This piece is not a review and contains spoilers. If you haven't watched the film and don't like to read spoilers before watching, please don't read ahead.
Nandini Reddy's Oh! Baby starring Samantha in the lead is the Telugu remake of a Korean film titled Miss Granny. The original has been remade in different languages across the world and has tasted success everywhere. And why not? The war among women in a patriarchal society is present everywhere too. You would think that bearing the brunt of living in a culture where men and masculinity are valued over women and femininity would bring women together as natural allies. But that's hardly the case – patriarchy is sustained and celebrated because people of all genders buy into it and are conditioned to uphold the value system on which it is based.
Oh! Baby, a near faithful remake of Miss Granny, is about a 70-year-old patriarchal, cantankerous woman who gets her 24-year-old body back. Savitri (Lakshmi) is obsessed with her son Nani (Rao Ramesh) and has a soft corner for her wannabe musician grandson Rocky (Tejja Saja).
But when it comes to her daughter-in-law Madhavi (Pragathi), Savitri is never short of criticisms. From her style of cooking fish curry to complaining that she doesn't keep her son's shoes clean, Savitri constantly expects Madhavi to live up to her standards of how Nani must be looked after (!!) even as Madhavi struggles to measure up. The granddaughter Divya (Aneesha Dama) also receives a few caustic remarks whenever the opportunity strikes.
All the old knives
While she is full of effusive praise for the men in her life, Savitri has only contempt for the women. The situation is hardly unfamiliar in the average Indian household where son preference is the norm, and indeed, in many parts of the world.
American feminist writer Adrienne Rich's famous poem Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law examines the mindset of such a woman who resents her daughter-in-law and lays bare the possible reasons for such an exhibition of hostility. Perhaps it can best be summarised in the lines, "...all the old knives that have rusted in my back, I drive in yours ma semblable, ma soeur!" Meaning, the elderly woman has collected all the barbs thrown at her in her lifetime and is now throwing them at another woman, with whom she should be expressing solidarity but does not. It's uncanny how closely it describes Savitri of Oh! Baby.
In the film, Madhavi is obviously affected by Savitri's nastiness. She tries to bring it up with her husband but hesitates because she knows how much he loves his mother. But when Madhavi suffers a heart attack because of undue stress, the doctor (who is a friend of Nani's), tells Nani that it is high time Savitri is kept away from Madhavi. Nani struggles with the doctor's advice – he knows his mother's heart will break but also knows that he cannot ignore the doctor's words. That's when his daughter steps in and tells Savitri in no uncertain terms that she must leave.
Such a scene would have automatically turned both Madhavi and Divya into villains in most Indian films. However, Oh! Baby does not pull back on showing us just how mean Savitri can be, even if it makes her a likeable character (in the sense, she could be your snide, gossipy grandma). The film also shows us the impact that this is having on the other women, particularly Madhavi. So when Divya makes that declaration, telling her father that just as he loves his mother, she cares about her own, we're inclined to understand her point of view despite watching hundreds of films with overblown mother sentiment.
At this point, we don't know much about Savitri other than her biting tongue. One may have wondered why an elderly woman from a middle-class family is working as a cook in a college canteen, when most women of that age and social class would be confined to the four walls of the house. That story is revealed when a tearful Savitri speaks to her childhood friend Chanti (Rajendra Prasad) about all that has been denied to her ever since she can remember. A young Savitri had dreams of becoming a singer, but that was dashed to the ground. When she got married and became pregnant, her husband, an army man, was killed at war. She brought up Nani single-handedly, working multiple jobs and forgetting about her own life as an individual.
It is this Savitri, who goes about judging the women around her. Is it because they've got it all so easy when she had to fight every battle alone? Are the knives she throws at Madhavi made of her own bitterness? Oh! Baby is determined to be a light-hearted entertainer and does not delve deep into this – even when Savitri becomes 24-year-old Swati (Samantha) due to divine intervention, she remains the same person in her mind. That is, the kind of 70-year-old who lectures to an unsuspecting new mom at a supermarket about the glories of breastfeeding and admonishes her for looking at formula.
However, though Savitri as Swati does not change her ways drastically, she also gets the push-back that she wouldn't have because of her age. The new mom, for instance, tells Swati to mind her own business and not advise her on her life choices.
Free of the male gaze
Samantha, who has mostly played glamorous roles in Tamil and Telugu films, is liberated from the male gaze at last in her role of Savitri-Swati. Though she plays the 24-year-old woman, her body language is that of a 70-year-old – a woman who is no longer constantly judged for her beauty, and can talk about constipation and gas problems without worrying if it will ruin her femininity.
Swati dresses up chic but it's amply clear that she's dressing for herself. From the confident way in which she sits to how she never hesitates to give it back to lecherous men or eats giant meals because she's got her original teeth back, Samantha is a delight to watch on screen. As Swati, she does not exhibit the least bit of self-consciousness that younger women nearly always wear because they're being watched.
Later in the film, when Vikram, one of the young men, becomes interested in her, we catch a glimpse of the Savitri who lost her spouse young and subsequently never had any romance in her life. She had bundled away any such aspirations and focused on her son, but now she yearns for one such moment to return to her.
In her new avatar, Swati takes great pleasure in rubbing her youth and beauty on other women – Madhavi, Divya, Anasuya (Chanti's daughter, who hates Savitri) and Sulochana (an acquaintance who keeps boasting about her son who's in America). She cares little about validation from men; she'd rather sock it to the other women by calling them "aunty" and emphasising her youth.
In a patriarchal society where women are valued primarily for their looks and are held up to unreasonable standards of beauty, Swati's behaviour is not uncommon. When she walks into her son's house and receives a compliment on her pretty face, Divya immediately says, "Who won't look good if they apply half a kg of make-up?" The normalised animosity stems from living in a culture where women are pitted against each other and are pushed into a state of frenzy over their fading beauty.
When Anasuya sees her father Chanti (who knows Swati's real identity) sitting with the young woman on her bed, she immediately assumes that the two of them are having an "affair" and starts wailing, asking the neighbours to come and look at this atrocity. Savitri and Chanti have known each other since childhood and they've never worried about spending time together; Anasuya, too, has never had any misunderstandings about the nature of their relationship. But though Savitri remains unchanged in Swati's body, the relationship is perceived differently by onlookers. In the end, when Savitri reverts to her original form and Chanti becomes his young, dashing self, the two of them ride off together on his motorcycle, emphasising that neither age nor beauty should decide matters of the heart.
Empathising with the enemy
Savitri never apologises to Madhavi, Divya, or Anasuya (who she chides for being an overweight, unmarried woman living off her father's money) for her words. Perhaps Oh! Baby would have been a better film if Nandini Reddy had taken the effort to build greater empathy among the women. While Madhavi to an extent understands Savitri after overhearing Nani's conversation with his son on the sacrifices of mothers, we don't see Savitri make a similar journey to meet the younger women at halfway point.
We see her tearing up when she hears of Sulochana's (Urvashi) real story – the woman she'd ridiculed and enjoyed cutting to size was actually leading a lonely life, ignored by her NRI son though she'd maintained a facade that she was pampered by him. When Vikram's mother (Aishwarya) gives her a long list of how she should take care of her son when she comes home "to see the bride", Swati bristles at the idea. The same Swati, who as Savitri, had wanted her daughter-in-law to wipe her son's shoes clean.
The last scene, where the family is back and celebrating together, suggests that life is a lot better now and that the differences in the family have been ironed out. But despite this and the moments mentioned above, an apology from Savitri, even if delivered in her grudging style, would have made this remake superior. After all, most of the film works towards establishing the audience's empathy with Savitri/Swati and the character would have only become all the more endearing if she had extended the generosity to the other women around her. It would have been even more amazing if the men too had acknowledged their accountability for not standing up against patriarchy – but one suspects that's being too greedy. In another decade maybe?
Oh! Baby is not without its faults, but it is a film which has the potential to make the audience rethink that age-old proverb – 'A woman's worst enemy is another woman'. Does the hate come out of nowhere? Or is it those old knives we've driven into her back?