeches her Krishna to help her stay strong. But Manu is falling in love - with her innocence, with her attitude, with her friendliness, and he tells her so. She is quick to dissuade him. Her parents committed suicide together, leaving her the sole support of three other siblings. Her younger sister needs medical treatment; the other sister and brother have been placed by Keshavan Nair in homes where they are treated well and sent to school in return for their labour. This is her story. Is this truly a burden that he wants to shoulder?
Manu is touched - these are experiences outside his ken. As he holds Balamani, Manu is equally forthright - he had been flirting with her, but now he is in earnest. He cannot think of life without her, and as soon as his mother joins him here, he's going to talk to her. He promises Balamani that he loves her and will never leave her.
Balamani is overjoyed. Never in her wildest dreams had she imagined such a thing! As she goes to her room at night, she thanks her Krishna for bringing her such happiness. And warns him that if this is not the fate he has in mind for her, he'd better be careful what he lets her experience.
Manu and Balamani, lost in love, weave their dreams as lovers will. Even the arrival of Thankam (Revathi), Manu's mother, does not cause any major upheaval. Thankam is a young widow, who, upon the death of her husband when she was pregnant with Manu, took the unprecedented step of staying put in Bangalore, working and raising her young son all by herself. She is also an affectionate person, and is grateful to Balamani (whom she has never met until now) for taking care of her mother so well. She even sends Balamani to the temple with Janu, promising Balamani that she's perfectly capable of taking care of her mother's needs for the short while that Balamani will be away.
Manu has no secrets from his mother, and is very keen on making his love for Balamani known as quickly as possible. Just as he's about to tell her, Janu brings Balamani back to the house. A cyclist veered into Balamani just as they were crossing the main road to the temple; Janu took her to the doctor, but Balamani was feeling faint and so, they had to return. Balamani is devastated at not being able to see the Lord again - as she goes to her room, she excoriates her Krishna for playing tricks on her. She knows he's the cyclist who knocked her down, she tells him. She promises him that she will never enter the temple until she's married to Manu.
Before Manu gets another opportunity to talk to his mother, Thankam informs her mother that she has fixed Manu’s marriage up with the only daughter of her childhood friend. It's with her family that Manu was going to stay with in Los Angeles, anyway, and with this marriage, he'll soon be the head of a software company. His future is all set. The wedding will take place before he leaves for the US. As Thankam discusses the details, Balamani is devastated.
As she hides her misery in her room, she has only one question to ask of her Krishna - hadn't she begged him to stop her if her dreams outstripped her reach? And as she snuffs out the oil lamp in front of her Krishna, her anguish is mirrored by Manu. When he meets her next, Manu tells Balamani that this proposed marriage cannot take place. He will tell his mother so, and if she will not listen, then he will leave. Balamani is the strong one - no, she tells him; he cannot break his mother's heart. They have no right to build a life of happiness on the ruins of another's hopes and desires.
As he leaves, none too convinced, she cries bitterly but silently. Slowly, she packs her things; she's convinced Manu to stay, but she cannot. She is angry - with herself for dreaming impossible dreams; with her Krishna for not stopping her; with Keshavan Nair for bringing her here in the first place. When Keshavan Nair comes in, he's upset that she's leaving just when there's a wedding in the family. Balamani is impenitent. So what? Keshavan Nair cannot understand her - he's taking her sister to Cochin the next day for her operation; he's borrowed money from Unniamma, and has asked her to cut it from Balamani's salary, little by little. Does Balamani wish him to return the money?
Balamani tells him the truth. Keshavan Nair is sad. He tells her that he had brought her here because he knew she would be treated with affection. All households are not safe for teenage girls. He begs her to stay until the wedding is over, and to pray to Guruvayoorappan for strength. Balamani agrees. What else can she do?
Janu is excited, her son has come on a visit, and she has much to do. She asks Balamani to come and visit him when he's home. Balamani promises, but there's much work and she never quite finds the time. One evening, as she's coming back from the fields, she sees the old well; it's tempting but just as she's dropping in a stone to check how deep it is, a voice hails her with great familiarity.
Balamani is surprised. Does she know the youth? Then, as he talks to her, she realises he is Unnikrishnan, Janu's son.
Perhaps it's having someone who is sympathetic. Whatever it is, she decides that she has cried enough. As she lights the lamp in front of her Krishna again, she confesses that her brief fall from grace was just the naivete of a young girl who didn't know any better. She promises her Krishna that she will not neglect him so, and that she will go back to being the old cheerful Balamani again. She tries hard too, only she doesn't succeed very well. Unniamma is concerned, but Balamani convinces her that she is okay.
Soon, she's sharing confidences with this young man, who seems to know so much more than he should. He teases her, drives her mad with curiosity, but is such a support that she comes to depend on him. In the meantime, wedding preparations are going on full swing. Relatives are coming in from far and near, none too happy with the suddenness of the ceremony; as is usual when relatives congregate, there's happiness, there's bickering, there's some amount of backbiting, old grievances are aired. Thankam's only support are her two youngest brothers, and Balan (Siddique), her ex-lover.
As the house fills up, and wedding preparations heat up, Manu breaks down. Thankam is taken aback. As she comforts her son, she is sad that he didn't tell her before; she's also upset with herself for not realising that this was not like choosing a shirt for her son; that he had grown up. She also confesses that she might still have disagreed - her son to marry a servant girl? But now, it's too late. There are only two days left for the wedding.
Whatever she did, she did for his future. That's all she'd ever dreamt of. Can't he forget Balamani? He should. For her sake. For his. Manu has no answer. Thankam also goes to meet Balamani to beg her forgiveness.
The girl is touched. She has no rancour; his mother had done the right thing. As Thankam hugs her close, she confesses that her son had chosen wisely. Balamani is in tears, but Unnikrishnan comforts her.
Don't worry, he says. Pray to God, and he will help. Will he? How can Krishna not listen to her? Unnikrishnan smiles.
The next morning, the household is thrown into disarray. The bride-to-be has eloped with her boyfriend. What are they to do? People are calling to ask if what they heard is true. This is public humiliation. How are they going to salvage the reputation of the house? As her older brother and uncles attack her for fixing things so quickly without their input, Thankam shrinks. She's always been the odd one out in the family, and except for her two youngest brothers, has no support at all. Thankam breaks down.
Balamani is working outside when Unnikrishnan hails her. Did you hear? he asks. The wedding is off. Balamani is shocked. Unnikrishnan smiles a devilish smile…
Balamani is not amused. Does he think this is all a game? Unni laughs. He's sure it is.
However, things are moving in a different direction up at the old house. They have a reputation to salvage, and an idea is mooted - why not get Manu married to his eldest maternal uncle's daughter? That way, the wedding can take place as scheduled. All they have to do is to inform the aunt's relatives. The uncle is not displeased; the aunt agrees. Manu is disgusted.
And Keshavan Nair has a role to play as well. In order to further his ward's interests, he suggests to Unniamma that they match their horoscopes - after all, both are children of the same house. Unniamma agrees.
Keshavan Nair brings in an 'astrologer', Kumbidi (Jagathy Sreekumar), who, after much declaiming in Sanskrit, pronounces that the horoscopes do not match. At all. Thankam's eldest uncle is not convinced. He wants the horoscopes to be looked at by his astrologer, a very reputed man.
Unni meets Balamani in the evening as usual, and congratulates her on her upcoming nuptials. Balamani scoffs. Manu is going to marry his cousin. Unni is surprised. He thought the Kumbidi had said the horoscopes didn't match?
How does Unni know that?
They are greeted the next morning with the news that the astrologer was on his way when he suffered a minor accident. Considering it an evil portent, the learned man decided not to come. The household is thrown into disarray once again. And this is when Balan and her younger brothers persuade Thankam to break the news of Manu's love for Balamani.
Will Thankam persuade her family that a servant girl is a fit bride for her son? Will Manu's and Balamani's love for each other triumph over petty class distinctions? Or will Balamani be forced to leave the house as the elders decree she must? If she does go, what about the debt she owes Unniamma? Will Balamani ever see the Lord at Guruvayoor? And just who is Unnikrishnan? And what does he have to do with the way the events unfold?
Nandanam was a beautiful love story with very believable characters. Supported with some fine acting by regulars such as Kaviyoor Ponnamma and Innocent, the lead pair (debutantes Navya, Prithviraj) did a fine job as the young lovers. On the face of it, Nandanam was like any other love story - parental opposition, tears, tragedy - but the film was uplifted by the script and direction. Firstly, the opposition was believable. Secondly, there were no rebellious speeches, no elopement, no chases, no over-the-top melodrama.
The hero and the heroine actually talk to each other; when she first hears of a marriage proposal for him, instead of jumping to conclusions and misunderstanding him, it is to Manu that Balamani comes for reassurance. It is he who holds her and soothes her fears. Her belief in his love is as deep as her belief in her Krishna. So much so that even after she asks him to obey his mother, she knows he is suffering just as much as she is. It is not just the romance that is sensitively handled. The relationship between Thankam and Manu, between Unniamma and Balamani, they were all drawn with a fine, sensitive hand.
There were knee-jerk responses, sure, but there was also the leavening of compassion and understanding. There was practicality, there was maturity, there was cheerfully doing one's duty. There was also standing up for one's right to live the life they desire, and unconditional support for doing so. And deep within, there was one girl's faith and belief and trust in God.
Revathi was simply brilliant as the slightly possessive single mother of a son. She is affectionate, loving, practical, and not above a little bit of emotional blackmail. Yet, deep in her heart, she wants her son's happiness. When the chips are down, it's that she fights for.
Prithviraj excelled as Manu; it was a great debut, and a different one. This was not a role that most young heroes would have accepted as their first - the hero does not get to declaim the greatness of his love; he's not a rebel; he doesn't get to beat up sundry villains who attempt to molest the heroine when they are on the run; heck, he doesn't even elope! Yet, he is as an ordinary young man in real life would be - a bit confused, tied by his affection for his mother and grandmother on one hand, and his responsibility toward his girl, and his dreams of living his own life, on the other.
Navya - what a wonderful actress, and what perfect dialogue delivery! After Manju Warrier left the scene, there hasn't been a single lead actress in Malayalam who dub their own dialogues! No, not even native Malayalis. To ears that had tired of hearing the same dubbing artistes dub for actresses in their thirties to actresses in their teens, Navya came as a breath of fresh air.
With a fantastic speaking voice, and a very natural style of talking, Navya added a depth to her role as Balamani. She was perfect as the young servant girl who is both innocent and mature at the same time. Her unbending belief in her Krishna, her conversations with his photograph, her ability to talk to anyone naturally - Navya brought that innocence to life. Her faith, her hurt, her sense of belonging, and later, her willingness to shoulder rejection - they were expressed beautifully.
Neither Prithviraj nor Navya showed any awkwardness on screen. They were completely natural, and it's not difficult to see why both of them went on to carve a niche for themselves in the past decade.
Arvind is the surprise package as Unnikrishnan. His eyes are alight with mischief as he plots and plans and schemes. He is at once playful and devious, and sees no harm in causing any amount of distress to any number of people if the result is what he deems right. The end justifies the means, and he is happiest when he can create mayhem. I cannot think of anyone else who might have had the same gleam of sheer naughtiness.
So, did I like everything about the movie? No. I could have done away with the entire comic side plot which really did not fit into the arc of the narrative, even if it did cause me to laugh out loud a couple of times. (That had more to do with the Innocent's lines and his way of delivering them than the scene itself.) It was totally unnecessary, and the film would have been the better without it. I suppose, though, that this
being his first film as director, being his second film after Ravanaprabhu*, and very unique in its story (maybe he wasn't sure how a film about faith would fare commercially?), Ranjith felt the need to bow down to the demands of the box-office.
Secondly, the songs. They are beautiful, but their picturisation left a lot to be desired. Again, these are minor nit-pickings, and this is definitely one film in which I'm willing to overlook them in favour of the overall picture. It's a film that leaves you with a feeling that sometimes, miracles can, and do occur. In today's times, I think that is a lot to believe, but therein lies the film's strength.
*Edited to include Pradeep's correction
*Edited to include Pradeep's correction
ps: This is available on DVD from AP International with decent (not great) subtitles.
pps: Sorry, Lalitha.