Language: Malayalam

Director: Abrid Shine

Cast: Kalidas Jayaram, Kunchako Boban, Meera Jasmine, Neeta Pillai

Abrid Shine makes star-studded (or at least, star son-studded) feature films, but he has the heart of an empathetic documentarian. In 1983, he deposited us in the midst of village cricket – though there was still the sense of a story, the sense of a protagonist who would guide us through it. Action Hero Biju was looser – though, again, with a central character holding the episodic narrative together. Poomaram (Blooming Tree), which is about an inter-collegiate arts festival, dispenses with these “fictional” tropes altogether, and becomes the cinematic equivalent of a wide-angle shot. Most films are close-ups, zooming in and directing our eyes to characters and situations. In Poomaram, the eye is free to wander. Every frame is packed, layered. Look here, and you see a thirsty policeman chugging down water. Look there, and it’s a dancer being fed carefully by her mother, so her makeup isn’t ruined.

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This design isn’t immediately apparent, for the film – at first – sets up convenient (and conventional) oppositions: the girls of St. Teresa’s College vs. the students of Maharaja College. (There are over 60 colleges participating, but focusing on everyone would be too much of a wide-angle. So the director, understandably, zooms in on these two institutions.) Looking at the more privileged, English-speaking, bred-to-be-champs students of St. Teresa’s (they’ve won the trophy five years running) versus the mundu-clad, Malayalam-spouting “commoners” of Maharaja College, I thought Poomaram was going to be a replay of Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (or its source, Breaking Away), set in Ernakulam – but issues of class and gender are relegated to the background. In the forefront is the artistic process – the planning, the preparation, the performance.

We get glimpses of higher forms of music, high art – Thiruvathirakali, Ottanthullal, Mohiniattam (the results of which lead to a hilarious dispute, with a typically Keralite sit-down protest involving cries of “Inquilab zindabad!”). But note, also, how the film opens, with a “lower” form of music and art: the unadorned whistling of a simple painter as he creates the poster for the Mahatma University Youth Festival. Poomaram is an extraordinarily inclusive film. The focus is not just on the heads of the two main college teams – Gauthaman (Kalidas Jayaram) and Irene (Neeta Pillai). It’s also on the teacher who reminisces, to rapt students, about earlier fests. Gnaanam’s camera rests on the teacher’s face one instant, then moves outside the room the next, so the frame accommodates other students crossing the doorway, heading to… wherever they are headed to.

It’s the bustle of life, a collage-like approach that recalls Robert Altman’s Nashville (which was about the country music scene), or closer home, the superb stretch in Balaji Sakthivel’s Kadhal set around the heroine’s coming-of-age celebrations, where we seem to be, at once, everywhere and nowhere in particular. Poomaram is a carefully assembled jigsaw. “Do we have enough jasmine flowers, or should we get more, because we might not get more at the last minute?” “How do I exchange our No. 1 performing slot with someone else, because we aren’t ready?” “Oh man, will this guitar-playing loser stop wooing me?” “Will the judges respond better to a Bharatanatyam performance set to a varnam or a keerthanam?” “Oh, don’t worry that you didn’t win. We have other events where we can catch up in points.” “I am so happy to see St. Treesa lagging. I hope they don’t win this time.” The editor (Manoj) does staggering work, compiling these fragments into a free-flowing mosaic.

It’s the bustle of life, a collage-like approach that recalls Robert Altman’s Nashville (which was about the country music scene), or closer home, the superb stretch in Balaji Sakthivel’s Kadhal set around the heroine’s coming-of-age celebrations, where we seem to be, at once, everywhere and nowhere in particular  

As in Nashville, the performances aren’t just glossed over but shown in their entirety – and for a reason. I wondered why a mime rehearsal was going on so long, as spectacular as it is, but we get the payoff towards the end, when a mishap casts a cloud over this performance. And the songs (by Faisal Razi, Gireesh Kuttan, Gopi Sundar) come with minimal (and sometimes no) orchestration, so the purity of the emotion behind the singing comes through. In the still of the night, a professor recites the Malayalam version of Neruda’s Tonight I can write the saddest lines, and the pensive, melancholic faces of the male students around him make us recall the times we wrote our own saddest lines.

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Kalidas Jayaram, with his sensitive handsomeness, looks like the kind of person who’d rather listen to Neruda than enroll for an MBA. He’s perfectly cast – though that could be said, also, about the geeky first-year student who falls for him, or Neeta Pillai, who exudes a cheerleader’s relentless enthusiasm without coming off as obnoxious. The character could have easily been written as a snob who looks down on the lesser mortals from the other colleges, but she’s just someone who wants to win. Forget a romance, the nominal “hero” and “heroine” barely get a conversation. The director is content to have them drift pass one another, nestled in the company of their respective groups.

The one aspect of this marvellous film I had to wrestle with is its occasional tendency to let the dialogue (as opposed to the visuals) do the talking. The closing portions have too much of a “climax” feel for such a trance-like narrative. But I suppose that’s inevitable because that’s part of Abrid Shine’s agenda, to not just showcase the performance of arts but also showcase the importance of art in the scheme of things. The celebrity guests (Meera Jasmine, Kunchacko Boban) talk about the power of art. A police inspector (an uproarious Joju George) speaks of individualists like Thoreau and Emerson, and the clever writing makes this “lecture” seem organic, because the cop also sighs about the time jails held men like these while today, they are filled with petty thieves.

And early on, Gauthaman and his father – whose “lectures,” again, sound natural, because he’s a retired teacher who’s never stopped teaching — talk about how da Vinci stole cadavers and dissected them in candlelight to get a better idea of human anatomy. The idea? You have to put your soul into art to make it come alive, which is certainly what Abrid Shine has done here. Poomaram contains my favourite shot of the year, towards the end, when Gauthaman gets an earful from his father for an oversight. As the truth of the words sinks in, the camera lingers on Gauthaman’s shame-filled face, partly covered by his phone. Then it rises – scaling the tree under which Gauthaman stands, and then pointing to the sky under which the tree stands. The personal becomes universal, and the universality of his father’s words – another version of “you have to pour your soul into your art” – is what makes Gauthaman a great artist by the end. Not because he wins a college competition. But because he finally understands what art is about.

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