I saw Premam for the first time in a multiplex in Gurgaon. First of shows, release day, without much of a clue about the movie. All we knew of Premam before seeing it in its entirety was that imaginative title card, a few peppy songs, and the quirky visuals. Just twenty-three years of age then, recently having graduated and gradually getting used to the grind of a corporate job, I was adventurous, seeking to make the most of a anything that offered a slice of remembrance of my life from Kerala in that new city I had moved to, far from home. That was what Premam was at first glance, a beautiful, ethereal journey across many years of growing up, that too for someone at the cusp of having stepped out of that old life recently. But over time, with each repeat viewing, Premam grew on me like none other. Seven years, new cities, and a myriad of memories later, Premam remains beautiful, perhaps no longer ethereal, yet sublime and marvellous in the way it manages to evoke emotions even when I can now recite its lines from ending to beginning.
My mind is muddled as I write this, unable to decide on where to begin my praise. Would it be the way it's written, or conceived, as an experience more than a screenplay? Would it be those actors, from Nivin to his friends to all the heroines, who lived every scene till there's absolute zilch left in them? Would it be the frames, blissful to the eyes and magnificent to the mind? Would it be the music, stirring your soul with gleeful euphoria? Even if given no choice, I'd pick all of them.
The balance of vibrancy and insipidity that meanders around the entirety of Premam is mesmerising. When teenage George woos Mary across a walking bridge, a quirky violin track, First Love, jumps around in excitement, accompanied by chirping staccato notes from a handful of lush instruments. The frames are coloured in pastel, punctuated by shades of the twilight's afterglow. Nivin is young, his clean-shaven face impish, yet vulnerable. An hour and a half on reel and a decade and half in real later, the same violin track plays itself all over again, this time at a quaint café by the sea, stripped bare of all accompanying chirpiness. Nivin's face now carries the weight of a sober moustache. His white shirts seem drained of his playfulness. Yet, Red Velvet is elixir for the soul. The walking bridge makes way for a café table, soda sharbat with khus-khus is replaced by cold coffee and the mischievous demeanour of addictive romance grows into a brooding exploration of what's possible and what's plausible. In two hours, we grow that moustache with George, albeit thoroughly enjoying those erstwhile bearded days of his, which lingers as our, and his, best memory from an eventful life thus far.
Premam isn't a movie that could ever be written by one person and directed by another. Borrowing words from the present, Premam is an OG multiverse. Where else have we seen the world around move with the lead characters, without owing or demanding anything in return? A roadside ice cream vendor atop the walking bridge pulls himself up to run the canteen at George's college, and tuns up with his wife and kids to pose for a photograph when Celine and George tie the knot. A confused co-romantic at George's teenage hangout cool bar goes to college with him and laments about a missing "Benz" symbol behind his car. A campus politician in white and white runs in and out of frames dropping lines that remind us about his existence for no reason, just like all politicians we ever knew do. We see a lecturer battling self-esteem on account of not having hair and his accomplice, the PT master who can only do tough dance steps. We see an over-the-top lover boy whose bridge-top proposal in a yellow shirt and a grandiose arrival on a horseback make us laugh involuntarily, even when they are delectably make-belief. Then there are nameless, faceless friends, the aspiring Hrithik Roshan and his ilk, who shared their life with George, Shambu and Koya all along, from benches at their cool bar as teenagers, a home by their college in their twenties and the stage at his wedding at thirty. At some point in Premam, we become them, and they, us.
Above Alphonse Puthren's eye for detail stays Anend Chandran's eye that captures them. Across the run time of Premam, the camera moves like the gaze of a curious child exploring a fantasy world taking form in flesh and bone around him. It moves quickly with teenage George, hopping in excitement at the sight of first love. It follows dashing young George from college into his deepest contours, under makeshift stages, inside classroom back benches and between a bachelor pad's dirty laundry. It finds footing and steadiness temporarily when George starts baking, only to slip back into its meandering, vivacious self when he finds love again. As Alphonse populates frames with plastic caller IDs that were in vogue in the 2000s and rewinds cassette players to rewire us into the time when his story unfolds, Anend captures them all with callous perfection, one that never wears its brilliance on its sleeve, but transports us viewers into believing that his gaze and ours aren't different.
What could one possibly say about the soundtrack and score of Premam? Certainly, the finest of romantic music to have chimed in our ears in the decade that had been. From the playfully puerile rhythm and lyrics of 'Aluva Puzha' that sets the cartoonish context of teenage love as we begin, to the heavenly rendition of two versions of 'Malare' in Vijay Yesudas's soothing voice, and the bizarrely outlandish wackiness in 'Scene Contra', there's a song for every tenet of love in Premam. If the uptight 'Kalippu' reflects the gore and grit of youthful energy, the serene 'Ith Puthan Kaalam' lulls you into the lure of mundane, everyday adult life. But at the end of it all, it's those disjoint violin and harmonica notes that will linger, many times over, as the aftertaste of this freshly baked soundtrack.
Premam, for me, isn't merely a feel-good movie. It is a feel-all movie. Every repeat watch triggers emotions in me, like millions of those who traced similar journeys – growing up in schools across walking bridges, enrolling ourselves at laidback government colleges, and then folding up our sleeves to work and push forward through our days in anticipation of spurts of joy. Alphonse couldn't have conceived most of this if he hadn't lived this, and that's perhaps why no remake could ever create the magic that the original bestowed upon us.
Beyond reviews and analysis, opinions, and praise, what will make this work stand out for years to come is the sheer weight of confidence Alphonse carries in mounting each scene, an near-irreverence gut that stems from having been there and lived that scene before. He doesn't slow down to explain the other George's SBOA-SBI joke. He doesn't pause to emphasise the scene where George mentioning "aama" in Tamil on phone is turned around by Malar asking if he referred to a "tortoise". He doesn't stop the conversation when Jojo chides the security guard at Café Agape for placing baby Jesus in the Christmas crib well before midnight by posing a rhetorical "what kind of Christian are you?", to which a prompt "RC" reply is served. This is Alphonse's world, and you're welcome to make as much as you can of it, by yourself. If you get it, you get it.
That's what makes Premam a classic, you get it. All of it, over and over again.