I watched Classmates! After getting obsessed with it once I found out I couldn’t have it (this is also why I ended up ordering Traffic on DVD. It’s a sickness!). Well, that and after hearing about it in all sorts of places as being a landmark in the evolution of the Malayalam film industry.
Okay, let me see if I have this right: from the late 70s through the 90s, Mammootty and Mohan Lal were joint kings, yes? Like Amitabh in the Hindi industry but longer lasting? And maybe with a wider range genres available to them?
And the 80s through the early 90s were a “Golden Age”? Intelligent, subtle, well-made stories with fantastic experienced actors? Like Vanaprastham (which was actually a little after that), Aalkkoottathil Thaniye, and Manichitrathazhu? But then in the late 90s, things started to get a little less inventive and a lower quality became acceptable? Like My Big Father, which was still interesting, but just a little less complex and considered?
And then Classmates came out in 2006 and showed that a younger generation of actors and a younger kind of story can find an audience? Yes? Does that all match? If so, it is an interesting comparison with the Hindi industry. From the Hindi side of things, there is always a focus on how anytime there is a crack or a weakness in the Hindi industry, the regional films push through to a wider audience. But you could also look at it from the other side and say that when the regional industries are flourishing, more and more creative folks are staying there instead of moving to Bombay, which leads to the national industry stagnating and the regional ones coming to dominate the audience.
The point is, the Hindi industry started to stagnate in the mid to late 80s, which is the same time the Malayalam industry took off (if I am reading this timeline correctly). And then the Hindi industry took a huge jump in the 90s, with the arrival of the 3 Khans and, with them, a whole new group of behind the camera talent (Karan Johar, Aditya Chopra, Farah Khan, Manish Malhotra, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Sooraj Barjatya, Rajkumar Santoshi, etc. etc.), and the Malayalam industry started stagnating a little. And then Classmates came out in 2006 and gave another shot in the arm to the Malayalam industry, and at the same time the 3 Khans started slowing their output in the Hindi industry, while the established behind the camera talent was entrenched with no space for newcomers like Anurag Kashyap (his first film has never been released to this day, and his second took 2 years to hit theaters). I don’t know if these two things are actually related, but it certainly helps me keep track of Malayalam trends if I can relate them to the Hindi ones I already have memorized!
So, right, Classmates! Very similar to Chocolate, I’m guessing because Chocolate was a shameless attempt to cash in on Classmates‘ success? A few years later, same setting, same hero, same kind of plot? But Classmates felt more ambitious. It was trying to do something a little different and a little deeper. It’s one of those pieces of art that you see sometimes and think “Oh, if they only had just a little more, if they could only have done all they wanted to do!” In this case, I just wish it had been made after the digital camera revolution happened! Digital allows for a little better control of lighting, editing, the whole filmmaking process. And, most importantly, it’s cheap! You can reshoot as many times as you want, because no film!
Just aesthetically, there were a couple of really nice shots, nicely balanced and well framed and memorable. For instance, when they are locked together in the chemistry lab, the two of them sit up against the wall, under a closed window with some moonlight slanting through. There are rows of narrow tables lined up in front of them with bottles sitting on them, the horizontal lines of the tables and the vertical lines of the bottles echoing the bars of the windows. The two of them are the only fully soft and light colors in the room. It gives a great visual reflection of how their feelings are mellowing and softening within a neutral environment. Now, think about how much clearer and more imaginatively they could have done that if they didn’t have to work with limited lighting, limited reshoots, limited editing, limited everything!
Even within the limitations, the main themes of the film came through really well. It’s about, wait for it, Classmates! At first I thought that was just a clever memorable title, like “Chocolate”, but it’s really the whole theme of the film. It took me a while to get it, because I’m slow like that, but it’s about the special kind of bond between college classmates, not just during school, but even years later. That’s why it has to start and end 15 years in the future (yes? 15? I think that’s what the subtitles said), to show how those bonds last.
And it’s that particular kind of bond that leads to all the trouble! Early on, our hero is criticising his best friend for hitting on all the female classmates because they are their classmates, and it is wrong to treat them that way. This theme of mutual responsibility comes through the whole film, in ways both good and bad. First, the bad. It feels like the prank war between Prithviraj and Kavya Madhavan’s character was allowed to go a little too far because they were in the bubble of college and felt like they had the right to really go after each other. And the judgement of their classmates when their romance is discovered comes from the same place, a sense that they have the right to decide what their classmates are right and wrong to do.
But then, the good! The same sense of having the right to go a little too far is what leads Murli to steal Radhika’s poetry and break through her reserve. The same feeling of having a right to dictate morality is what leads Prithviraj to protect Kavya’s modesty when his prank goes a little too far.
And finally, when the secrets come out at the end, Radhika’s reaction is extreme because she feels personally betrayed. But Prithviraj keeps it “within the family” and doesn’t reveal it. That’s what felt revolutionary (I think? I wasn’t watching Malayalam movies in 2006, so I don’t know for myself). That it was looking at a society and a family, but it wasn’t the society and family that films had been looking at before. It was a different kind of bond, one that hadn’t been recognized until now.
Oh, that reminds me! Turns out I have actually seen a movie by the same director! Lal Jose also made Arabikkatha, which I watched as part of my random library DVD binge. Which has basically nothing in common with this movie. Except! It also shows a community and a family that isn’t usually seen, the bonds between the guest workers from Kerala living overseas. Oh, and it was just a year after this film, and he already was able to be slightly more inventive with camera movements, etc. There was one particular shot I remember, when the camera moves from inside their sleeping room out to the function going on outside.
So, that’s themes and aesthetics! What about songs? Well, they were great! Especially the political-voting song! And I can’t find the soundtrack anywhere! Although I suspect there are many semi-legit websites that would let me download it. But those make me nervous. But yeah, the songs were great! And beautifully matching the story, but at the same time standing outside of it. Which is a really rare and difficult thing to do!
(this song! At least I can listen to it through youtube, even if I can’t see the visuals)
What I mean is, when you are watching Classmates, the songs add depth to the characters and the scenes, and the keep the plot moving forward. But, after you have seen the film, you can watch them as individual sequences and enjoy them just as much out of context. They lift right out, but they also fit right in. Very very difficult!
(I like this song too. And again, no visuals!)
So, that’s themes, aesthetics, songs-time for the characters discussion! Not as good as the 80s-early 90s films I have seen, but considerably better than the one 90s film I saw and even a couple of the more recent ones. Prithviraj’s character was believably cocky and fiery and so on as a mustachioed youth. But the more impressive performance was his 15 years later bearded version. He managed to tamp down all his fire while still making us understand it was there underneath.
And the writing showed us, slowly, how he got there. What is great is that we meet him first in the present day, and he seems normal. A little down, a little serious, but still enjoying reconnecting to his friends and casually mentioning his wife. It’s only after we meet him again in the flashbacks that we realize something must have gone terribly wrong to turn him into the person he is today instead of the person he was in school. The same is true for our heroine, who is now restrained and dignified, whereas she used to be outspoken and fearless. The friends around them have similarly changed, but in their case the changes are more obvious, the playboy is a family man, the slob is a successful well-dressed man, and so on.
But the best character is the one who doesn’t seem to have changed at all, Radhika’s character. The point is that no one ever really knew her then and no one really knows her now, so no one can see what has happened to her. I don’t know about using the hijab and burka to signify how she hides herself, and how no one can see her for what she really is, because they just see the covering. I was thinking “well, maybe it was the times or something”, but then I remembered that actually I was in college in 2006 and there were a fair number of young women who wore hijabs and/or burkas and no one really thought much about it. Although, that was in a large American university, in a smaller college in Kerala I can believe it was a little different. Especially since it seemed like she was the only female student who was that devout, so she really did stand out.
Setting that part of it aside, I loved how they dug into her character. I enjoyed the whole first two hours of the movie, but then in the last half hour we suddenly see everything from her side of things and I was riveted! Radhika did a fantastic job digging into her character and taking her earlier performance and showing how it was just the surface of what was happening. And from a structural standpoint, it was kind of brilliant to do it like that. Remember how in Premam I talked about how neat it was that through out the film there were these other love stories going on in the background showing that our hero’s story was nothing special, just the one we were focusing on? Well, that’s what the last half hour does here! Everything we just saw, focused on Prithviraj and Kavya, was just because that’s what we happened to be watching. All around them were other stories that we just weren’t seeing.
So, yeah, themes, aesthetics, songs, characters, structure, this was all just really good. But not as good as the stuff that came after it. But better than the stuff that came immediately before it. But not as good as the stuff that came before the stuff that came before! But possibly better than the stuff that came before the stuff that came before the stuff that came before (I haven’t seen anything before the 80s)!