Premam (2015)

Poster

I was lucky enough to catch Premam in the cinema when it released earlier this year, but disappointed that the film wasn’t subtitled. Thanks to the great cast, I loved it nonetheless but knew that I’d missed much of the story through not understanding the dialogue. But happily the DVD released quickly and I was finally able to understand why the cinema audience had been laughing so much! Premam is funny, thought-provoking, nostalgic, romantic and occasionally sad, but most of all it’s entertaining, and that, combined with the excellent cast, makes it one of the best Malayalam films released this year.

Premam is a fly on the wall look at George David (Nivin Pauly) and his search to find love during three different stages of his life. The film details George’s day-to-day exploits as he transitions through high school, college and then finally into owning his own business, all supported by his friends Koya (Kichu – Krishna Shankar), Shambu (Shabareesh Varma) and Jojo (Siju Wilson). Throughout, as George grows and matures he keeps the same basic personality traits; he’s quick to respond with his fists, is easily distracted and likes to smoke and drink, but for the most part George is a likeable romantic and it’s easy to want him to succeed in his various romantic endeavours.

The first romance occurs when George is 16 years old and has a major crush on Mary, a girl from his church. Along with almost every other male teenager in the area, George spends his time following Mary home and concocting schemes to make her notice his existence. Not all his friends are quite as enamoured of Mary however, and there is the problem of her father who has a ruthless but effective method of discouraging his daughter’s many admirers.  Anupama Parameswaran looks the part of a young village girl and is remarkably tolerant of the seemingly never-ending stream of boys on bikes outside her family’s gates. Her hair really does resemble a beehive at times though!

Nivin Pauly is excellent here, looking very youthful and totally nailing the obsessive nature of a sixteen year old in the middle of his first love affair. His friends too all manage to appear as typical teenagers, fixated on minutiae and preoccupied with their own lives to the exclusion of all else.  Alphonse Puthren keeps this part of the story light and fairly superficial, as suits the love affair of a sixteen year old, although George David is already wrestling with the big question of exactly what is love?

The second romance is more serious and involves an older, but not much wiser George. Now at college, George is a typical college hoodlum. Along with his friends he rags the new students, creates trouble in and out of class and even drinks on campus before his lectures. However he’s still a romantic at heart, and once he sees new lecturer Malar (Sai Pallavi) he’s immediately smitten. Rather surprisingly Malar seems equally charmed by George although she keeps her distance during classes and initially seems more of a friend than a lover.

Along with George, another lecturer Vimal (Vinay Forrt) is in love with Malar and he desperately follows the advice of fellow teacher Shivan (Soubin Shahir) in his attempts to gain her attention. Vinay Forrt is as excellent as always in a well written comedic role that gives him some brilliant lines including a very funny lecture he gives on the computing language Java that really makes no sense at all!  My favourite scene though is a sequence where Malar teaches the guys a dance routine they perform at their end of year college celebrations. The end result is perfectly executed to look exactly like a bunch of students having a blast performing on stage.

Despite the unlikely nature of the relationship, the romance is well developed and the story meanders through George’s routine days at college with his friends including clashes with other students and their daily visit to the canteen. It’s a stronger and deeper relationship than the first but again Alphonse Puthren has a light hand with the story and paints an engaging picture of young love. Sai Pallavi often appears more like a college student rather than a guest lecturer, but she is charming and very natural in her role.

Sadly events conspire against the relationship and the third part of the film finds George as the owner/manager of Café Agape (the theme of love continues), specialising in cakes and cake decoration. It seems a dramatic change from studying computing in college but George seems to have found his niche in life even if he hasn’t as yet found his soul-mate. But then Celine (Madonna Sebastian) walks into the café one evening and seems to be rather taken with George. It turns out that Celine is the younger sister of Mary and has memories of George being kind to her while he was in pursuit of her sister. Unfortunately there are a few obstacles to be cleared along the way, but in this final part of the story there is hope that George will find true love at last. This part of the film is more conventional in terms of the love story, although again the focus is on George’s life – there is a phone call from an old college friend to invite George to his wedding and interactions with the various customers of the café – rather than just the romance. It works well and again feels very natural as each character adds their own small part to complete the story.

Although there is nothing particularly outstanding about the plot, the method of showing the different love affairs as part of George’s day-to-day life is very effective and ensures that each character has their own well-developed personality. Effectively what we see on-screen are snapshots of George’s life, which also happen to include moments of romance, and his relationship with every other character is portrayed very naturally.  Nivin Pauly is simply fantastic and his performance ensures that his character is seen to grow, not just in age but also in maturity with each part of the story. He isn’t afraid to cry either and he does a credible job of playing both a teenager and a young student with all the emotional ups and downs required. It’s interesting too that although the main focus of the film is George, all the female roles are equally well written and all are strong characters who appear more capable and deal better with adversity than George and his friends. They have lives outside of their relationships with George and are not defined solely by their relationship with him. All the friends too are excellent in their portrayals of young men at three different stages of their lives and the camaraderie between them all feels very genuine. Overall, the casting seems ideal and no-one appears out of place in their role, even Alphonse Puthren himself who has a cameo appearance towards the end.

Anand C. Chandran ensures the film looks amazing and he has an excellent eye for details such as a frog in the pool when the friends are all drinking, or a small sparrow perched up above the menu board at the café. The music from Rajesh Murugesan is also lovely with beautifully poetic lyrics to the songs, although at times the subtitles are rather baffling! The songs also work well within the narrative, although apart from Rockaankuthu they are montages used to further develop each love story.
Premam

Alphonse Puthren has crafted a captivating film where every character has a role to play and the story unfolds very naturally. Dialogue, screenplay, performances, cinematography and music all come together perfectly to deliver a polished and entertaining film that seems to just get better each time I watch it. I loved Premam and heartily recommend watching for Nivin Pauly at his best, Sai Pallavi and an all-round excellent cast. 4 ½ stars.

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Badlapur & Theevram

As I was watching Sriram Raghavan’s Badlapur I was struck by a number of similarities to Theevram, a Malayalam film I’d watched just a few weeks before, so it seemed appropriate to write about them together. Both are films based on a story of revenge where the hero is forced into action by his perceived lack of justice, and both star an up-and-coming young actor surrounded by an experienced and proficient support cast. While Badlapur focuses on the obsession of revenge and the destructive consequence to Raghu (Varun Dhawan), Theevram is a more straight forward drama with Harsha (Dulquher Salmaan) playing a game of cat and mouse with Police Inspector Alexander (Sreenivasan) as he exacts his revenge. Both are good films in their own right but while I prefer Badlapur’s more ambiguous storyline, Dulquher Salmaan just pips Varun Dhawan in his portrayal of a man driven to the absolute extreme for revenge.

The story of Theevram is told in a non-linear fashion, and is actually based on a couple of real life murder cases. Sreenivasan plays a respected police officer who has an unfortunate dislike of autopsy although there is nothing lacking in his detective skills. He’s paired with a younger officer, the more impetuous Ramachandran (Vinay Forrt) and the two make a good team. The film begins with Harsha’s revenge and it’s not until later that we discover why he has been driven to this extreme. At the start we don’t know if he is a good guy or a serial killer, as without any explanation he systematically tortures and kills a man in his plastic coated cellar. His actions seem to be at odds with his day-to-day life as a piano teacher, however once Inspector Alexander comes to call it becomes clear Harsha was the victim of a crime. Most of the film is shot with dull and muted colours, but once a flashback sequence starts, explaining what has happened to Harsha to turn him into this cold and methodical man, suddenly the colours are full and rich. A rather obvious metaphor but one which is very effective.

Harsha’s wife Maya (Shikha Nair) was murdered by a company driver Raghavan (Anu Mohan) for her complaints about his speeding with her in the car. Her murder is pre-meditated and brutal, with Raghavan severing her head from the body to attempt to delay identification. He’s quickly arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment for his crime while Harsha struggles to cope with life without Maya. However, just as Harsha is starting to get on with his life, the circumstances of Raghavan’s family life allow the murderer to obtain an early release from jail. Very early. In fact he only spends 4 years behind bars before being allowed his freedom. Harsha and his friends Dr Roy (Vishnu Raghav) and Nimmy (Riya Saira) decide that Raghavan must die for his crime and set about planning the perfect murder.

Theevram rather controversially takes the view that murder for revenge is perfectly justified if the legal system has failed to properly punish the offender for his crime. Writer and director Roopesh Peethambaran delivers a story of vigilantism where the cold-blooded murder of a criminal is depicted as a good solution, and even acknowledged as such by the police. I can’t say that I agree with this view or with portraying Harsha as a hero for what he does, but the story is gripping and the plot cleverly developed. The contentious treatment of Raghavan is perhaps a way to start a discussion about such issues, and it’s interesting that he isn’t a completely black character. Raghavan does appear to try to look after his disabled wife and seems to be trying to turn over a new leaf after his release from jail. However his behaviour towards Nimmy suggests that the change may only be surface deep and he still has a poor attitude towards women.

Badlapur is a darker film where the lines between right and wrong are blurred and revenge is shown to be a weight dragging Raghu down. The first few minutes are brilliantly filmed, with a shot of a street, with people going their everyday business and the only sounds heard the traffic going past and snatches of conversations as vegetables are bought and gossip exchanged. However in the background there is a robbery, and as the two criminals leave the bank they force their way into a car parked outside where Misha (Yami Gautam) is just loading in her young son and her groceries. During the subsequent chase Robin falls out of the car, while Misha is shot and killed. While one of the robbers manages to escape, Liak (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is left to face the music. After his wife’s murder, Raghu becomes a haunted and driven man, obsessed with finding Liak’s partner whom he believes fired the fatal bullet. However in reality the opposite is true. Liak was the man who, in the heat of the moment shot and killed Misha, although he never confesses, insisting that he was just the driver.

15 years later when Liak is diagnosed with terminal cancer Raghu is persuaded to plead for Liak’s early release in the hope that he will run to his old partner in crime. Raghu’s bereavement turns him into a cold, hard man who rapes and abuses Liak’s girlfriend Jhimli (Huma Qureshi) as part of his revenge. He’s so obsessed with the idea of finding the man behind his wife’s death that he lives a miserable life, alone and in fairly dismal circumstances. The tragedy has become what has defined the man and it seems as if only his plans for revenge keep him going.

Here, revenge is shown as something that corrupts. Raghu becomes more despicable than his enemy, killing Liak’s partner Harman (Vinay Pathak) and wife Kanchan (Radhika Apte) in cold blood. Liak himself is shown as a rather grey character, who seems to have more of a life than Raghu, despite spending most of it behind bars.

Dulquher Salmaan and Varun Dhawan both do an excellent job as young men devastated by their loss. The problem I have with Varun’s character is that it takes 15 years before he manages to achieve his revenge, and it seems unlikely that he could have maintained his rage so long. Varun tries hard but doesn’t quite manage to pull off playing a man in his forties although he does convey his preoccupation with finding Liak’s partner and his disconnection from normal life very well. Dulquher has an easier time of it, as his character only has to wait 4 years to exact revenge, and his protagonist is easier to dislike. Dulquher is also a man who has managed to move on with his life and although his world is duller without Maya, he would have been content to let Raghavan rot in jail if he’d just stayed there. His revenge is coldly plotted with great attention to detail but there seems to be little rage left – in fact little emotion at all.

Both films are made even better by their excellent support cast. Badlapur would have been less substantial and the revenge less ambiguous without the excellent Nawazuddin Siddiqui and his nuanced performance as the main antagonist. Sreenivasan doesn’t have such a consequential role, but his support and that of Vinay Forrt rounds out the story and ensures a satisfying plot. The films are brutal, both in the violence they depict and in the exposure of such deep despair but there are lighter hearted moments in both and it’s not all doom and gloom. There is just enough light to allow the shade space to deepen and both directors have paced their films well. The strength of both Badlapur and Theevram is in the portrayal of emotions and it’s heartening to see two young actors bring so much depth to their roles. I enjoyed both these films and recommend them for a combination of fine performances, strongly written characters and good storytelling. 4 for both.

 

 

Shutter (2012)

Shutter poster

Shutter is an intriguing début film from noted theatre actor and playwright Joy Mathew. The story sounds simple; a married man ends up locked in his own empty shop with a prostitute for a night and a day, but Mathew has developed rich and detailed characters with a complex story that says much about society and the double standards applied to men and women. There is suspense and plenty of drama as Rasheed (Lal) has to face his own hypocrisy and struggles to deal with the possible consequences of his actions. Although the film starts slowly and does take some time to fully introduce the characters and eventual situation, it is well worth the extended set up as the film features excellent performances from Lal, Vinay Forrt, Sreenivasan and Sajitha Madathil along with the clever storyline. Shutter is an excellent slice of social commentary and one I highly recommend as a memorable and thought provoking film.

The story follows Rasheed as he visits his family in Kozhikode during a break from his work in the Gulf. In the short time he is home, he manages to upset his eldest daughter Nyla (Riya Saira) by insisting she stops her studies and gets married, and alienates his wife (Nisha Joseph) by snubbing her relatives. Not bad for just a few days! However his views are not extreme and seem fairly typical for a man of his generation. While his belief that studying is wasted on girls is one that I personally find outrageous, it’s one that seems common in India even to-day. So Rasheed’s bluster to his friends that Nyla will do as he says and get married, even though she is underage, sounds plausible and typical of an Indian father, while the half-hearted objections of his friends also ring true.

Rasheed also owns some shops which are just in front of his family home. He rents one out to an auto mechanic and is renovating another, while in the evenings he invites his friends into the empty shop for a night of drinking. While on a trip to a bottle shop with his friend Suran (Vinay Forrt), Rasheed spots a prostitute Thankam (Sajitha Madathil) and decides to bring her back to the shop when they cannot find a hotel room. Suran locks them in while he goes to find food but fails to return following series of unfortunate events which leave him with his own predicament to solve. The story then follows Rasheed’s moral dilemma as he quickly realises what he has done and what will happen if he is discovered in the shop with a prostitute. To make matters worse he can see his house from the small window, which serves as a constant reminder of his wife, his family and everything he might lose as a result of his rash decision.

While Rasheed goes through his moral crisis, Thankam is a brilliant contrast to his misery and despair. She has a relaxed, take life it as it comes attitude, and her constantly ringing phone and cheery attitude infuriate Rasheed. Naturally Thankam can’t see his problem as she just needs to keep in contact with her clients and her only difficulty is that she may have to cancel appointments if she can’t escape the shop. For Rasheed every call risks discovery and he desperately tries to silence her conversations any way he can. The difference in their attitudes is summed up when Thankam lies down for a short nap, while Rasheed paces around the increasingly claustrophobic room with tears and sweat dripping down his face. I like that Thankam isn’t yet another beaten down woman who has turned to prostitution in desperation, but rather is portrayed as a businesswoman for whom the night is just one more transaction, albeit one that doesn’t go quite to plan.

Parallel to the main story, a film director Manoharan (Srineevasan) is shown trying to tie down dates for his lead actor and secure financial backing for his next venture. Unfortunately Manoharan is having some difficulty with this and adds to his problems when he leaves his script behind in Suran’s auto. This pulls Manoharan into Suran and Rasheed’s world and the two stories blend together seamlessly. Vinay Forrt is just superb in his role as the anxious and somewhat naïve auto driver who doesn’t know how to get his friend out of a locked shop without letting the cat out of the bag too. Sreenivasan is perhaps a little too understated for much of the film, but he provides a more stable and rational character and another different viewpoint of the situation.

Glimpses of the outside world through the shutter heighten the stuffy closeness of the shop, while Suran’s travels in his auto and Sreenivasan’s conversations in a car with his friend provide a counterpoint. Despite the illusion of freedom and travel, neither can solve their problems, while Rasheed, stuck in his small room without freedom of movement can achieve self-realisation and come to terms with the issues he faces, even if his main problem is one he cannot resolve himself.

There is so much I like about this film. I love the characterisations and the depiction of ordinary, everyday people with their conventional concerns. I like the  way Joy Mathew takes a simple story and layers more and more complexity to each character to finish with a rich and satisfying plot. The underlying social issues are expertly brought into the forefront of the story and I hope raise plenty of questions and lead to discussions around the inequalities portrayed. The performances are all outstanding and Hari Nair’s excellent cinematography adds to the drama and tension without over shadowing the very human story. It’s wonderful and definitely not a film to miss. 4 ½ stars.