My first Malayalam movie from my huge online shopping haul! It was so-so. I think I remember why it was recommended to me, because it was Nivin’s first movie, and the first movie Vineeth directed. It was kind of cool to see how both of them started out, and the movie was also sort of interesting in its own right to look at how a plot I have seen in Hindi and Tamil films was done in Malayalam. But I wouldn’t say it is exactly a “Great Film.”
I kept waiting for this film to surprise me in some way. Have a surprising villain, or unusual moment of success or failure. But no, it went through all the basic moments of “let’s put on a show” films without a change.
The most interesting part, to me, was thinking about the behind the scenes aspect. It was a cast of new actors, with a new director. In the years since, most of the cast have become well-known actors. Nivin Pauly, who’s character is sort of the leader of the gang, is also the one who has gone on to have the best career. And was most notable even in this early role (I’m pretty sure that isn’t just confirmation bias, he really did seem like something different compared to the other actors). Although, now that I think about it, he was the leader but he didn’t have much else going on. No love story, no “huge talent” story, none of that. I wonder if it was a matter of during filming they decided to focus slightly more on him when they saw how the camera picked him out? It would have been easy to just insert a few more scenes just with him without changing any other part of the plot. Kind of similar to how Shahrukh became a star during Fauji, as they realized with every episode that he was more talented and a harder worker than the rest of the cast and kept giving him more scenes.
Of the rest of the cast, Aju Varghese has a really small part. One of the gang, but not the “talented” one, or the one who gets married, or the leader. And again, I don’t know if it was confirmation bias, but I felt like he was more amusing in that role than the other characters with similar small parts. I’m not surprised that he kept getting roles after this, playing similar friend-of-the-hero parts with a few funny scenes.
(Aju Varghese. You’ve seen him in stuff)
What’s super interesting, and I didn’t realize at all until I started going down a wikipedia wormhole with this movie as a start, is how everyone involved kind of formed an unofficial support group. Aju is in movies with Nivin a lot, and so is Bhagath Manuel (the other actor of the main 5 who kept working). And they are also in a lot of movies that Vineeth went on to direct, or write, or produce. There’s even a connection to movies with Vineeth’s brother in it! It feels like this film created a kind of special bond between them all, and they are all rising together.
The filming itself also didn’t really have that much to it, the cinematography and stuff I mean. It felt very much like a student film. Which isn’t necessarily an insult. Well, not a big insult.
It felt like someone who knew how to use a camera, and how to edit, and how to direct artists, who had all that technical knowledge. They just weren’t used to putting it all together in an exciting way. Which is what a student film is supposed to be like, you need to learn the basics and prove you can make a standard film before you start experimenting.
This is really unusual for a first film in Indian cinema. If you look at someone like Karan Johar, in terms of really high level technical expertise in framing and lighting and stuff, real cutting edge using everything in the film toolbox sort of knowledge, he only came of age with ADHM. But in terms of putting a movie together in the most emotionally effective way, and bringing out something new in his characters and actors, all of those outside the box things, he was right there in the beginning.
It’s funny, most Indian directors start with the flourishes and learn the basics later. Maybe because films are so hard to make? You can only get production money if you have some kind of off the wall talent, not just if you know how to use a camera? And, of course, because formal film training is well-nigh impossible to get. There’s the unofficial mentorship programs at Dharma, Yash Raj, Excel, and sometimes Bhatt films. There’s IIFT. And now there’s also Whistling Woods. But most first time directors are coming out of growing up on filmsets watching what their fathers did, not actually sitting down in an organized fashion and picking up every piece of equipment in turn and learning what it does. But Vineeth here shows a confidence in how everything functions and comes together in a film. Maybe because he has a technical degree? He wanted to learn all the technical part of it first and test out his knowledge? And then in his next movies he started putting in the flourishes.
I just looked him up, and turns out I have seen every movie Vineeth directed! And enjoyed them all. But I wouldn’t have necessarily thought they had the same director just because his technical abilities changed so much which each film. Thattathin Marayathu, right after this one, already had some really striking unusual images in it. And the story was a lot more unique, just little twists and turns that I wouldn’t expect in a standard love story.
(Just one movie further on, and so much more sophisticated!)
And then Thira was something totally different! Multiple perspectives, lots of jumping between stories, a unique hero, and many interesting set-pieces with strange locations and images. And finally, Jacobinte Swarigan is something new again. The most character focused of his films, but with the most mature awareness of how to use visuals to support those characters, whether it is sand dunes or the roof of an apartment building at night.
This first movie thought, I wouldn’t think it was made by the same person as the other two, because it was just so plebeian. In every way. The camera angles and sets and all of that were acceptable, but uninteresting. The characters had no surprising changes to them. And the plot was exactly the same as every other backstage “let’s put on a show” kind of movie from Mickey Rooney on up.
The only thing that made it slightly interesting was seeing how that kind of “showpeople” story was changed for the Malayalam setting. But to get into that, I have to get into SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Really, this is just the most by-the-numbers story! Nedumudi Venu is an aging owner of a small cafe in the village of Malavaadi. The local boys call it their “Malavaadi Arts Club” and hang out in the back room and are his surrogate sons. When the film starts, they are kind of tough guys without a lot of focus, get in fights and do a little work for the local communist party. One of them, Shravaan, is injured while helping to put up a platform for an event for the communists, and the unofficial leader of the gang (Nivin Pauly) gives blood to him. They are that kind of friends.
But they aren’t really going anywhere in their lives, they don’t have a purpose, so their father figure Nedumudi encourages them to go back to their music and work on their band again. They sing at a local event and do well. And then Shraavan (actor who went nowhere), their singer, has a chance to be on a statewide singing competition show. He really needs the prize money too because his family is about to lose their land in a court case. The friends band together and borrow money and drive him to the competition. And then watch and put up posters as he goes higher and higher and eventually wins the competition.
Of course, he comes home only to tell them that he is moving to the city with his family to pursue his career. Also of course, then they need to put on a benefit concert to raise money for Nedumudi, he doesn’t show up, because fame has changed him. Nivin drives over to the pay concert he was doing instead of their benefit and slaps him, and then Shraavan yells at his father that his father lied to him about a date change.
Back in the village, the one of the band members is in love with a girl from a nearby village. With the support of his bandmates, he talks to her family and gets permission to marry. They go to Nedumudi’s hospital room to get his blessing before going to their new home, serenaded by their friends.
Nedumudi keeps getting sicker and sicker and all he wants before he dies is to see his “5 boys” together again. They call Shraavan, but his family evil-y keeps the news from him and he misses the death. Also, it turns out that Nedumudi has mortgaged his store and the backroom of their “Arts Club” to Sreenivasan in a cameo appearance in order to help pay for the wedding gifts to the one boy. Sreenivasan is fair and agrees to give the boys a chance to buy back the building.
Another benefit concert is organized, and they manage to get help from a famous singer. Only their enemy from back in their rowdy days threatens the singer so he doesn’t show up at the last minute. The boys go out to play anyway, because it is the last thing they can do for Nedumudi, and the crowd parts to reveal Shraavan, who has finally learned the truth and stood up to his evil father, and joins his old friends on stage. They raise the money to save the store, and go back into it all 5 together, happy ending.
Like I said, SO by-the-numbers! Such a standard plot! I kept waiting for a twist, like the new bride joining their band, or the band going on to another singing competition and competing with Shravaan, ANYTHING! But no, it’s your usual “ambition changed us” plot ending with a “lets put on a show to save the teen hangout!” plot.
Although seeing as it was so standard, that also made it easy to compare and contrast with other movies like Boys and Rock On.
In Boys, the love story wasn’t just incidental filler, it was the main impetus for everything. They weren’t natural rebels, love turned them into rebels, sent them down a different path. Love was also what pulled them apart, when their lead singer broke up with their other lead singer. And it even gave them their mentor, complaining about heartaches is what they had in common and the first thing he helped them with. Also in Boys, the music was better.
In Rock On, the music was the whole point. It was all about Art and Truth and Beauty and all that kind of stuff. We didn’t get any backstory on what brought this group together before the music, and the music was the only thing that broke them apart (and then brought them together again).
(I still find the whole idea of a massively popular rock band in India unbelievable. For instance, look at the success (or lack there of) of Farhan’s real life band! It’s just not a thing)
But this is the Malayalam version of the story! And so the setting is everything. This is a small specific village in Kerala. And what bonds these 5 band members together is their shared village experience. They have no dreams of fame or wealth, they just want to keep the local hangout place going.
Heck, the setting is even the backstory! We don’t learn anything about any of their families (except for Shravaan’s “evil” father), or hopes and dreams or any of that! We just know that they like to hang out at Nedumudi’s shop and have since they were small boys. And maybe they also farm? Anyway, something village related.
Band stories are never really about “the band”. They are about rebellion (Boys) or art (Rock On). In this case, it is about your hometown and your childhood and nostalgia for all that represents. Which feels like a very Malayalam kind of message. Maybe it’s just the films I’ve seen, but it seems like no other industry (in or out of India) is quite as good at building in that deep and broad sense of place.