Oh man is this a cute cute cute cute cute movie! So happy and sweet and innocent and 90s. And clear plastic backpack-y. And it might now be my favorite Shalini rom-com, even nudging out Alaipayuthay.
There’s just something about the 90s, you know? Okay, part of it is rose-colored glasses because that is the era when I was a kid myself, and the era when the majority of the films I first watched when I found Indian film are from. But there is a kind of innocent happiness to it as well, besides the innocent happiness I put on it from my memories. India felt young and full of possibilities, and the youth felt different.
In America, we have this thing about the baby boomers, the first generation to be raised as “special” children, with all kinds of consumer culture presents given to them, and parents who had the time and energy to lavish them with love. It’s not an exact one to one, but in some ways the 90s in India, at least among the upper middle-class shown on films, seems kind of similar. The hero and heroine in this film, in Maine Pyar Kiya (okay, that one was 1989, but it feels similar), in Hum Aapke Hain Koun, in all the other young innocent love story movies, they have happy lives with loving parents and their biggest problem is how to tell the girl/boy they love that they love her/him. And in Kerala, I assume the 90s consumer happiness was slightly exacerbated by the Middle East money streaming in during that era? The point is, our hero in this movie is an only child with a massive bedroom complete with TV and VHS player all his own. And his own motorcycle and brand name clothes and everything else. Meanwhile, our heroine is also an only child and also has her own bedroom, and all the clothes she wants, and more importantly, all the freedom she wants. She never has to help her mother prepare meals or take care of the house, she can ride her scooter to college or the movies or wherever else she pleases.
(Also, 90s style faux-music video song sequences)
All of that love and money and everything else provides a nice little nest for a low stakes love story. There is no parental drama, no misunderstandings, none of that. It is just two people fighting their way towards finding each other. And two other people who are perfectly nice but just not quite right.
It could still have been a “nice but not wonderful” movie, and then the casting put it over the top. Okay, not Boban Alummodan, he’s fine but nothing special. But Kunchacko brings a wonderful softness and gentleness and youth to the role, the same kind of supportive kind feeling onscreen which has lasted through to this year in Ramante Edanthottam. Shalini has the same effortless range that I already knew from Alaipayuthay. Her emotions seem to burst out of her tiny frame. Happiness, love, anger, laughter, it all goes all the way through her. In a way she herself doesn’t always seem to understand. And then the real surprise, Jomol! The actress did a wonderful job with a character who surprised me, one that had wisdom hidden underneath foolishness, was underestimated by both the other characters onscreen and off. And was the one character I kind of fell in love with the most, she may be getting her own happy ending in a fanfic from me (if enough people are interested).
And then there’s everything else, the songs and the gentle comedy and the happy college setting and the supportive wonderful parents and everything else. Oh heck, let’s just talk about the whole darn thing!
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Clever opening, a jewelry store opening features a contest for couples, the winning couple getting to inaugurate the store and get a gift. And the winners are…..Kunchacko and Shalini!!! They stride up to get the prize, all decked out in formal wear, introduced as husband and wife, seemingly mature and in love and so on. I thought that the rest of the movie would be a flashback, and we would know that they would end up together in this place. But, nope!!!! We see seconds later them meeting up with a group of casual young people out front to crow over their successful scam, pretending to be married in order to win the prize, when really they just wanted the money and now they will use it to buy ice cream at the campus canteen.
This is what I meant about the youthful 90s. In an early movie, they would have been those dressed up people at the jewelry store! Dramatic lovers with elaborate costumes and all that. But this is the 90s. Instead, they are the casual folks in the jeans and t-shirts laughing their way through life and love.
It’s not just earlier film lovers that this film turns on their heads, it’s the legendary lovers of all kinds. Mirzya-Sahiban, Laila-Majnu. We next see Kunchacko and Shalini when their fathers are explaining that they have spent their whole lives together, born the same day in the same hospital, raised in houses across the street from each other, even dress the same without thinking about it. It’s the modern version of the “when one is hurt, the other bleeds” kind of bond. But now it’s treated as happy lighthearted thing, not epic destiny. They are best friends, and that’s what makes them happy, and that’s all that matters to their parents.
(this, but not tragic)
The film really puts in its time convincing us of their friendship, their special not-necessarily-romantic bond. There are tricks played on their parents and on Kunchacko’s new naive maid Kovai Sarala (who I just saw in Mersal, very odd seeing her suddenly 20 years younger). There are fights about what shirt to wear to school, not because it makes Shalini look to sexual or too beautiful or too ugly, but just because Kunchacko doesn’t like it and vice versa. And scattered in between are little hints of romance. But not between Kunchacko and Shalini, between the two of them and two others, Jomol and boring Boban.
Boring Boban Alummoddan is an older student on campus, a serious musician with wealthy NRI parents. He keeps telling Shalini how sweet she is, and (as she describes it) sweating when he talks to her. She and Kunchacko find this amusing at first and use it as a way to get movie tickets and other things for their own enjoyment. And then there’s sweet Jomol. The richest girl on campus who is very awkward and clumsy and is always falling for hard luck stories and lending people money that they never give back to her. Kunchacko and Shalini have a lot of fun laughing at her as well.
But the film itself doesn’t laugh at Jomol and Boban. They are presented as nice people with sincere feelings. Especially Jomol. So for the first hour or so, I was sincerely not sure if Kunchacko and Shalini were going to stay just friends and end up with other people or not. After all, there is Priyamaana Thozhi, where they really were just friends. And more recently Bangalore Days. And this film sets up a bit of a comparison between Kunchacko and Shalini and their fathers, who are lifelong best friends that are happily married to other people. So maybe this would be a story of two friends who help each other with their love stories with other people. And that’s what it is, for a little bit sort of. Shalini still mostly treats Jomol as a joke, but she is somewhat sincere in sympathizing with her crush on Kunchacko and encouraging Kunchacko to be a little nicer to her. And Kunchacko encourages Shalini not to completely write off Boban, she might as well spend time with him.
And then it suddenly, but at the same time inevitably, shifts. Shalini leaves for a week for a college art fest and she and Kunchacko are separated for the first time in their lives. Kunchacko starts to really miss her, especially on their shared birthday, when he finds the birthday card she has left to surprise him and suddenly finds himself smiling and seeing her everywhere. It seems sudden, but really it isn’t. Kunchacko was in love all along, he just didn’t know it was love until she was gone.
That’s what the whole film is about, understanding what “love” really is. Kunchacko and Shalini think it is flirting with people they don’t know well at college. Kovai, the silly maid, thinks it is Tamil love songs and destined romance. But it is wanting to spend every day all day together, laughing and teasing and understanding each other. And what makes the film remarkable is that even once he knows he is “in love”, Kunchacko still doesn’t fully understand what that means. He thinks that if he tells Shalini how he feels, their friendship will be over. That they will lose what they currently have. He doesn’t see that love is friendship and more, not instead of friendship.
And so when Shalini returns, Kunchacko tells her nothing. He tries to be a good friend more than a lover. And when she tells him that Boban confessed he loved her while they were away and she isn’t sure how she feels, he helps her decide that maybe she is in love with Boban. But, she isn’t! She thinks love is being nervous and exchanging a few words and glances. But she doesn’t actually want to spend time with Boban. She is furious when he tries to send Kunchacko away so they can talk alone, and miserable when they go to a movie alone. And yet she still doesn’t fully understand, lets the plans for their wedding move forward, because there is nothing really wrong with him, and it seems like this is what love should be like.
Kunchacko almost makes the same mistake. With Shalini’s encouragement, and since he has decided his love for her would ruin their friendship, he tries to go after Jomol. And Jomol is the one who stops him. The innocent that they all take advantage of turns out to be the smartest one. She tells Kunchacko that she knows he is in love with Shalini, and she doesn’t want him until he is over her. And she ends up being his confidant, the one he made fun of is the one who helps guide him through his emotions and gently encourages him to speak his heart.
Jomol is also a wonderful character all on her own. In just a few lines and scenes, we fill in so much about her. Separated parents, she misses her rich father in Delhi and is suffering through college in Kerala waiting until she is able to rejoin him. Her father loves her and sends her money since he can’t be there himself. So she turns around and gives money to everyone else, that’s how she has learned to show her love for her classmates. They think she is innocent and they are using her, but she understands exactly what is happening and is letting them think that. She is just marking time here and is happy to have this little position among them until she can leave. Her “happy ending” isn’t getting Kunchacko, or any other man, it’s being able to rejoin her father who loves her just as she is.
Jomol is the most vivid of the non-lead characters, but all of them have just slightly clearer outlines than in most other films. Boban, for instance, he is shy and quick to love Shalini because he doesn’t feel like he belongs anywhere, raised by NRI parents in America, with a dominating grandmother back in Kerala who wants him to take over the family lands. He sings, but isn’t even proud of that, aware that he lacks classical training. He wants someone or something who likes him just for himself and thinks he has found it in Shalini. Shalini and Kunchacko’s parents, we learn that Shalini’s mother is a terrible cook and her father doesn’t care, their two fathers like to get drunk and joke together, and so on and so on. This whole world is full of caring good people, and that is important beyond just making the film feel deeper and more textured, because it lets us slowly see the difference in how Shalini and Kunchacko feel for each other versus just the warm friendliness everyone else feels.
The love between Shalini and Kunchacko, it falls in this gap between the romantic dramatic version that filmi maid Kovai talks about, and the sensible simple love story that the two of them are expecting, the nice guy (or girl) you know from college and decide you are “dating” and then get married to them, because that’s what you do, you marry your college sweetheart. The bond Shalini and Kunchacko have, it is so much deeper than any simple college romance. But so much lighter and happier than the sturm and drang of a typical filmi romance.
The sturm and drang is there though. It only comes up when things get serious. These are two happy people with a happy relationship, but they love each other deeply and truly under all of that, and when their bond is threatened it’s not a pretty broken heart and a gentle tear, it’s a complete hysterical madness. Thank goodness it’s these two actors playing these roles in these scenes! Shalini brings in a certain madcap tomboyishness to the rest of the film, and Kunchacko brings a happy class clown who means no harm kind of vibe, but it is in the big emotional moments that they are really needed. Kunchacko gets his moment first, the time when Shalini is beginning to confront the reality that marriage to someone else means not seeing Kunchacko everyday and asks Kunchacko “why couldn’t you fall in love with me?” Kunchacko starts to cry slightly, not a manly tear, and not heartbroken sobs. More like a little boy who is trying to be manly but can’t help crying. I don’t think there is any other actor who could convey that combination of not being quite grown up yet, but trying his best.
And then there’s Shalini. When she starts to realize that Kunchacko really does love her, and that he is going to leave her forever, her whole body twists in torment. It’s not pretty little tears, it’s wrenching tormented full body sobs and grasping hand gestures and her small frame not able to hold it all together. It sells to the audience that she is feeling a pain so deeply she isn’t able to fully understand it intellectually yet. They both know they are miserable, that the thought of separation is unbearable, but Kunchacko thinks the manly thing to do is just try to get through it no matter how much it hurts. And Shalini doesn’t think at all, just knows she is all twisted up inside but can’t stop hurting long enough to figure out why.
And so the ending isn’t a big declaration of love or anything like that, because they know each other too well for that, and care about each other too much for mere words to convey it. Instead, they simply can’t let go of each other. Shalini takes Kunchacko to the train station and then holds his hand so he won’t get on the train. And their parents find them there together, holding on to each other, and tell them that they are in love and should get married. Because ultimately they are still beloved children whose parents want to give them everything and keep them happy. Because the 90s are the best!