The basic question turns out to be:- Why would I watch a movie called 'Classmates'? The title itself conjures up images replete with cheese-n-corn that have been the staple of Malayalam campus capers... girls and guys who say 'Yo' to each other and sing in indecipherable Malayali Rasta (The Jassi Gift Effect), the audience waving multi-colored baloons in a cardboard-thermocol-fevicol extravaganza while the hero-heroine do thier gig on college annual day, ill-fitting denims, a run-of-the-mill love story between a fundamentally mismatched couple, teachers who wear thier glasses on the tips of thier nose for comic effect, annoying pranks, hepcat catchphrases that make you squirm... the foot-in-mouth list could go on and on. More than that, I couldn't bear the fact that it starred the contemptable Prithiviraj and being a Malayalee male in the demographic of 18-25, this unreasonable disgust originates at a very synaptic level. Just to think that all my prospective brides are drooling over this epitome of mediocrity makes my blood curdle! So, I have a complex and i'm heavily prejudiced. But I am a Malayalee and it is but common knowledge that we have issues, serious ones.
But what was touted as a low-profile Oman release sans any heavyweights like Mamooty/Mohanlal, not only survived the four weeks of holidays but whipped up a hype and buzz so much so that it saw the movie grow in a phenomenon in the Malayali collective consciousness so much so that the official form of a malayali greeting became," Did you watch 'Classmates'?" The reply was mostly in the positive and ranged from "Adipoli" (5 stars) to "Theraked Ila" (3 stars). No longer could any self-respecting Malayali afford to ignore it.
The movie begins on a charming note to the lilting tune of 'Kaattadi'. The scene cuts awkwardly between a reunion party held in the memory of a deceased 'classmate' and a flashback sequence of the same classmates (without as much facial hair though) on a college trip to Ooty. The revellery of the party dies down to nostalgia, melancholy and in true-blue Malayali fashion, Jack Daniels and then culminates in a mysterious attempted murder/ suicide of Sukhumaran (Prithviraj), one of the classmates. Balachandra Menon, in a severe case of bad acting plays a former proffessor and father of the deceased student who steps in to play Holmes and the movie begins to move into a noir trapping.
As he attempts to piece the events of the night together, the director jumps at the opportunity to launch into the college sequences featuring all the requisite stand-and-deliver-one-two-one jokes, an annual day function, the bumbling teachers etc etc the works... but thankfully there is but one instance of a 'Yo' in the whole of the movie and Thank God for that. Back in college, Sukhumaran was something of a left-wing student leader with Pious (Indrajit who commits the cardinal sin by deciding for himself that he is most definately, 'cute') as his flirtatious crony. And on the other side of the ring you have, Tara (Kavya Vishwanath), a right wing politico's daughter and Satish (Jayasurya), as a sniveling chela to the MLA. The deceased classmate Murali seems, was the sensitive type- strumming guitars, singing poetry and temperate in terms of politics. From here on... the movie is a series of mean-spirited 'tit-for-tat' pranks between the left and the right with Guitarman to intervene if things got out of hand. Then we have a brutal round of police lathi charge, some love blossoming, a college election and it all culminates with the death of Murali.
There are clever moments in the narrative like the use of time-lapse which plays for pure gimmick value but keeps things interesting. The final revelation turns out to be a damp squib and then you have the stage set for wholsesomeness and forgiveness and of course, a moment of kistchy magic realism when the 'ghosts of the college past' turn up to wave goodbye at the camera in the end.
HIP HIP HURRAY!
And that's that.
The great Malayalee phenomenon...
Sure it's a hundred times better than the third-rate knock-off of Tamizh moustache twirlers (Chess, Naturajavu), the coarse mimicry set pieces (Vettam), the gimmicks (Balram vs Taradas) or the achy-breaky domestic tearjerker inspired by Malaylam mega-serial(Vadakanathan) that has come to represent Kerala cinema. But it hardly even registers as 'good' cinema. It is merely watchable.
In a classic scene in 'Vadakanoki Yantram' Sreenivasan drew laughs by naively memorizing a joke from a magazine and spouting it dead-pan and verbatim to impress his wife. Watching that scene now, it seems almost like a satire aimed at the lethargy that has set in Malayalee humor in cinema. The comedy is enacted as a set-piece that one puts up on a school stage for a teacher's day function. 'Classmates' is glaring example of this and the most disappointing part about it all is that the audience was howling in giddy ecsatcy. So much so that I was instinctively forced to check the air if could smell any weed. Rocking, rollicking laughter. HA HA HA HA HE HE HE (gasping for breath)!
Don't they remember the good ol days of Sreenivasan-Mohanlal, of Mukesh-Siddique-Jayaram and Gang?? Hell, I'll settle for the camp value of Prem nazir-Adoor Bhaasi any day.
The acting is more or less of the mega-serial quality. As is practise in Malayalam cinema, all the actors get to unconvincingly knock off a few years to play younger characters and not a single performance manages to make an impact.
Director Lal Jose has made good movies including the colorful classic 'Meesha Madhavan' which is probably as close as any movie got to recreating Tinkle comics for the screen and even scored a decent flick with 'Chantuppotu'. In both the movies, there was a marked atmosphere of breeziness and subtlety and it worked. In 'Classmates' he seems to plod and hammer in an attempt to entice his audience with nostalgia. But inspite of all his stumbles, he has probably created the best campus caper in Malayalam cinema for a long time. Not that he had much of a competition.
The fact that 'Classmates' has managed to whip up the hype and regard that it has, is the fallout of state of denial that the Malayalee cinema goer has fallen into. We all know that 'Udayanadu Taaram' wasn't as funny as we expected it to be, we all know the 'Lion' was plain awful and the 'CID Kurup' series and 'Chintamani Kolacase' are as asinine as they come. The bar for good cinema has been set well below mediocrity. It almost seems that the classic scene in 'Azhagiya Ravanan' where Sreenivasan reads out his terrible script about a miserable tailor and his quest for love, no longers pakcs a laugh. Instead, it offers a state of urgency.
If anything needs saving, it's Malayalam cinema.