Wednesday, August 14, 2019


Release date:
Kerala: July 26, 2019
Delhi: August 9, 2019
Girish A.D.

Mathew Thomas, Anaswara Rajan, Vineeth Sreenivasan, Irshad 

Just months back we first encountered him playing the most level-headed, only non-belligerent sibling in a fractured family. If the role of Franky from the iconic Kumbalangi Nights gave actor Mathew Thomas a dream debut, Thanneermathan Dinangal’s Jaison is a fantasy follow-up. There he was a crucial part of a fabulous ensemble, here he gets to be a solo hero in a perfectly written part.

Jaison is a muddled adolescent stumbling through life but showing unexpected maturity when we least expect it. Unlike most teen films, this one is not steeped in adult stereotypes of teenagers, it feels as if the story, situations and dialogues were drawn out of the skulls of real youngsters. The result of this understanding and complete lack of condescension is a highly credible, hugely funny film, another glowing addition to the great year that 2019 is proving to be for Mollywood.

The pimply post-pubescent Jaison is dealing with twin problems when we meet him at the start of Thanneermathan Dinangal: one, his affable classmate Keerthy (played by Udaharanam Sujatha’s Anaswara Rajan) does not reciprocate his love for her, and two, he desperately wants to crack his studies but struggles with exams. Enter: Problem 3 in the person of the new teacher Ravi Padmanabhan (Vineeth Sreenivasan) who gains instant popularity among the students and staff but picks on Jaison without reason at every available opportunity. Sweet relief from stress comes for the boy at the food shop next to the school where he routinely gathers with his close buddies for snacks (“puffs”, to be exact), watermelon juice, gossip and heart-to-heart conversations.

Thanneermathan Dinangal literally means Watermelon Days, an ode to their favourite drink. The film is as light as the fruit, but do not for a moment underestimate its nutritious value. Writer-director Girish A.D. and his co-writer Dinoy Paulose are bang-on with their depiction of the closing chapters of Jaison’s school years, that phase of pre-adulthood which in retrospect usually seems oh so carefree although in the here and now every problem feels like a matter of life and death, or as Jaison puts it melodramatically at one point, a “jeevitha prashnam”.

The earnestness and possible hyperbole of a youthful imagination are best represented by the characterisation of the loud, somewhat kookie Ravi Padmanabhan who everyone but Jaison considers fantastic. It is never clear whether the older man’s eccentricities and cruelty are real or a figment of Jaison’s nightmares. Similar is the effect of the chase scene close to the end.

The rest of the film, the classroom scenarios at St Sebastian’s Higher Secondary School, the banter between Jaison and his closest boy friends, his troubled equation with the school bully and his blossoming relationship with the remarkably sensible Keerthy are portrayed with absolute realism and biting humour in equal measure.

Like most Malayalam films of the pathbreaking New Wave, Thanneermathan Dinangal too tells a male-centric story through a male gaze (c’mon Mollywood, fix this lacuna fast) but the women are not lightweights. In fact, the sensitivity in the writing of the central young couple is what truly makes this particular film stand out.

Mainstream Malayalam cinema set among school and college goers tends to sexualise girls of all ages, normalise stalking as a form of courtship and dismiss women as haughty traitors as soon as they reject romantic overtures from a significant male character. If they are not mothers, sisters or irrelevant wives, the women of such films are treated as exotica, a distant other or juicy flesh that men salivate over. These are not merely accurate portrayals of gender segregation. From their antagonistic and/or lascivious tone towards women it is evident that they are products of minds that have not risen above the extreme gender segregation in Malayali society, minds that therefore can never see a woman as a regular person just like a man. Thanneermathan Dinangal is a lesson in how you can portray a problematic reality with humour yet without glorifying or humourising the worst of it.

Yes, Jaison and his gang are girl obsessed, but that is not a crime. Yes, at one point one of them does speak of how a friend has been “sniffing after” a particular girl, but for the most part their language is not crude. Most important, the film itself never degrades the women or behave as if they are showpieces. In fact, in Jaison’s defence of Keerthy and refusal to badmouth her beyond a Lakshman Rekha, in his non-threatening, non-obnoxious, childish pursuit of another schoolmate and in Keerthy’s open appreciation of his non-pesky behaviour towards her, we get a reminder that liberal minds emerge from even the most conservative social settings. Listen up, makers of awful films like Chunkzz and even critically acclaimed, troubling ventures such as Annayum Rasoolum and Premam. Listen up, ‘cos THIS is how it’s done.

The messaging is so unobtrusive that Thanneermathan Dinangal is likely to be widely viewed as a non-serious entertainer. That would be a mistake because Girish A.D.’s film is stomach-achingly comical but also serious as hell.

None of this would been possible without the casting director’s brilliant choices, incredibly solid performances by Mathew Thomas and Anaswara Rajan, and the impeccable supporting actors – including the established artistes among them – who appear to have walked right out of a real school and on to the sets of Thanneermathan Dinangal. Vineeth Sreenivasan, for his part, is clearly having a lark playing the film’s most enigmatic, only OTT character.

Messrs Girish and Paulose’s sharp writing meets Shameer Muhammed’s concise editing and the naturalistic cinematography by Jomon T. John and Vinod Illampally to create a film in which every second, every word spoken, every shot is precious.

As unassuming as the storytelling is the soundtrack – Girish knows precisely when to ask music director Justin Varghese to step in and when to get him to stay low key. The end result of their collaboration and the darling leads’ chemistry is that jaathikkathottam (nutmeg groves) will forever now be an aching symbol of romance and teenaged innocence. 

Thanneermathan Dinangal is one of the best teen sagas to emerge from Indian cinema across languages in recent times. What an adorable, huggable film this is.

Rating (out of five stars): ***1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
137 minutes 

This review has also been published on Firstpost:

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