Since the day of this movie’s release, I had heard nothing but glorious praise from people I know and not know. My roommate seemed to have made up her mind to visit Dubai at least once before she died. Another friend confessed that the movie busted many stereotypes. Yet someone else wanted to wax poetic on the technicalities.
My uncle who had spent more than five years in the Middle-East despised the film.
“I couldn’t wait to get out of the theater,” is what he scathingly told me when I announced one day that I wanted to see the movie. “What were they thinking by making a film out of a story everyone already knows?”
This was coming from a man who enjoys every movie that barely makes a scratch at the box office. Since I’ve never really valued his opinions on films; given his choice of movies in the first place, I decided to ignore his condemnation and deigned not to give a reply. That’s when he casually remarked that my other uncle and aunt who had spent more than twenty years in the Gulf also hated the movie.
More than a month later, when the movie was still running in a nearby theater, yet another NRI uncle of mine who was holidaying here in Kerala, decided to take his family to see Jacobinte Swargarajyam and asked me to tag along. And that’s how I finally got to see the movie.
I call Dubai home. I’ve always felt that if I hadn’t been born in Dubai, I might have been someone else. My family is a far cry from Jacob’s family – my dad doesn’t dress like a “global citizen” from the 90’s and doesn’t have twenty suits, my mom spends all the time she isn’t working by sleeping, and we don’t have a fancy apartment. Despite having lived in Dubai for two decades, we still haven’t gone camping in the desert. We know the stories of other people and consider ourselves lucky enough to be able to call Dubai home.
I lied. Uncle #3 wasn’t holidaying. He had come here to drop off his wife and two kids – one high schooler M and a cute pre-schooler J who has no idea he won’t be able to see his daddy that often anymore. After the movie, we piled into the car and waited for the twenty or so cars in front of us to move. No one was saying anything.
M then turned to me and asked how the movie was. I said some heartfelt shit about how goddamn good the direction was; that I was bloody thankful that I got to watch it on a 70mm screen and how I would have otherwise missed out on fully appreciating all that gorgeous cinematography with those beautiful backlit scenes. J happily snored through my rant on my aunt’s lap.
After another moment of silence, Uncle #3 who’s otherwise full of opinions, laughed a little and said offhandedly, “That’s my story.”
This isn’t the first Malayalam movie to attempt to bust NRI stereotypes. Arabikatha, Gaddama and Pathemari were the frontrunners of this genre. Strangely enough, my aforementioned uncles who didn’t like JSR had loved them. Once I made this observation, I started thinking.
Vineeth Sreenivasan noted at the end of the movie that there are millions of Malayalees in the Gulf trying to make ends meet and how he knows the story of only one such individual. The movies mentioned earlier tackled such stories from a different perspective. They all had MCs who had come to the Gulf in the hopes of being able to provide for their family back in Kerala. These films had gripping plots with compelling backstories for the characters. The characters went through hardships that many NRIs hadn’t encountered in person and had only heard about. That’s where JSR makes a difference.
Jacobinte Swargarajyam annoyed my uncles and aunts because it’s their story. It’s the story of a huge majority of Malayalees who had come to Dubai in pursuit of the mythological pot of gold. Aunt #3 later said that ten minutes into the movie, she’d already guessed the storyline. They didn’t like being shown their personal struggles acted out by people under borrowed names, on a huge screen in front of clueless theatre-goers who enthusiastically clapped when the credits rolled out.
Uncle #1 also didn’t get a happy ending like Jacob eventually did, which I suspect is one big reason why the movie irritated him so much.
Being the grudging film critic that I am, I too wouldn’t have liked the movie had it not been for the characters. Granted the direction, cinematography and editing made the movie a visual treat. But the heart of the movie wasn’t the story, it was the characters. Rather, their evolution.
That was what finally clinched the movie for me. The transformation of the suits-only, clean-shaven, fitness-freak, confident Jacob to the grey-haired, bearded, tanned Jacob who finds it difficult to look people in the eye. The evolution of the follower, model-son Jerry to the bat-wielding, whisky-hiding Jerry who no longer takes shit from anyone. Even Abin changed from the rowdy, typical dropout middle son to a man who swallows his anger for the sake of his father and is willing to shoulder responsibilities. The appearance of everyman heroes like Philip Uncle and Unniettan from time to time also restored my faith in humanity. But my personal favourite was Shirley. Her metamorphosis from the namesake silent business partner, who seemed to be happy enough to be running a family of six to a woman willing to fend off bloodthirsty debtors in lieu of her exiled husband; a woman who tells off the CEO of a big firm for smoking in front of her; a woman who finally loses it after trying the pleading strategy at an obstinate knucklehead and just plain shouts at him in a language he doesn’t know but somehow understands when she speaks it. A woman who eventually confesses to her eldest son that she had been neglecting her motherly duties with regards to her youngest.
Agreed, the movie didn't have much of a plot. And I liked it that way. No unnecessary plot twists and digressions. It is a simple story that needed to be told.
The car we were in finally began moving. I then asked Uncle #3 if he would have watched this movie had he known the storyline. “Sure, why not?” was his chirpy reply. “I’m going to get a happy ending too.”