Posted by Anbu Maya
My Happy Family is a 2017 Georgian family drama directed by Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Groß, starring Ia Shugliashvili in the lead role. After its first screening in the Sundance Film Festival (the largest independent film festival in the United States) in 2017, it garnered positive reviews from the critics all over the world and fetched Nana and Simon the Best Director award at the Sofia International Film Festival.
My Happy Family follows the life of a teacher (Manana)probably in her late forties in an extended family who moves out to live in a rented apartment in a neighbouring district preferring solitude to the crowded atmosphere of her cluttered house. Manana’s decision comes off more as shock than surprise to the family because she has a very happy family that consists of her nagging mother, her quiet father, her unemployed son who gets glued to his computer right from morning through night, her 23 year old daughter and her husband who has moved in after their marriage. Manana’s mother is angry with her daughter because she chooses to forsake all of them for no reason especially when she has got a life every woman wishes for.
As the movie begins, we are taken on a tour in a middle class neighbourhood in Georgia that bears a striking resemblance to Indian localities. Their culture is also very similar to ours, therefore there is no difficulty in comprehending the characters and the situations. My Happy Family does not have any conflict as such, if we look for one that develops in the course of the movie and leads us to the denouement by the end as in a conventional movie.
In the beginning, we see Manana relishing a piece of cake skipping her dinner; what we get in the movie is also something like a slice of Manana’s life to view for the taste of an exotic culture with universal ingredients. The trivialities of everyday existence make the movie both remarkable and relatable at once by way of its actors’ performances, its enthralling setting, its witty, subtle but profound dialogues and the heart-rending melodies of pathos. The characters in My Happy Family and the petty fights among the pestering grandmother, the stoic grandfather and the irresponsible and carefree grandchildren which are a common sight in any family irrespective of region and culture, give us an impression of living inside the family as one of them and witnessing the events of their life more than watching it from outside.
Manana’s decision leaves everyone in the family clueless about what has triggered her to run away from home. Her moving out happens very casually without any melodrama and breaks all our expectations shaped by our long drawn out cinematic experience. She never spells out the reasons for her choice but the viewers are made to feel and understand it with the gradual unravelling of the plot. Manana’s mother accuses her of ingratitude to life which has given her everything without being asked- a kind husband, lovely children, a slaving-away mother who does all the housework and childcare for the family and a well-paying job.
She tries to bring Rezo, Manana’s brother, into this to stop her from abandoning her family like this but Manana flies into a rage at her mother for letting her brother poke his nose into her affairs even at this age. Yet her brother mediates for the family and strives to bring her back home by calling out the relatives who come and drown her with advice and wisdom. None of their attempts persuades her to go back on her decision, hence, the family eventually falls back on learning to accept her way of life.
One striking feature of My Happy Family is that Manana leaves her family not because of an abusive husband or a secretive lover as her brother and friends presume but for the urge to have her own space. We are used to seeing middle-aged wives and mothers in books and movies feeling suffocated in the family and consequently being rescued by their lovers who lead them to newfound freedom in a different world. In Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak, the middle-aged Jewish American housewife is saved from her monotonous, loveless marital life by a chance encounter with a writer who pushes her to the edge of life to make a difficult choice. In Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Sara Joseph’s Inside Every Woman Writer, the protagonists walk out on their stifling partners toward their emancipation leaving us wondering about their fate.
But in My Happy Family, Manana has a job that enables her to afford the apartment and live the rest of her life as she wishes. At the same time, we must also note that she does it only after her children reach the age at which they can look after themselves. Though she stays apart, she is always available to them both physically and emotionally whenever needed. She is present when her daughter goes to the doctor’s to get treated for pregnancy and also when she is heart-broken after being cheated on by her husband.
After the separation from the family, both her arrival and departure seems inconspicuous and becomes the new normal accepted by even the new member of her family- her daughter-in-law. Only her husband appears to be struggling to make sense of what is going on between them, but his wife and her choices are always elusive to him ever since the beginning. The viewers get to know from the conversation going on in the get-together party arranged by her school friends that Manana’s husband has had an extra-marital affair and also fathered a child but had to give them up for his family’s sake. Her friends’ brutal reminiscence cuts open a healed wound, leaves her writhing in pain and reminds her of the days of betrayal and tormenting agony.
To our surprise we see that this betrayal did not drive her away from her husband and the family, she had chosen to stay back instead and help him hold it together. Her husband’s affair and the ensuing emotional detachment are obviously one of the reasons for her decision but certainly not the main cause that provoked her into solitary life. This is evident in the conversation with her husband in the climax during which she confronts him for his inability to see that she feels strangled by her brother’s patronizing interference. No matter what she says about the controlling behaviour of men in the family and the need for private space and sense of self worth, his unconcern for her feelings will never make him understand what she tells him. The viewers are also certain about this, that is probably why the directors have ended My Happy Family, without revealing his response to the confrontation.
It is essential for a woman to uphold family values for the existing economic structure to stay effective in its place. It does not matter how she feels about the role imposed on her inside the family. She is expected to carry out her responsibilities despite all the flaws and falsities. The capitalistic system fears women’s desire for freedom, therefore her every attempt to push her boundaries is curbed by the tentacles of the family that pull her back to slumber in slavery and twist her limbs of liberation to deformity and dependence.
A very few like Manana manage to break free of the shackles, rise above the restrictions, heal their own handicap and stand as a threat to this social institution. It is very promising to see women like her both in real life and in cinema posing a challenge to everything that relegates their existence to the secondary position in the world. As the title suggests, she has a happy family but she is happy only where she can be herself. One cannot help remembering Virginia Woolf’s vision of a woman having a room for herself while seeing Manana sitting at the balcony, sipping her coffee and enjoying the breeze. Manana playing the guitar on the sofa and preparing for her classes at the table will loom large in the minds of the viewers for quite a longer time.
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