Last updated on June 17, 2021
Malayalam filmmaker Dr. Biju returns to the film festival circuit with Orange Marangalude Veedu (“House of Orange Trees”), currently screening as part of the New York Indian Film Festival. I’ve written before that Dr. Biju’s emphasis as a filmmaker is to create films that serve to inform and advocate on important social and environmental issues, presenting universal themes that permit audiences beyond his native Kerala to connect with his films, and Orange Marangalude Veedu is no exception, this time exploring both the very personal issue of elder care, contrasted with the wider theme of progress and development and how decisions made by international conglomerates affect the lives and livelihoods of communities a world away.
Davis (Prakash Bare) lives in the US, but must return to Kerala, accompanied by his son Steve (Master Govardhan) when his father Samuel (Nedumudi Venu) ends up in the hospital. Samuel’s life is like that of many older people who attempt to hold on fiercely to their independence even as they have reached a phase in their lives where things like health issues see their concerned families placing constraints on them. The intentions are always good: how do we keep a beloved parent safe as their physical and mental capacities decline? For Samuel, this has meant a period living with his son’s family in the US, which he couldn’t bear beyond a few weeks. Davis, with the help of his friend Matthew (Deepan Sivaraman) in Kerala, then sets his father up in a flat, supervised by Matthew, who has hired a home nurse to help with Samuel’s care. Samuel, however, manages to slip out one night while the nurse is asleep, and ends up falling and hitting his head, which is how he ends up in hospital, prompting his son and grandson to make this hurried visit.
The home nurse points out that up until now, Samuel hadn’t previously shown any signs of wandering, so there had been no need to keep him locked up, but the doctor tells Davis that there are other concerns they must consider. The doctor feels that Samuel might need more care than he is currently getting with the home nurse. He suggests Davis take his father back to the US with him – but Davis says they’ve already tried this, and it didn’t work out. The doctor commiserates, saying that old people like their fathers end up worse than children sometimes, refusing to move from their homes, with the only solace being that they might have friends and family to watch over them.
With Samuel’s discharge from the hospital imminent, Matthew urges Davis to make a decision about his father. Davis agrees that things have reached a point where the home nurse can no longer manage Samuel, but Davis needs six more months – he has NRI friends building a luxurious old age home in Wagamon, and Davis has arranged a spot there for his father. Davis believes it will be a good place for his father, where he can be better supervised and where he can make friends, but it won’t be ready for six months. Davis just needs to figure out how to manage his father’s care until the home is ready.
It’s interesting to me that we learn so much about Samuel before we ever see more than his back as he lies in his hospital bed. We see the concerns of Davis, of Matthew – of the people who are now trying to make decisions that will both keep Samuel safe, as well, perhaps, as reducing their stress in worrying about his welfare. In some ways, I can fully understand Davis – realizing that our parents are growing older and becoming less able to look after themselves is worrying, and doing it from a great distance only makes the stress increase. Middle-aged children have their own concerns as well, making sure they can provide for their own families, and make sure that their own spouses and children are not neglected. It’s easy to find it challenging to consider the perspectives of an aging parent, when those perspectives might be seen as signs of worsening conditions or even frivoulous whimsy.
Steve, meanwhile, has stayed behind at the hospital to be with his grandfather, who, despite wondering if he’s hallucinating after waking up from being sedated, is thrilled to see his grandson. Samuel has, while sleeping, been dreaming – a scene that repeats several times in the film, where a much younger Steve, who was born and raised in Kerala until the family moved to the US, is with his grandfather at an orange plantation, clutching oranges in his small fists, and begging his grandfather for just one more precious fruit. This tender memory is accompanied by others in the film: Steve holds his grandfather’s hand while he sleeps; he plays the ukulele he has brought with him for his grandfather – and it’s another lovely touch that a ukulele is used in the film’s background score, its light tone highlighting the film’s lighter moments.
Before a decision about Samuel can be made, however, Davis gets a call from the hospital telling him that Samuel and Steve have suddenly disappeared. When Davis and Matthew check Samuel’s flat, they discover a bag and some clothing missing. We learn that Samuel has decided, knowing that he only has a few days to spend with his grandson before he must return to the US, to take him on a road trip. He borrows a car, buys Steve some clothing, and the two of them set off on a journey. Steve worries at first, concerned about what his father will think, and what he will tell Steve’s mother, who has remained behind in the US. Samuel, however, points out that they left a note, that Davis will figure out what to tell his wife, and that, once in a while, a little “shock treatment” is what Davis needs.
Orange Marangalude Veedu is a poignant film in many ways. It contrasts the ideas of old versus new, of traditional versus modern, of Western versus Indian, of progress versus preservation, and, perhaps most importantly, of how we treat people as they grow older. Samuel feels as if he’s been in jail in the flat his son has arranged for him, watched over by the home nurse and Matthew (who he describes as his “jailor”). At the same time, Samuel minimizes things, like the fall he has just taken – this is not uncommon with older people, who do it for many reasons. They don’t want to trouble others. They don’t recognize that their health conditions might make them more vulnerable than they realize. Most importantly, they don’t want to lose their independence. For Samuel, it’s probably a combination of all these things that have him telling his grandson that an “occasional jail-break” is fun, even if he knows it will come with a tirade from his son after Matthew snitches on him.
The purpose for this particular “jail-break” becomes evident throughout the road trip. Steve has obviously forgotten a lot about Kerala after living in the US. When he and Samuel stop to eat, he asks for a spoon. Samuel takes it from him, saying that there is some food that should be eaten with cutlery, “but not our food”. He then proceeds to remind Steve how he should eat, noting that there is a connection between one’s hand, the food, and the tongue, noting that this is the way to bring the taste of the food out. At each of the stops they make, Steve is curious about the way of life of the people they’re visiting.
Samuel and Steve’s road trip is contrasted with the second one, that involves Davis and Matthew trying to track them down. For Samuel and Steve, and later Samuel’s friend Raju (P. Balachandran), who joins them on the journey, the journey takes place on rural roads, in nature, with Steve’s ukulele music adding to the feeling of warmth and light. For Davis and Matthew, the trip always sees them in traffic, or in the dark, with only the sounds of cars as their soundtrack.
I would be remiss if I did not note the presence of the very fine actor Nedumudi Venu at the center of this film (as he has been in many of Dr. Biju’s movies). Venu has finally and gracefully aged to inhabit the grandfather roles that he played for much of his career (when he was, frankly, much too young to be a grandfather at all). The actor imbues Samuel with warmth and whimsy. He’s a man who adores his grandson, to the point that there is complicity between them even though they rarely see each other because of the distance. But Samuel is a man who pays attention to others, and to their dreams. His confrontation with Davis when they are finally caught shows how deeply he cares for his grandson, how he has paid attention to the letters Steve has sent him. Davis, angry, accuses his father of just using Steve to get back at him for interfering in his affairs. Samual, equally angry at first, reminds Davis of the orange plantation where they were born, and where Steve spent a happy childhood. Davis only sees his father as an old man being sentimental about the past, but Samuel tells his son that it’s not only old men who cling to nostalgia. There are others for whom the past represents an important part of their lives, and for Samual, his grandson is like this: Steve’s letters, from the time he was small, spoke to his grandfather of how much he dreamed about the orange plantation, and of how much he wanted to visit it. The road trip – a trip to the land of dreams as Samuel calls it – is as much for Steve as it is for Samuel.
Because Samuel knows what his grandson does not: the orange plantation is about to be destroyed, cut down to make way for a thermal project between the local government and an American collaborator. For Samuel, his grandson is a connection between the past and the present, a soul for whom nostalgia for the past is just as important as it is for his grandfather. Samuel reminds Davis that you don’t have to be an old man to appreciate the past. Sometimes progress – as exemplified by the American company that Davis just happens to work for – means the destruction of things that are meaningful in ways we sometimes don’t realize.
Orange Marangalude Veedu is, at its core, a film about loss, and I would also be remiss if I didn’t note two losses in particular connected to the film. First, the loss of writer and actor P. Balachandran earlier this year, who gives this film an added layer of whimsy and depth; also, the loss of cinematographer M.J. Radhakrishnan, who had been the D.O.P on most of Dr. Biju’s films. Radhakrishnan’s son, Yedhu Radhakrishnan, who had previously served as an assistant to his father on the film Vahni (2018), takes on the role of D.O.P, and fortunately for us as viewers, he reveals a talent that makes him a worthy successor to his father, whether it’s in the shaky camera work in Samuel’s flat to echo the emotional distress Davis feels at finding them missing, in the gorgeous overhead shots that track the journey of the little yellow car on winding roads against green fields, or in the tracking shots through the orange plantation that reveal its beauty, fruits dotted against trees, their leaves fluttering in the breeze. Yedhu Radhakrishnan’s work reinforces the film’s message, and helps us understand the beauty of our dreams, and the sadness of their destruction.