“How many kilometres from Washington D.C. to Miami Beach?” “Eh?” “How many kilometres from Washington D.C. to Miami Beach?" “Haha, I am the answer! Kilometres and kilometres! In these days of degenerating decencies of Miami Beach to Washington when diplomacy and duplicity become interchangeable from complicated America-to-America!” [applause]
This little test of identity is the most famous part of Priyadarsan’s superbly performed Mazha Peyyunnu Maddalam Kottunnu (Drumming in the Rain, Malayalam/India, 1986). It is rather unfairly known as a 'brainless' comedy of errors, but it also happens to be a socialist critique and a satire on the English language – though why anyone would know the exact distance from Washington D.C. to Miami Beach (1699 km, according to Google) is beyond me. But let’s start at the beginning…
MPMK is the tale of the smug but tactless Madhavan Nair – who, having “learnt all there is to learn” in America, now calls himself M.A. Dhawan – and his childhood-friend-turned-chauffeur Shambhu. Madhavan’s nouveau riche parents want him to marry the daughter of the wealthy eccentric Sardar Krishna Kurup, for whom the Freedom Struggle never really ended. However, Madhavan would first like to carry out a “distant study of she and her parents” to be certain they don’t just want him because he’s 'American'. To that end, a family friend suggests that Madhavan and Shambhu visit the Kurups pretending to be each other.
This would have been fine but:
Said friend also tells Madhavan’s parents to let the Kurups in on the plot, and for a very good reason: “What woman will want him? He has a face like a ’49 Bedford.”
Madhavan can’t drive – at least not without getting beaten up. He abandons the plan on the way.
Krishna Kurup has his own problems, the biggest of which is a property dispute with his "social cancer” cousin Koma Kurup. They keep duking it out at the local club, where Koma has replaced Krishna as secretary:
“Dear members […] you know, cement is very costly material–" “Cement not at all costly! In India, lot of cement factories there–“ “Where?” “There!” [one minute later] “Nee [informal 'You'] shut up!" “Thaan [disrespectful 'You'] shut up!” “I kollu ['kill'] you so I kill you!” [spits] “Killeda!”
Krishna sees the match as crucial to this one-upmanship, and it doesn’t hurt that his family finds the ‘groom’ (Shambhu) far more likable than his obnoxious ‘chauffeur’ (Madhavan). This is partly because Shambhu does not know the plan: he has been fed some "nice Indian lie” instead.
Once he realizes what’s going on, Shambhu tells Krishna and his wife that he is in fact the real groom, and that the switch had been made “oru tamaashakku vendi [as a joke]… for horror!” Unfortunately, now that his chauffeur has started living the lie, he has no option but to sack him (literally "chuck him into the outhouse") and get the marriage over with ASAP. Krishna agrees, and all hell breaks loose (the "Miami Beach" part begins at 3:20):
Brainless or not, MPMK raises very uncomfortable questions about education. For someone who has earned an MBA in the USA, Madhavan is the best-educated character but also the stupidest, the living embodiment of 'a little knowledge is a dangerous thing'. He is an avowed capitalist in a (then) strongly socialist state, and keeps putting his foot in his mouth in the name of psychology, mythology and "Indian culture". His degree and his sojourn abroad have given him status but no sense. (Elsewhere, another character protests: “You expect me to drive someone else’s car? I’m a graduate!”) Shambhu, on the other hand, lives purely by his wits: on being told his English is devoid of grammar, he retorts: “there is no grammar in America!"
In fact, the kinds of English the characters speak mirror their social standing. Madhavan's is broken slang; the Kurups' are literal translations from Malayalam; Shambhu's sounds like he wasn't too attentive in his political science classes. He mistranslates a Malayalam proverb as “communication of the interior democrations”, and his "duplicity” line seems to have come from a 1903 speech by Surendranath Banerjee. (Then again, Amitabh Bachchan swiped from Disraeli in this famous song, so maybe political rhetoric is just inherently funny.)
But even this is merely part of a larger scheme. Is a parallel plot about Koma’s doctor and lawyer trying to kill him one of the film's many inside jokes at contemporary Malayalam cinema? Is a scene about a so-called “ultramodern painting” a jibe at people who don’t understand modern art – or is it a jibe at modern art itself, as the painting makes no sense even after it has been ‘explained’? We might never know, but it's quite likely the answer lies in Krishna’s immortal command:
“You go away, stupid. In-the-house-of-my-wife-and-daughter-you-will-not-see-any-minute-of-the-today-erangi-poda! […] GET OUTHOUSE!”