Monday, March 19, 2018


Release date:
March 16, 2018
Abrid Shine

Kalidas Jayaram, Neeta Pillai, Joju George, Guest appearances: Meera Jasmine and Kunchacko Boban

Being a follower of Malayalam films is an exhilarating, enriching and confusing business these days. The worst of Mollywood rivals the very worst being produced by commercial cinema across Indian industries, especially in terms of misogyny, whereas the best of Malayalam filmmakers are more consistent and prolific than the rest and routinely churn out quality works that are, along with Marathi, the best of India’s best.

Walking into a theatre screening a new Malayalam film in 2018 is, therefore, a gamble with potentially vastly unpredictable outcomes. Watching Abrid Shine’s Poomaram (Flowering Tree) this week reminded me of the warmly pleasant wave of surprise that washed over me when I saw Njandukalude Nattil Oridavela last year and Shine’s own Action Hero Biju in 2016: whatever I may have been subconsciously expecting from the film, this certainly was not it.

Poomaram is a cinematic enterprise disguised as a reality show. It takes us through the run-up to the Mahatma University Youth Festival in a particular year and the days of the fest itself, the preps, the competitiveness, the institutional and individual dynamics, crushes and awkward courtships, hooliganism and early tests of leadership, performances and final results.

The focus remains firmly on the participating teams from Ernakulam’s famed St Treesa’s College – the defending champions – and their arch rivals Maharaja’s College, especially their respective student leaders Irene and Gauthaman.

On the face of it, what we get here is an education in Kerala’s rich cultural heritage through contests in various art forms ranging from Kathakali to Mohiniattam, Thiruvathira and more, along with an understanding of the average Malayali student’s exposure to and interest in the arts from other states. The film is also bound to evoke nostalgia for college life among older audiences as we watch the level of commitment towards the festival among these youngsters and the tensions that follow, including between their trainers.

In a sense then, Poomaram is a reminder of how every challenge we face appears magnified in the present, and how what was once earth-shattering very often looks mundane in retrospect. There will, of course, be additional layers of meaning for those who know of the real Maharaja’s and Teresa’s traditional rivalry.

There is far more to it though. Through the unmelodramatised, unadorned unspooling of events at the festival, Poomaram serves up an unconventional commentary on Kerala society – on gender equations, segregation, caste, class and ideological differences.

The most obvious mirror here is the one held up to the larger student body’s reaction to the women of St Treesa’s. I don’t care that we are not winning but I am glad that Treesa’s is at No. 3, says a chap at one point. He cites the women’s “attitude” as the reason for his animosity, yet it is hard not to wonder whether it is attitude or the mere fact that they are women that has him bristling, and/or whether he is resentful because they come across as being more sophisticated and urbane in their attire, deportment and language than most of their peers.

Poomaram is the sort of content you are likely to get if you were to place cameras for a few days at a university campus, without covertly offering scripts to your subjects (as most TV ‘reality’ shows seem to do) and edit the resultant material down to 2.5 hours. The beauty of this film is the spotlight it places on the pain, hurt, humour and joy contained in everydayness.

This is not to say that Poomaram is an entirely smooth ride. Once the initial surprise is over and the fascination with its unusualness is done and dusted, there are patches in the second half that feel stretched and unexciting.

Besides, it does not make sense for a film of this nature to build up a single character at the expense of others, but Abrid Shine cannot seem to shake off the awareness that Maharaja’s union honcho Gauthaman is played by Kalidas Jayaram – son of acting veterans Parvathy and Jayaram, and a one-time National Award winner for Best Child Artiste – making his Mollywood debut here as an adult.

The marginal though discernable elevation of Gauthaman above Irene from Treesa’s becomes particularly noticeable because Irene is played by the dynamic newcomer Neeta Pillai. Poomaram’s pre-release media coverage is devoted almost entirely to Jayaram Jr, but I gathered from the Internet with some difficulty that Pillai was the second runner-up at a beauty pageant for south Asians in the US in 2015. She is attractive, charismatic and a natural before the camera, so it beats me why Shine thought it fit to underline Gauthaman’s importance over Irene.

We meet his family, not hers. A long song in Poomaram’s opening scenes remains focused on Gauthaman. Midway and in the end too he is the central figure in song sequences, although the latter is filmed among a massive crowd. It is worth mentioning that the duration and picturisation of the first and last among these, and the overtly didactic nature of the climactic number, make them a departure from the tone and apparent intent of the rest of the film.

Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Shine, wonderful filmmaker though he is, tells stories from a male viewpoint untempered by a female gaze. It is as if he cannot help himself. The scenes with Gauthaman’s family, for one, are fixated on his somewhat pompous Dad and sideline his Mum. At no point is this male-centricity more evident than in the closing passage of Poomaram when Shine thinks nothing of allowing a male-led co-ed college to upstage an all-women institution, despite the latter’s remarkable achievements and talent. This is a director with such an uncommon vision that it would be a pity if he never becomes aware of his weakness.

Among the cast, Pillai and the young lady playing what appears to be Gauthaman’s second-in-command in Maharaja’s union stand out for their star quality. Kalidas is sweet-looking and likeable, but could do with more spark. The rest of the team is so deliciously believable as students and teachers that they may well have been gathered from actual universities. A special salaam then to Poomaram’s casting department.

Among the few established faces on the roster is Joju George who is his usual dependable self in a laugh-out-loud hilarious yet thoughtful sidelight at a police station. Meera Jasmine and Kunchacko Boban make minuscule but memorable guest appearances as themselves.

Abrid Shine’s school of filmmaking is one of many notable developments in the middle-of-the-road cinema coming from Mollywood in recent years. Poomaram is a delightfully experimental, contemplative college saga, far removed from the clichés, the ugly misogyny and loudness seen in too many campus films from Mollywood. Its warts notwithstanding, it is like that snuggly blanket you do not want to leave on a cold winter morning, that hot cup of coffee you embrace with both hands when you finally emerge – comforting, familiar, regular yet so special.

Shine’s latest work is not just a film. It is an adventure.

Rating (out of five stars): **3/4

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
152 minutes

This review was also published on Firstpost:


Release date:
March 16, 2018
Saiju S.S.  

Unni Mukundan, Gokul Suresh, Alencier Ley Lopez, Niranjana Anoop, Miya, Neeraja, Mareena Michael, Lena, Shanker Ramakrishnan, Saju Navodaya, Kailash, Nelson   

Of all the superpowers that commercial Indian cinema has bestowed on men down the decades, this must rank as the most inventive: the ability to know what happened at a time and place where they were not present, there were no eyewitnesses, and the only account of it comes from a flashback to the episode in a movie.

I kid you not. A murder is committed in Ira at a spot where no one but the murderers are present. The victim dies without making a statement. The culprits do not reveal themselves. Yet somehow, an important male character knows who was responsible, and the knowledge sets him off on a revenge spree.

At no point do we get an indication of who gave him the killer’s identity. The only explanation can be that he too was watching Ira and saw the flashback to the murder along with us, the audience. Just kidding, but you get my drift.

To say more would require me to give away the names of this omniscient man, the murderers and the victim, which I will not. No spoilers here, but come back and read this review after you watch Ira, and you will know who and what I am talking about.

Suffice it to say that the plot of this film is pivoted on this occurrence and since it turns out to be one big gaping loophole, everything else adds up to shunya.

Ira is the story of a senior policeman called Rajeev (played by Unni Mukundan) investigating the sudden death of K.P. Chandy (Alencier Ley Lopez), a controversial minister in the Kerala government. Murder is alleged. The prime suspect is young Dr Aaryan (Gokul Suresh) who insists he is innocent. Aaryan happens to be in a relationship with the old man’s granddaughter Jennifer Jacob (Niranjana Anoop).

When the film begins, Chandy is already no more and Rajeev is looking into the circumstances of his death. Through Rajeev’s interviews with various people who know Aaryan, the film pieces together his story while also painting a picture of Chandy for us.

(You may consider this a spoiler, I do not, but still…)

After watching the film, I chanced upon an interview with director Saiju S.S. in which he has said “Ira dignifies the oppressed”. The truth though is that this lofty ideal is just a tool around which he has built a flashy thriller puffed up with self-importance, and that “the oppressed” being referenced here – a poor tribal community – are sidelined within the film too, in a bid to build up the hero as their larger than-life saviour.

Besides, you cannot claim a commitment to one marginalised group while trivialising and stereotyping another. A rape is at one point portrayed here as the end of a woman’s life with ye olde cliché of a lamp dying out when the deed is done by the villain of the piece. Sexual harassment at the workplace is comedified via a chap called Varun Nambiar, the MD of the hospital at which Aaryan was employed. Lecherous behaviour too is treated as comedy via the fond portrayal of Rajeev’s sidekick Venkidi – he leers at bathing women through binoculars, calls women “pakshikal” (birds), yet is supposed to be a nice guy.  

In case anyone offers up as a counterpoint the fact that there are many female characters in this film, including some powerful women, please note that the primary identifier of each is their relationship with Rajeev and/or Aaryan or their usefulness to one of these men. The hospital employee played by Mareena Michael, for one, is introduced as though she is of significance yet is dropped like a hot potato once she serves a purpose in these men’s lives.

So much for dignifying the oppressed. In this matter, Saiju is following in the footsteps of his mentor Vysakh, Ira’s producer along with writer Udaykrishna, who had a running joke in 2016’s blockbuster Pulimurugan (directed by Vysakh, written by Udaykrishna) involving a man who gets his kicks from peeping into bathrooms while women are bathing.

The declaration of noble intent in Ira notwithstanding, Saiju and his writer Naveen John have no commitment either to the tribals in their film or to the women. Their only commitment, clearly, is to Rajeev and Aaryan.

(Spoiler-if-at-all alert ends)

Unni Mukundan is yet to develop an engrossing screen presence, but he is interesting enough to hold attention and he does seem totally involved in the role of Rajeev. His tendency to strut about is reasonably controlled in Ira. Gokul Suresh is suitably sweet, which is all he needs to be here. The supporting cast is packed with good actors who are largely under-utilised.

The glaring flaw in Ira’s mystery apart, the dialogue writing too is shabby whenever it tries to be overly smart, mostly with Rajeev’s lines. In one scene, when Rajeev finds himself drawn to a woman, he says: “Aval oru firebrand breed aanu (She is a firebrand breed). A rare sweet breed.” Tacky, tacky, tacky.

The unfortunate part is that Ira does initially build up considerable suspense around the reasons for Chandy’s death and the apparent framing of Aaryan. However, when the end comes and you realise that the very cornerstone of the whodunnit is a writing gaffe, everything that has gone before loses meaning.

Not that everything that has gone before is sparkling. When Rajeev first meets Miya’s character, for instance, even a kindergarten kid might guess her true identity within minutes, but the screenplay seems to think it is keeping us guessing. This is the sort of film in which, when one person eavesdrops on a conversation, the ones being spied upon spell out the background to their relationship with each other although they clearly know these facts. Why? Because this is the device the writer has decided to use to spill the beans to the woman who is listening in and to the audience. This is decidedly unintelligent writing.

Ira is a lesson in how not to do a thriller.

Footnote: In the run-up to Ira’s release, there has been some effort to whip up interest in the film by creating an impression that it bears similarities to Dileep’s arrest last year in the case involving the abduction and assault on an industry colleague. There is absolutely no resemblance between the two – none, zero, zilch – unless you count the fact that both involve crimes. That is like saying the Jayasurya-starrer Captain and Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham are similar because they both feature football. This transparent promotional bid is even sillier than Ira’s screenplay.

Rating (out of five stars): *

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
139 minutes 

This review was also published on Firstpost: