Ahammed Khabeer's June is about the coming-of-age journey of the protagonist (after whom the film is named), played by Rajisha Vijayan. It's also about all the reasons I love watching mainstream Malayalam cinema. For one, there's the acting. I'm not necessarily talking about Soubin Shahir levels of greatness, the ability to infuse micro-shadings into a part in a manner that reveals itself over multiple viewings. I'm just saying that even when Rajisha Vijayan plays all the usual shades a heroine gets to play — from "I'm in love" to "My heart is broken" to "I'm knocking back a couple of beers with my dad" (okay, so the latter is not exactly something we see our leading ladies do) — she puts in something new, something extra, something that's as much from the actor as it's about the character. It's hard to say where Rajisha Vijayan ends and June begins.
June is not a great film. It's no Ee.Ma.Yau. It's no Sudani from Nigeria. But the "not-bad to good" levels of Malayalam cinema are on par with "great" from our other mainstream film industries. And that's because, apart from the central narrative, there's so much to enjoy in the sidelines that it's easy to forget the bigger picture and just enjoy the small moments. I watched June with a big grin plastered on my face. It's only after I exited the theatre and started thinking about the film that the problems began to show up. Like the fact that, after a point, June's love life takes far too much screen space. Like the fact that her entrepreneurship dreams are hastily tucked away into a small corner of the movie. Like the fact that, post interval, the wobbly screenplay makes even this love life unconvincing, the way June meets men and moves on from them. Like the fact that June is constantly (and alarmingly) infantilised.
But as long as we are with June, little of this seems to matter. The film opens with this plea: "Let's step into a girl's shoes." Our first image of June, though, is when she's taken off her shoes, at the beach. She's in the waves. She's walking on the sand, clearly lost in what-next thoughts. And we cut to the past, to the June she was before she landed at this beach. She's listening to the Dil Chahta Hai title song on a cassette player. She wants hair like Preity Zinta. She applies "lipstick" with a stub of beetroot. At her school, we meet her friends in the commerce batch: the girl whose hobby is stamp collection, the boy who's tongue-tied when asked to speak to the class, the trio of boys who are such thick friends that they acronym their names (Arjun, Suraj, Rahul) to 'Asura'.
The detailing of these scenes seems to come less from a screenwriting manual than from someone's life. There's a strong personal stamp, and we feel that we know these people even if we've never actually met anyone like them. This is, of course, what screenwriting is all about, but outside the Malayalam film industry, we don't find it all that much. Take last year's Tovino Thomas-starrer Theevandi, directed by the marvellously named Fellini TP. The film is about a chain smoker, but there's barely the whiff of a PSA. The characters are eccentric, colourful, and above all, fun. If the protagonist, who's soon to be married, stores the thaali in a cigarette carton, a later development has him running into two senior-citizen hippies named Rasputin and Bob Marley.
June is not a great film. It's no Ee.Ma.Yau. It's no Sudani from Nigeria. But the "not-bad to good" levels of Malayalam cinema are on par with "great" from our other mainstream film industries
It would all be too "cute" if it weren't so imbued with… a certain flavour that I find hard to put into words. (When other film industries try to do "cute", you mostly end up wanting to vomit.) One of the "cutest" stretches in June has to do with the mother of a boy who kinda-sorta stalked June. She's addicted to serials, but when there's no power, she entertains herself by reading her son's love letters to June, one of which is written in blood. It's a creepy-as-hell scenario, but it plays out with such an amused shrug (from the mother) and such sheepishness (from the son, who's now an adult) that you don't end up being repulsed. It's a voodoo doll that makes you want to pinch its cheeks. Malayalam cinema simply aces this zone. It humanises everything within its reach.
I grew restless during some portions of June (which could be read as a gender twist on Premam), but I didn't mind because Malayalam cinema has turned plotlessness into an art. I mean this in two ways: that there's no need for a real plot because the small moments are so enjoyable, and also that these small moments elevate the movie into some level of watchability even when the plot isn't fulfilling its end of the bargain. These small moments come to life not just because of the main cast but also the supporting actors like Joju George, who plays June's father with a big paunch and a bigger heart. Watch him give June the silent treatment when she's caught lying. He takes you beyond the anger that a clichéd actor would show you. He takes you into the deep disappointment of the man, the deep sense of betrayal he feels from the daughter he treated like a friend. A lot of this is from the writing, too, and what the director asked from the actor. The point is that when everyone is in sync, the movie doesn't have to be great in every sense. It can be flawed, yet unforgettable. It can fall short of Ee.Ma.Yau and Sudani from Nigeria and yet make for better watching than most mainstream films from any other industry.