Girish AD doesn’t make romantic comedies so much as he elevates the genre, observes Sreehari Nair.

IMAGE: Mamitha Baiju and Naslen in Premalu.

I consider Thanneer Mathan Dinangal and Super Sharanya, Girish AD’s first two full-length features, to be among the most pleasurable Indian films of the last 20 years. Yet, I find it difficult to convince people about the pleasures of these films.

Here’s why.

Girish’s characters may share great chemistry, but the basis of that chemistry is a certain kind of ‘friction’ specific to Malayalis. Even when he presents love stories, his lovers cannot help but become chroniclers of how Malayalis squabble with each other.

That is to say, when it comes to Girish AD’s characters, if you do not get the poetry in their taunts and insults, you will not be able to get with them.

Here’s something else that’s a little out of the ordinary.

While Girish regularly deals with stories about teenagers and adolescents, he deals with them at a different speed.

His young people cannot tell just why they feel ‘out of it’ — so much so that Thanneer Mathan Dinangal and Super Sharanya, it can be argued, are about the existential crises that beset children.

It’s a valid subject, and the fact that Girish approaches it with a humorous hand makes him, I think, a unique figure in Indian cinema.

He is JD Salinger with a happy face.

If there’s a persistent technique you can detect in his movies, it’s that of life being glimpsed from the corner of the eye.

When the boys in Thanneer Mathan Dinangal got down to discussing the girls in their class, I had the sensation of having come upon a piece of music I had long forgotten.

Girish has oblique ways of being funny; his jokes do not jump out at you, and sometimes they barely peek through.


IMAGE: Devika Gopal Nair, Mamitha Baiju, Anaswara Rajan and Sneha Babu in Super Sharanya.

A quiz competition in Super Sharanya introduces us to two teams called ‘Polite Rascals’ and ‘Hunky Brains,’ and in the visual cues round, one of them confidently mistakes Leon Trotsky for snake expert Vava Suresh (and then flinches when told it was the wrong answer).

The daring of this film-maker is that while his plots risk being termed ‘conventional,’ the little events that make up his plots, the little circles inside the larger one, are anything but conventional.

Even the tail-ends and post-scripts of his scenes are capable of heightening your senses.

So you have to be sharper and more alert at a Girish AD film than its subject matter may seem to demand. The man doesn’t make romantic comedies so much as he elevates the genre.

I say all this by way of introduction because Premalu, Girish’s third, is his straightest yet.

It is hugely entertaining, immensely likeable, but it’s also what you might call an aims-low-and-hits kind of film.

IMAGE: Mamitha Baiju and Naslen in Premalu.

Premalu has been produced with a clear memo that it be an instant crowd-pleaser, a film that would help recoup some of Bhavana Studios’ recent losses, but without insulting the basic intelligence of the audience. It’s a reminder that even the country’s most creative production house has to, at the end of the day, meet payroll.

Girish is up to the task, which means that unlike his previous movies, where you had the feeling that the love track was just one of the many circles being drawn, this time he uses his strengths to give us a single-minded boy-gets-girl story.

So the protagonists of Premalu are Reenu and Sachin (the extremely charming Mamitha Baiju and Naslen Gafoor, with smiles that can infantilise us), and the first time we see them occupying the same frame, we immediately wish to see them come together.

Sachin and Reenu offer the promise of a perfect, two-sided love, which is not exactly a Girish AD special but a staple of those numerous romcoms he has made a business of transcending.

Now, the unique charm of Thanneer and Sharanya came from the fact that certain conflicts in those movies were maintained at the level of ‘insoluble’ and certain personality traits deemed ‘irredeemable.’

IMAGE: Mamitha Baiju and Naslen in Premalu.

In Premalu, there are no conflicts or personality issues that a nauseatingly confident villain cannot solve.

This villain, Aadhi, is the goatee-wearing team lead at Reenu’s software company.

A cocksure cat who competes with Sachin for Reenu’s attention, Aadhi is so blatant in his self-memorialisations and so precious about his acronyms and jargons that you end up wondering how such an obvious boob got to be so highly placed.

It would have been as much a matter of surprise as believing that Rahul Bose’s character in Dil Dhadakne Do could have managed a business, except that Girish AD’s tart humour props Aadhi up significantly (in one scene, he accuses Sachin of feeding vodka to a kid, and I leapt out of my seat at the outrageousness of his charge).

Though Aadhi is as broad as a barn-side, he is the engine that keeps the story moving (Shyam Mohan’s portrayal is ‘sporty’ if nothing else). The character (whose striking resemblance to actor-producer Vijay Babu could not have been entirely a coincidence), belongs to the same category as the life coach, the motivational speaker, the sage-in-cufflinks, a type that Girish so loves to needle.

The conceit of the movie is that every time Aadhi underlines one of his strengths, it helps Sachin inch closer to Reenu. Every time the delusional dodo falls, you applaud with relish; and in the climax, when he flashes his feministic bent, Girish AD brings in Syam Pushkaran as a counterpoint (a very, very special joke).

As with the Syam Pushkaran cameo, Premalu is filled with easily achievable free-associations, and during the intermission, I heard the girl behind me at the popcorn counter remarking to her friend that the picture was damn ‘re-lat-a-ble’ (she was careful about giving each syllable the stress it deserved).

I understood then that this is a movie so designed that the punchlines, the echoes of some popular Instagram reels, and a few smartly inserted emojis would run together to create a sense of effortless rapture.

The dialogues have been thought up for quick laughs, and they are out front.

But you will be disappointed if you are looking for anything resembling the stream-of-consciousness ponderings in Super Sharanya, which had Sharanya, deep in the throes of anxiety, trying to figure if her situation was like that of Sita or Panchali (a joke that burst into your head like a slow emanation).

Girish’s first two movies were almost impressionistic in their density, and listening to the conversations in those movies was like attuning yourself to the comic subtleties of a multi-track sound system or hearing multiple radio stations go on at the same time.

By paying close attention to the jokes and one-liners in Premalu, you get a good sense of how everything this time has been smoothed out.

Smoothness is the operative word here, and it permeates the movie and relaxes you rather than thrusts you forward.

IMAGE: Shyam Mohan, Sangeeth Prathap, Akhila Bhargavan, Mamitha Baiju and Naslen in Premalu.

Sharanya and Thanneer seemed to be taking place in the ether of Girish AD’s mind, and you had to sift through details or latch yourself onto chance rat-a-tats to know precisely where those movies were based.

In the case of Premalu, Girish seems to have proceeded from the mission statement of ‘making a love story set in Hyderabad.’ The cobwebs of his mind have not followed the mission statement down the streets and by-lanes, and consequently, the Hyderabad of Premalu feels at best like a beautiful postcard and at worst an afterthought.

This movie would have worked equally well in any other city; it might have even worked better as a love story of two people from Mavelikkara and Chengannur who find each other in Kochi.

It’s not that tough to understand the appeal that Girish AD must hold for a production house such as Bhavana Studios.

Like the chieftains at Bhavana, Girish is a master of subtly breaking traditions, and nothing confirms this better than his young men and women, who are always pitched at the level of ‘cuspers.’

The young people in Premalu, everyone down to Reenu and Sachin’s friends, colleagues, and teachers, are cuspers, and the two lead actors manifest this situation best: they are at once part of a continuum and their own people.

Naslen is a boy-superstar, who has studied well the machismo parades of those Malayalam actors who came before him. He shows us his clumsy efforts at mimicking that machismo, and wins our hearts and Mamitha’s that way.

As with her supporting part in Super Sharanya (her scenes with Anaswara Rajan in that movie must rank among the finest examples of two greenhorns working to sharpen each other’s craft), Mamitha’s character is given no real history this time too, nor does she have any plot-based sympathy to seek from the audience.

But Mamitha Baiju doesn’t need that sympathy because she takes the screen, as if by natural right. She seems able to be herself in a way that very few actresses have been before. She doesn’t project, is there without any affectation, and makes us yield to her through the simplest of gestures.

Mamitha brings us closer to Reenu’s practiced poise and her misplaced belief that her asymmetrical lobs, her open mouth, her supple neck, and her clipped vocabulary would be enough to conquer any geography.

While every other actor in the movie treats its core setting as a backdrop, Mamitha is the one who suggests the inner migration that her character has undergone when shifting her base from Field & Stream Kerala to the Hyderabad of Minarets and glowing medical store signs.

Those of us who think of Girish AD as the country’s finest living director of romcoms love him not because he has been faithful to the genre but because he has exploded its conventions.

IMAGE: Anaswara Rajan and Mathew Thomas in Thanneer Mathan Dinangal.

Thanneer Mathan Dinangal was a romantic comedy that found the most delightfully roundabout way of talking about children and their resilience.

Watching those young actresses in Super Sharanya behave with complete freedom in front of the camera, I thought I had glimpsed the cinematic justification for one of Norman Mailer’s titles, Of Women and Their Elegance.

In his first two full-length features, Girish AD brought to romcoms a felt pungency, which was his most personal mark.

Though his third feature is hardly disappointing, it does, despite its knowingness and fun, prove that he also has a mechanical, mercenary side.

The ‘family audiences’ that Premalu has managed to captivate, and their theatre-quaking laughter, assure us that payrolls will be met.

But in Girish’s own voyage toward posterity, how much this film would count remains to be seen.

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