Another Nivin Pauly movie! Premam! Which I loved, but I should probably make it my last rom-com for a bit. I’ve been spoiling myself with a string of recent rom-com hits, I need to check out a different genre/era. I wanted to watch Traffic, but no luck, it’s not available anywhere online. Which almost gives me an excuse to watch Mili instead, which is available (and also by Rajesh Pallai, so it would be a nice thing to do the week he died). But it’s another Nivin Pauly movie, and I am dangerously close to a Nivin Pauly overload. Or maybe not? Mili does look really good!
But, in the meantime, yet another clever little rom-com that has more going on that it appears! I really liked this movie, just as a cute little romance, but about half-way through I started to notice that there is more going on than just the surface “coming of age in 3 parts” idea.
See, the title is “Love”, right? And on the surface it looks like, we get to know our hero and watch him grow up through the 3 big love stories of his life. But, by about half way through, I started to notice that there was all of this ambient dialogue, from characters without even names, just in the background, like Dolly the dance teacher or the cafe regular customer, who are all dealing with their own little love stories. And all of them are men.
It’s not just a movie about this particular young man coming of age through his love stories, it’s about all men everywhere and how they act and how they are when they are in love. In other hands, this could have turned into some sort of misogynistic tragedy, how women everywhere are controlling and destroying men. Or, it could have been a sort of raunchy comedy, look at all the silly men who are falling in love. But instead, it started to feel like some kind of deeper statement on masculinity and male bonding and behavior, but in a healthy and loving way.
According to this film, falling in love really is an act of growing up, part of being human and, more specifically, male. It makes them vulnerable and delicate and ultimately stronger and better people. This is also a message I have seen in other hands. In fact, on paper, the structure of this film is remarkably similar to Raj Kapoor’s magnum opus, Mere Naam Joker, even down to the relationship with a teacher. However, Raj Kapoor’s lessons on love tend more towards the nobility of unrequited love, how it is almost spiritual to fall in love and suffer.But Premam takes that message and twists it just slightly, to instead honor requited love.
When our hero is a boy, he follows the local girl around, along with all the other boys, and makes a fool of himself. This isn’t manly, this is a fake show of manliness, playing with love but not really experiencing it. And it is so terrifying for them, that there is a constant need for support from other boys. Our hero calls his friends for advice, they all gather together and follow her together. He doesn’t even know how to really talk to her without his friends with him for support.
It is only in the second section, with the full beard and the manly walk, that he confidently moves onto real love. His pursuit of the teacher is contrasted with multiple other romances. His house is filled with young men whispering sweet nothings into cell phones, we see longing glances and giggling conversations through out the dining hall and classrooms, and of course there is his romantic rival, the teacher. Through out this section, it comes out that our college student hero is in fact more mature than his adult male rival. Because of how fearless he is in love. He actually talks to the teacher, tells her how he feels, confidently calls and walks and talks with her. And she responds. In contrast, his teacher asks for others to speak on his behalf, constantly needs his fellow teacher with him for moral support, has not fully matured and therefore cannot fully complete his love story. Or is it that he has not completed his love story and therefore cannot be mature?
Is this movie saying that part of growing up and becoming a fully mature man is falling in and out of love? Is having that initial cowardly crush, the first passionate romance, and finally the comfortable marriage the essential markers of male maturity? This would go against the established film policies I outlined above, unlike the action films where the love story is just a distraction on the way to the resolution, or the comedies where falling in love makes a man a figure of fun, and most dissimilar, the misogynistic version of this story where falling in love is making them weaker.
I think this is why we have his friends moving in and out of his life constantly, a parade of other young men. Which really confused me! I have to admit, I have no idea who most of them were. But I did grasp that our hero was always surrounded by a group of 2 or 3 close friends. And that these friends continued from sequence to sequence, not all of them, but at least one of them. And while we watched our hero’s story unfold, the implication was that each of these boys was going through their own saga. We heard bits and pieces about a college girlfriend, see a jealous glance, and hear an invitation to a marriage, and so on. In the first segment, they are all longing for the same unattainable goal, more interested in just watching a girl from a distance than actually interacting with her. The second, they have various relationships, varieties of passionate love affairs, each with their own individual goals. Our hero’s romance at this point, because we see it in such detail, feels like something real, like something lasting. And maybe it could have been. They truly seemed to care for each other, to like each other, to understand each other. But his only plans for the future are some sort of vague idea of getting a job far away and coming home after his parents have come around to her. She didn’t seem any more concerned with settling down and making their relationship official. Possibly if circumstances hadn’t separated them, it would have naturally grown into a deeper commitment, they would have planned a future together, everything would have worked out. But they weren’t quite there yet.
Which is where the third segment is so important. While watching the film, at first it felt like a bit of an anti-climax. Why did we leave they super fun and complicated and interesting and exciting world of the college campus for this sort of formal and quiet and peaceful life of the cafe? But that’s the point, that’s what adulthood is like, it is peaceful and quiet. And that’s what an adult relationship is like, not the crazy passion of young, but a straightforward acceptance of what you want and why you want it. And again, we see that in the little we hear of his friends. They have mostly married, not necessarily to their college girlfriends, but to women they respect and care for, and still love. Our hero and his one unmarried friend, Jojo, are actively looking for marriage now. Or rather, for a love that will lead to marriage. There is no more playing around or pretense.
This is also why the humorous character from the first segment returns here, the boy who was unafraid to approach the girl as a teenager, but has not progressed past that since. He is flirting with every woman, not interested in settling down or in finding an appeal beyond the surface. While he may have been ahead of our hero when first we saw him, now he has fallen behind. True maturity is not the ability to flirt and attract, but the ability to commit.
This is the final stage of love, not the immature cowardice of boyhood, or the wild disorganized euphoria of young manhood, but the confidence of knowing what you want and how to get it. And that is why this is the love story that succeeds. Because there is no more doubt or confusion or fear. He goes from a first meeting to a proposal with no time to spare, and his final ramshackle group of friends all support him, having made the same journey themselves.
So, that’s the big thematic thoughts. Let’s see, what else do I have to say? I was really interested in how the songs happened. There were a lot of them, and they were more notable than I am used to with the very very minimal Malayalam films I have seen. With a Hindi film, usually, everything sort of stops for the song to underline the current emotion. But with the (again, very few) Malayalam films I have seen, often there will be only one song that feels like a Song in the way I am used to. Instead, the melodies will weave in and out of scenes, the songs will deepen our understanding of characters, enhance the mood of the moment, and be so perfectly pitched to fit within the film that I honestly don’t even notice when they start or end. However, in this one, they were just a hair more outstanding. And I can only assume that is on purpose, to show how love creates a sort of surreal effect, heightening experiences so that they feel more “real”, time and space contracts, and everything sort of becomes of a piece with that mood. More over, the song sequences stand out as ways to show the differences between our hero’s personality in different sections and, more importantly, how he is interacting with the different love stories.
First, there is the love where even in fantasy, he doesn’t imagine interacting with her, the most he wants is to be alone with her and able to stare at her:
Then there is the second love story, where his fantasy is to spend all of his time with her, in a perfect bubble outside of the world:
But the final girl doesn’t even get a song. There is no time any more for fantasy or dreaming, it is time to grasp the reality. In fact, the only song for her is one after the love story has ended, that is when he needs to escape to fantasy.
What else? Oh! The female characters! Always interesting. In such a male oriented movie, it would be easy to make them either too passive or too aggressive. But Premam threaded the needle beautifully. They were living their lives and happened to intersect with our hero, but they didn’t stop being their own people just because of that. Mary, the first girl, wasn’t over-awed by all the male attention, she just quietly enjoyed it. But she was interested in her own thing and what she wanted, not in any of these random boys who followed her around.
Malar, the second girl, picked our hero more than he picked her. She walked up to him at first, made sure he had her phone number, and generally made her interest known. And in the end, she married the man who was better for her. Okay, at first, I was completely devastated by how that love story ended, because they were so cute together! But on the other hand, no matter how happy and in love they were, when things got hard, he walked away. And it was the right thing to do too, because he needed to grow up. He couldn’t handle it, he had to walk out. But Malar’s husband stayed, he took care of her, he helped her. That’s the kind of husband that Malar needed and deserved. Again, our hero could have grown into that, if he’d had time. But he didn’t have time, so it was best for her to move on.
And then we have the final girl, who I loved! She saw what she wanted, and she went after it! Over and over again. And, she knew that what she wanted was a kind and mature and quiet man. Although, and I think this is the final point, part of “Premam” for men is always going to have just a little touch of that madness, which is why he had to bring it back up again just one more time before he was able to be married.