You know the problem with pioneer films? They are so groundbreaking and wonderful when they come out, but then after they have cut out the new path, the films that come after it are so much more luxurious and elaborate, it makes that poor struggling scratched and damaged first film look like nothing in comparison.
My reaction to this film was very similar to my reaction to Classmates. And Rithu to some degree. I could see the inventiveness in the structure, and the script, and the acting. But the technical parts of it just weren’t quite there yet.
Without digital cameras, or expensive professional lighting, all the scenes ended up looking overlit and wrong. The clothes, the make-up, the hair, it just wasn’t right. Not even ugly, but like it hadn’t picked a path between “cheap and natural” and “filmi and fancy” and ended up in some unfortunate place in between.
There were a few clever technical touches, for instance a recurring idea of our heroine looking at old video clips of her campus life on her laptop, films within a film that are also memories.
It looks like the director is a classic director of the 90s. But the cast and possibly the writers are all young? And this must have been influenced by Rithu since it used much of the same cast. And Classmates, yes? Because the whole campus vibe to it felt very familiar from that film.
(Classmates songs are STILL not available on youtube! Except for this one)
But along with looking back to those films, it also looked forward to films like 22 Female Kottayam. It had characters who thought outside the box, who weren’t going to do the “expected” thing. And who didn’t fit in the standard “good” and “bad” boxes. Most of all, it had young characters played by young people. This wasn’t about people who were ready to get married, or settled in their lives, or dealing with the problems of middle age. These were kids, not yet fully formed in personality and purpose. It was the heralding of a new age of film, but just the opening trumpets, not the fully-fledged story yet.
It wasn’t quite there in a whole bunch of small ways. I already mentioned just the technical details, the struggle to combine old filming styles with new technology, to find a way to make the characters truly look young. But in terms of narrative there were the same small “not quite” bits. Slightly more time spent with Nithya Menon’s father’s character than there needed to be, as though they thought the audience needed an older character to identify with. Slightly more time establishing the whole campus feel and the “kids these day” vibe, instead of assuming that the audience was familiar with it already. Heck, even the campus setting! The idea that young people can only interact on campuses, not anywhere else, that this is the one dangerous fragile time. Instead of recognizing that they are getting jobs and homes and lives of their own now, they are no longer going straight from home to campus to starting their own home.
The cast though, that is completely there! Nithya is wonderful, of course. And manages to be both fragile and vulnerable, and also an angry force of nature depending on the scene. Nishan, just like in Rithu, was a bit of a blank. Well, slightly less than in Rithu, but still fairly blank. Once again, Asif Ali stole the film from him. In fact, in some early scenes, I was hoping there would be a switch and Asif would turn out to be the hero instead. But, no. On, and Vinay Forrt was really great too! And probably had the funnest role to play. But to get into that, I have to get into SPOILERS. And they are real SPOILERS this time! The funnest part of the film is the plot, if you are planning to see it, avoid the SPOILERS so you can see it with fresh eyes.
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This movie does such a clever slight of hand. Just as you are thinking “Boy is this an unimaginative trite campus romance!”, it turns out that it actually is an unimaginative trite campus romance! That is, it’s all the characters just going through the motions without really feeling anything. It’s brilliant!
Let me back up. Nishan is the new boy on campus, with his friend Asif Ali. He notices Nithya Menon with her group of friends. All girls, with one boy, Vinay Forrt. But he is sort of an honorary girl, very effeminate, very scholarly and Brahmin and high class. Nishan falls in love at first sight, but the upperclassman warn him off of Nithya. Nishan perseveres, with the support Asif. The convince the girls to let them into their friend group, after all Vinay Forrt is already a boy and part of their crowd.
And then very quickly Nishan confesses his love in a very filmi manner, giving Nithya a series of letters on a little treasure hunt through campus. And Nithya, as soon as she learns of his love, immediately returns it. And I roll my eyes and think “oh please!” What, a few words exchanged with him, one big romantic gesture, and now we are supposed to believe that they are in love for the rest of the movie?
And at first it looks like that is exactly what we are supposed to believe. Nithya is torn over lying to her father, but so in love she can’t stop. Goons appear and try to beat up Nishan, but he remains firm in his love. It is a little odd that Asif Ali, his friend, appears to be calling Nithya’s father to squeal on them. But I am sure that will be explained later, probably Asif is secretly in love with Nithya. Or he and Nishan have worked it out that it is best to force the issue and they will explain to Nithya later and she will gratefully accept their manly decisions or something like that.
Everything continues in this vein, up to the point of Nishan and Nithya actually getting married, a register marriage with the joyful support of their friends. But then Nishan goes to talk to her father about the marriage. With the support of Asif. And Asif starts to hit him. Nishan, I mean. Which is strange! But then Asif slices his own arm and rends his clothing and smears blood all over and it looks really strange! Especially since Nishan is just sitting there.
And, finally, all is revealed! Asif and Nishan are working a scam together. They seduced innocent Nithya just because her father was rich. And now they are holding him up for money to make them leave her alone. That whole early romance which seemed so shallow and fast WAS shallow and fast! The boys were working her sentimental romantic nature and pushing her to make a commitment she really had no reason to feel.
But the best bit is when they are on the run with the money and are attacked again. Turns out the goons who have occasionally been showing up to beat them up were not hired by Nithya’s father, they were old marks from a previous scam! That’s not the best bit, the best bit is when Nishan and Asif are trapped and look to be in danger, and who should show up but Vinay Forrt! The effeminate friend of Nithya’s from before they knew her. Only, NO! He’s not effeminate at all! He rips off his wig and his cotton shirt to reveal himself as a shaved head street tough in an undershirt! He’s not just part of their gang, he’s the head of their gang! It’s an awesome twist, and it must have been so fun for him to slightly overplay the effeminate part at the beginning, and then get to do this amazing scene, and switch to slightly over playing the street tough part!
And then we get to see the gang joyfully on the run, planning to run the same scam on another rich man’s daughter, while Nithya sits at home and considers suicide. And now it feels trite again. Of course she can’t get over her first love, of course men are dogs and have no feelings, seen this movie before too!
And, TWIST! Nithya contacts Nishan and he actually agrees to meet her! And turns out they were really in love after all. Yes, he was lying all the time, but he did feel something for her. What I find really fascinating in this is that we get a little flashback to their romance which finally shows us something that feels “real”, not just filmi love. Sneaking around the library, hugging each other and laughing. Because now we are seeing for the first time a part of their relationship that was private, just between the two of them, not for the benefit of her friends or the scheme against her father.
We also get a little depth on Nishan in this scene. I like the background it gives us, that he isn’t just a conman because boys can’t be trusted. That even young men don’t go around seducing women just because they can. We learn his parents died leaving him a poor orphan. He was picked up by Asif and Vinay, older stronger personalities, who brought him into their “family” and got him to do anything they asked, including seducing Nithya.
(Even if this song kind of makes it look like it is just boys being dogs)
Retroactively, this gives more agency to Nithya as well. She wasn’t completely incapable of reading people, she did fall for the most innocent of the trio, the one still capable of real feelings. She never got close enough to see the darkness inside of the other two. Oh, and it helps with the casting issues. Asif and Vinay are supposed to be the stronger personalities, the ones who control poor little Nishan. So Nishan’s onscreen weakness as an actor against them ends up supporting his character’s weakness against them.
And, final twist! Nishan and Nithya decide to run away together, her away from her father and him away from Vinay and Asif Ali. He steals back the money they took from her father, planning to give it to her to pass back to him as an apology. But, while they are on the run, she suggests they go back to her family place for a party. It is supposed to be her engagement party, but she tells Nishan that she will pick him instead of her fiance. Only, she doesn’t! At the last minute, she walks right past him and picks her arranged fiance instead!!!!
Only to explain that this is her vengeance on him. Now he knows what it feels like to learn that the person you love doesn’t care for you at all. TWIST!!!! AGAIN!!! If it were any other actress but Nithya, this wouldn’t work. But she is, like I said, vulnerable and yet strong. So I believe she was truly tricked and hurt at the beginning. And I also believe she pulled herself together and was strong enough to plan this rightful vengeance.
Oh, and then it gets dark. Kind of seems like the director wasn’t really sure how to end it all. It works, I guess, but I think there is probably some other way that would work better. Asif and Vinay show up at the engagement and suddenly Nishan and them have kidnapped Nithya, and Nishan has to kill his two only friends to rescue her, and then kill himself while she watches and screams.
It works because it gives the uncertainty that makes the film brilliant. The Telugu title is “50% Love”, which is a lot more clever. Because that’s exactly what’s going on. Nishan feels 50% love and 50% greed. Nithya feels 50% love and 50% vengeance. Indian love stories are so quick to leap to total love, to that campus romance that overwhelms them immediately past all other considerations. But this film lives in the uncertainty. How you can both love someone and feel other emotions at the same time, how a romance isn’t just a simple matter of love at first sight and forgetting the world.
That’s what makes it ultimately modern and forward thinking. Dealing with this new world where young people still fall in love, but they have more in their life as well.