Posted by Mythily Madhukumar Nair
Premam—one of Malayalam cinema’s greatest hits of the 2010’s. The name evokes the memories of a pleasant summer afternoon half a decade ago, where the impending threat to existence didn’t dampen our desire to go outside. We reminisce fondly today, about the times when we’d sit in packed movie theatres, much like the nostalgic factor that Alphonse Puthren brings alive to the film, with magnetic visuals of sharbat and singing 90’s Tamil songs.
It has been 5 years since Premam released in theatres. It was likened to a time when the Mohanlal starrer Narasimham released, with the kind of 90-100% occupancy that the theatres were having. People watched, and re-watched the movie. The cult following was such that a minor technical snag led to a brawl in theatres, and police were sent on a special ops mission to catch students playing truant to watch the movie. And besides the hype in Kerala, it ran a record 275 days in Tamil Nadu, and even called for a re-release, being the first Malayalam film to do so. The cross-cultural appreciation was limitless.
And what’s not to like?
This was a story of a man, from a teenager to a responsible adult, charted parallelly by the stories of his romantic interests. The first frame sets the scene with the dashing George David (played by Nivin Pauly), a blossoming, clean shaven, young pre-degree student writing a letter to the object of his affections. The magical chemistry between George and his two friends, Shambhu and Koya (played by the film’s music director Shabareesh Varma and Krishna Shankar) add impeccable comic timing, and the film’s first plot is relatable to any audience member; sitting at their local chayakada (tea stall), the entire town ogling at the pretty school girl. The discussion of how to tell her about his feelings, the heady rush of falling in love for the first time, the trials and tribulations that follow, the fun, rambunctious adventures ensue, as the lead trio navigate through George’s love story not once, not twice, but 3 times in total.
I’ll unabashedly admit—I fell in love with Premam the first time I watched it. It has a cult following for a reason—Puthren has woven magic into a film that he directed, wrote, edited and also acted in. He’s even named as a colourist in the end credits. Some of the film’s most beautiful shots can still be replayed in your mind, the famous sharbat with khus-khus, or the backwards montage with Malar (played by debutante Sai Pallavi) at the end of the 2nd Act, with Rajesh Murugesan’s haunting background score etched in your heart. Technically speaking, the film had a multitude of excellent moments, the cast choice was stellar, and it is well worth a watch.
But re-watching it in 2020, a little older, a little wiser, makes me rethink the foundations of my interest in the film. Sure, the nostalgia (or nostu, as affectionately regarded) factor still remains, but where are the intelligent, independent women? How have all 3 women in George’s life been limited to the same banal qualities, of their worth being decided solely through the gaze of a man?
Whether it be young-George writing his love letter to Mary, a college-student-George justifying that Malar’s skin imperfections are still beautiful, or the unspoken objectification of Celine through the strategic shots in the “Red Velvet Cake” sequence, where his eye’s trace past her lips as she eats cake. The continued trend of “entho, ennikk kandappozhe ishtayi” (“I don’t know, I liked her as soon as I saw her”) cements that the root of his affections being solely on their external appearance.
Parallelly, there is another line of similarities with the leading ladies of all three acts—all of them have other men vying for them, making them once more a lucrative, pressing object that our hero must obtain immediately. Mary has the entire town stalking her, George and his friends included; yet George deems it a victory when Mary doesn’t dismiss him as vehemently as everyone else in their little town, enough for him to think of it as a “positive sign”. Malar has Vimal Sir (Vinay Forrt) in love with her, and worthy competition for George in the form of her handsome cousin, Arivu (played by Anant Nag). However, this matter is explicitly amplified with the final leading lady, when Celine (played by a beautiful Madonna Sebastian) calls George on the day of her engagement, telling him that she cannot decide if she’s doing the right thing.
These women in Premam, whose worth is determined by other men, seem to just be buoyed from one man to the next; whether it be from Mary’s worth being determined by the men of Aluva town, to her father George then her boyfriend George (not Nivin Pauly), Malar’s beauty being illuminated by the dreamy soundtrack and slow-motion sequences, Vimal Sir losing his train of thought or the poetically shot song “Malare”, or Celine’s reliance on George to beat up her misogynistic cocaine-snorting ex-fiancé Roney, played by Puthren himself.
The crowning glory, in my eyes, is the hit song “Scene Contra”. In the final act, Shambhu writes a song for George to get over Celine’s impending marriage, which in its humorous conversational tone, laments about the misadventure’s friends tackle when trying to convince their love-sick friend to let go of the girl. For the uninitiated, it’s the ballad of the bros, a “single pasanga” anthem of sorts. Some lyrics are as follows:
Valaveeshi erinjittum no reply
(With all the troubles and struggles
Of running behind her
Even though he attempts to charm her, there’s no reply)
It’s evident here, and throughout the rest of the song, that while the friends of the protagonist feel that their friend is making a fool out of himself, he is entitled to at least a reply from a woman that may not necessarily be interested. This is the sort of toxic male behaviour that a Malayali male in the 21st Century mustn’t succumb to.
While Premam rakes up the nostu factor for a South Indian regardless of age or gender, with its incredible music and fantastic debuts, the underlying patriarchal tendencies of the main leads are one that a more nuanced reader must take note of, and instruct the coming generations that this habit of stalking a girl, falling in love with your professor or blaming a girl for making her choice through creative song is not the right way to express your affections.
Featured Image Source: The Hindu