The Malayalam film Hridayam takes its title seriously. Hridayam means heart. And that's precisely where the film operates from and what it operates on. This is a film that seduces you with its vulnerability and generosity. Director Vineeth Sreenivasan tells the coming-of-age story with such compassion that it coaxes you, as you watch, to revisit your own life – those heady days of college, friendships, fights and romances that moulded you. The blossoming of Arun, a young man who goes from Kerala to Chennai to study, becomes a bittersweet blend of nostalgia, memories, hard knocks and ultimately, the understanding that despite the heartbreak, the missed opportunities and failures, it's glorious to be alive. And that our mistakes make us.
Trains are a running motif through Hridayam. We first meet Arun as he is making the journey to Chennai. He meets other students on the train. The pivotal interval point takes place at the train station. And his relationship with Nithya, the second woman he falls in love with, becomes deeper after a train journey. When he asks if he should upgrade from second class to AC, she says no: You can't open the windows in an AC compartment and feel the wind. The look in his eyes in that moment reveals that he's understood that this is the woman for him. It's almost as if trains are the connective tissue of Arun's life.
Chennai is where Arun grows up. The first half is almost entirely set in college and focuses on the emotional upheavals in his life – his ecstatic love affair with Darshana, the way in which he loses his grip when his heart breaks and how he slowly finds his mooring again. Vineeth, who has also written the story, packs so much into the three-hour running time that the film is bursting at the seams. And some of it doesn't organically develop from the story – like Arun's profession materialises from a random meeting with a stranger on a bus. A bit of comedy with a student who Arun has a run-in with, first in college and then later again in life, doesn't land. These parts feel stretched and a little sloppy, especially after the smashing first half. But the tenderness in Vineeth's telling overrides these soft spots.
And then there is the music – a soaring 15-song soundtrack by Hesham Abdul Wahab. That's an intimidating number but the music never weighs down the film. It becomes another character, coaxing the story along. My favourite is the gorgeous Darshana. Even if you never watch this film, just go to YouTube and listen to this song. It's euphoric and thrillingly alive.
Darshana is the fulcrum of Arun's life. At two different points in the film, she poses to him the question that this film pivots around. A question that you will continue to grapple with even after the film is over. Hridayam advocates moving on, reinventing, constantly evolving but the romance between Darshana and Arun is so magical that you keep asking: What if? And that's what gives this film its enduring ache – as Kishore Kumar sang so beautifully in the 1974 film Aap Ki Kasam – "Zindagi ke safar mein guzar jaate hain jo makam, woh phir nahi aate, woh phir nahi aate."
Hridayam romanticises the college experience – the classrooms, college fests, sneaking out of the hostel for dates, the drinking binges, that first flush of freedom and adulthood, the formidable friendships that form. The ragging gets nasty but it doesn't scar. No one is truly terrible. It's rose-tinted but it's not plastic in the way that student life is depicted in films like the Student of the Year franchise. The young people in Hridayam are like young people everywhere – fumbling, awkward, flat-out foolish and also, hopeful and endearingly naïve. It's that magic hour of life when you believe that everything is possible.
The actors – Pranav Mohanlal as Arun, Kalyani Priyadarshan as Nithya and Darshana Rajendran as Darshana – deliver solid, unshowy performances. They look and behave like young adults. And watching Arun and Darshana mature becomes a keen reminder of how quickly time passes – these precious formative years are over before we can appreciate them. Though the subject matter of Hridayam isn't new, the film moves into unexpected places. And Vineeth creates lovely moments that linger – like Darshana and Arun parting after their first date. He says: Good night. She says, "One minute", holds his hands for a fraction longer and then says, "Okay, go." It feels exactly right.
You can watch Hridayam at a theatre near you.