You might recall Shah Rukh Khan as the widower Rahul in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, tossing a ball and telling his mother pensively that he won't marry again. He says, "Hum ek baar jeete hain, ek baar marte hain. Shaadi bhi ek baar hoti hai aur pyaar bhi ek baar hota hai. Baar baar nahin hota." The Malayalam film Premam (2015) is an exquisite rebuttal to that. Because the protagonist George falls in love again and again and again. We see him transform from an awkward, blushing teenager to an emotionally bruised and grizzled man. And yet when his eyes light up with affection for his partner and his shy smile emerges, it is a thing to behold.
There is little plot here. George loves and loses. But from this flimsy and fatigued material, director Alphonse Puthren, who also wrote the film, fashions a gorgeous but unvarnished ode to romance. Premam is stylized – fluttering butterflies are a recurring trope – but not synthetic. Alphonse captures the giddiness and sweep and peculiar ache of love. Mirza Ghalib famously described the emotion as teer-e-neemkash or a half-drawn arrow. He asked: Ye khalish kahan se hoti, jo jigar ke paar hotaa. George lives with this bittersweet pain. His soaring affections don't land but Premam never becomes a Devdas-style pity party. Instead Alphonse leavens the sadness with humor and tenderness. There is little sense of high drama here. Instead you feel like you are hanging out, perhaps for a little too long, with a bunch of amiable friends. Keep an eye on the little moments – in the first romantic episode, George is up against many suitors who all are equally besotted with Mary George. But they all hit a wall in her formidable father who simply beats up any boy he can get his hands on. There is a bridge to her house that they just can't get past. In one scene, in which they are heartbroken, one tells the other – It's night, take off your shades fool. It's hilarious.
In the beautiful Yesudas song, 'Malare', Nivin even spreads his hands in the classic Shah Rukh Khan pose. But there is no artifice here
Even the minor characters, like a charlatan dance teacher, stick but the heart of Premam is the magical Nivin Pauly who plays to perfection, every shade of George – from the love-struck school boy who dreams of marrying Mary (and she won't even have to change her last name!) to the permanently grumpy café owner, in whose life, romance blossoms again. In the beautiful Yesudas song, 'Malare', Nivin even spreads his hands in the classic Shah Rukh Khan pose. But there is no artifice here. George is earnest in his outsized affections. The second romance with his college teacher Malar is heartbreaking because he cares so deeply. And because Sai Pallavi plays Malar with such disarming and low-key charm.
Premam is a visual poem – the cinematography, music and editing are top-notch. But it's not glossy like the standard Hindi film romance. Malar has pimples which Alphonse chooses to show. In fact, one of George's friends objects to her saying: But she has pimples. And that is exactly what makes the emotions feel authentic.
Watch out also for Renji Panicker as George's father – he has a hilarious scene in the college. Also for one of Mary's suitors who later returns to George's café on a horse. Alphonse never loses sight of the fact that romance is a theater of the absurd. Like the many fluttering butterflies in the film, a voice over tells us, love is 'mentally mental.' Indeed.