Revisiting 'How old are you?': Did the film really walk the talk on woman empowerment?

The Manju Warrier film was ground-breaking in many ways but its conclusion was disappointing.
Revisiting 'How old are you?': Did the film really walk the talk on woman empowerment?
Revisiting 'How old are you?': Did the film really walk the talk on woman empowerment?
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By Aradhya Kurup

How old are you? remains a milestone in Malayalam cinema in many ways. It marked the reentry of Manju Warrier to the silver screen after a long hiatus. It is that rare film where a woman in her 30s takes the centrestage. It is an inspiring and motivational story of women's empowerment. And the film remains one of the most successful comeback films by a woman actor in Malayalam cinema.

During the promotions of the Rosshan Andrews directed How old are you? one of its writers Bobby (of the Bobby-Sanjay duo) admitted that he got the inspiring thread for the film after a casual conversation with his wife. 

“Who decides the expiry date of a woman’s dream?” was the succulent question she posed. Maybe it came after a particularly heated argument on gender equality or power dynamics in a marriage. 

When it was drawn on celluloid, how much of How old are you? ended up as a voice of woman power? Does it really break the traditional stereotypes attached to women on screen? Does it truly inspire every woman to live life on her own terms and conditions? Does it honestly inspire?

Meet Nirupama Rajeev

 How old are you? is about this 36-year old married woman who is so caught up in the daily grind of her home and office that she has forgotten to love and live for herself. Her character sketch is in keeping with the boredom that has already crept in her life—the starchy cotton saris, dreary government job, indifferent husband, and a willful teenage daughter who has little respect for her mother. A woman who is so used to being taken for granted that her sense of self has long taken a beating. 

Right from the beginning, Nirupama shows no inclination to fight for her rights. Neither in her marriage, nor in her office, or with her daughter. Their marriage has lost its fizz and the husband can barely hold a civil conversation with her. Yet, she neither nags nor tries to make it right. She is the prototype of the many familiar middle-class married women who have learned to take everything in their stride. The good, bad, and ugly. Silently. Resiliently.

It’s clear that they belong to two worlds—Rajeev who works in AIR talks about his friends’ intelligent wives who have an opinion about everything. He has a problem with everything that Nirupama does—from not renewing her driving license to talking about vegetable prices. Every time he hurts her verbally, Nirupama seems to withdraw more into a shell. And it doesn’t help that her daughter is equally condescending.

Both their characters are rounded—the callous, scathing husband who has no value for the wife. And Nirupama who is bored with her job and finds nothing wrong in indulging in a bit of power play at work. They are pitted against each other in all counts.

The only spark in her life is her little vegetable garden on her terrace. There is also a colleague with whom she unburdens her problems. Yet, her largely undervalued existence has also undermined her self-esteem.

When she is invited by the President of India, Rajeev typically scoffs at her. It gets worse when she faints in front of the President and gets trolled on the social media. That incident seems to make him think she isn’t fit to be his wife or the mother of his child. Father and daughter then shift to Ireland.

The awakening

Nirupama never quite recovers from this move. The dreariness only seems to increase. And that’s when her first breakthrough occurs. An old college mate recalls a young and feisty Nirupama and urges her to follow her dreams. “You are hiding from yourself, unable to come to terms with the person you have become. You know why? Because somewhere down the lane, you forgot to dream. Your dream is your signature. You have 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. You are never too late to start,” tells her friend. For someone who had forgotten to introspect, to ponder, and really take a grip of her life, this was her wake-up call.

The change

One of the most poignant scenes in the film is when Nirupama decides to visit an old woman she keeps seeing on the bus every day on her way to office. They don’t even know each other’s names, but the encounter eventually opens her to the world of self-discovery. The home-grown organic vegetables Nirupama gives the lady leads to the second breakthrough. Her good Samaritan act gets rewarded in the most unexpected manner.

Then, slowly and steadily, Nirupama starts working on her dream—without any emotional, financial or physical support of her husband. On the contrary, he only tries to break her resolve, like always, with harsh words. But she chooses to fight her demons alone, one by one. She wins the first round with social media where even a page called 'Nirupama jokes' had been made. 

The second time, she wins the battle with herself—by articulating her thoughts with a rare show of confidence. And finally, when she seems to be inching towards victory, the man returns, carrying with him the most powerful weapon to disarm her—the mother card. Her daughter, the selfish, ambitious daughter needs her to cook for her.

And then she hears that long forgotten question she posed to her daughter which led to her meeting with the President in the first place. Who decides the expiry date of a woman’s dream? That snaps her back into reality. The reality that she is very close to being the woman she always dreamed about. Nirupama Rajeev’s arc is complete there.

Nirupama Rajeev is a visionary, someone who sowed the seeds of hope and light for many women in an agrarian society. Considering the cut-off age of a Malayalam film heroine has always been 25 years, the 36-year-old Nirupama is one of the most groundbreaking heroines of our time.

The film also found its mark beyond the screen, inspiring the then government to launch a program to promote organic farming and made Manju Warrier its brand ambassador.

The conclusion

The build-up to a woman’s journey of self-discovery, the hurdles she faces, those moments of self-doubt, and fulfilling her dreams doesn’t get the closure it deserves. 

Didn’t such an act of inspiration warrant her resilient walk into the sunset, alone, at peace with herself?  Wouldn’t that have been such a perfect ending? She might have then been the epitome of women empowerment. Why should the definition of a superwoman always be someone who can brilliantly balance her career and home? Why such unrealistic, patriarchal rules for a woman and not for a man?

 I am inclined to believe that if the roles were reversed, the treatment would not have been so lenient. She would either be slapped into a better woman, made to apologise, or he would simply walk away with another “good, traditional woman.” 

We don’t know if Nirupama and Rajeev finally sit down and talk. We aren’t shown what happens. We don’t find out if Nirupama gave him a piece of her mind. 

All we know is that Nirupama seems to have forgiven this absolute cad of a man far too quickly. He insulted her intelligence, questioned her integrity, and disrespected her at every turn. And yet we are made to stare and probably love this perfect family portrait in the end, where she is happily holding hands with the husband. 

Does Rajeev really reconcile to the new change of power dynamics in their marriage? Does empowerment really happen? We don’t know, they make a sweeping statement with that one joyous family portrait. 

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